Towns in Parish Try to Regain Normalcy

Three towns — Westwego, Lafitte, and Gretna — are allowing residents back in permanently. That's after cleaning up and restoring power and services.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The chance to return home for good to see what's left and to start to rebuild. In three towns across the river from New Orleans, people got to do just that today, as the communities of Lafitte, Westwego and Gretna sounded the all-clear. NPR's Tom Goldman spent the day in Gretna.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

At Carr Drugs store this morning, there was meaning in the mundane, like the simple act of answering a telephone.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Ms. LISA CARR (Owner, Carr Drugs): Good morning, Carr Drugs. This is Lisa. Can I help you? Yes, just fine. How are you? It's a beautiful day in Gretna.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Carr Drugs was one of the few Gretna businesses up and running, but it was up and running. Owner Lisa Carr was back behind the counter and back in her house after being driven out like so many others by the hurricane.

Ms. CARR: It's wonderful. I now know the day of the week. I was starting to lose track of the day of the week, 'cause you don't have your routine and you don't know if it's Sunday or Tuesday or what day of the week it is. So I'm back in my routine. And you flop into your own bed at night and you go, `Oh, yea! I'm home. OK, I'm fine now. I'm OK. I'm in my bed at night. I'm fine.'

(Soundbite of utility vehicle)

GOLDMAN: Utility crews around Gretna work to get electricity to all of the city; the day started with power at about 90 percent. But the sewer system and water lines were up and running. The state gave Gretna residents the OK to stop boiling tap water. You can easily see the skyline of downtown New Orleans from Gretna. But thanks to luck perhaps, or the capricious nature of hurricane winds, Gretna was spared the lethal flooding and devastation.

The locals say there's another reason they're coming back to a largely intact city. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Gretna closed its borders. Mindful of the looting and gunfire going on in New Orleans, Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris says police set up checkpoints around the town, keeping everyone out and Gretna citizens in.

Mayor RONNIE HARRIS (Gretna, Louisiana): Approximately 4 to 5,000 stayed inside our city limits. And when all of the civil unrest was going on, the governor's office asked me if we needed buses, and I took a good guess because my residents told me later, said, `Mayor, we feel more protected in Gretna than anywhere else. We don't want to leave.' And that, to me, showed the resilience of our community.

GOLDMAN: But it angered others. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin blasted Gretna for turning away desperate evacuees, most of whom were African-Americans. Mayor Harris bristles at charges of racism. He says some of the Gretna cops manning the checkpoints were black, and Harris says over a two-day period, Gretna officials bused 1,600 New Orleans evacuees to safe places with food and water.

Harris acknowledges there are still people in Gretna who need help. Fifty-year-old Sherman Mortenson(ph) worked at a small door company before the storm. It's still shut down, and Mortenson has no job. At 7:30 this morning, he sat in front of his house drinking a Budweiser, not exactly celebrating Gretna's reopening.

Mr. SHERMAN MORTENSON (Gretna Resident): You come back now, you got no money. So what? The places open up for business. (Censored) that. You got no money.

GOLDMAN: A local bank announced it's reopening to get cash back into the community. Meanwhile, Mayor Harris says he's happy but not joyful about the all-clear order in Gretna. Says the mayor, `We've got a lot of work to do.' Tom Goldman, NPR News, New Orleans.

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