A Last New Orleans Neighborhood to Dry Out

Three weeks after catastrophic floods, the city of New Orleans is almost entirely dry. The Gentilly neighborhood had the highest water levels and was the last to see the waters recede.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Three weeks after Katrina, the city of New Orleans is almost entirely dry for as long as that lasts. One of the areas with the deepest water was the Gentilly neighborhood which was the last place where the water receded. That's now allowing emergency personnel and residents to get to houses they could not reach before. NPR's Robert Smith reports this morning on what they're finding.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

After the hurricane, the water in the Gentilly neighborhood was up to the eves of the houses. Three days ago, it was lapping on the top of the front steps, but now Stan Richard can finally walk up to the door of his house, although he wouldn't call it bone-dry.

Mr. STAN RICHARD: More like mucky.

SMITH: But almost dry.

Mr. RICHARD: Almost dry for now.

SMITH: There are still a few flooded underpasses and plenty of mud, but the surface water in New Orleans is gone. The Army Corps of Engineers managed to pump out an estimated three quarters of a trillion gallons of water ahead of schedule. The rapid draining is allowing search and rescue personnel to finally get to neighborhoods like Gentilly that had been impassible before.

(Soundbite of cleanup)

SMITH: Joe Mack of Pennsylvania's Urban Search & Rescue team is leading a convoy of trained firefighters into a part of the neighborhood that looks like a drained lake bed. There's no concrete or grass visible, just a rotting mud, the color of tar, but Mack says all this mess is easier than dealing with the water.

Mr. JOE MACK (Urban Search-And-Rescue Team, Pennsylvania): It slows you down. It bogs you down. We've been contending with mud but not really any depth of water, so...

SMITH: Over the last couple of weeks, the houses here have been quickly checked by teams in boats, but this is the first chance at a thorough search for any victims. Brent Wilson, a private contractor, moves ahead of the trucks, carefully clearing the debris.

Mr. BRENT WILSON (Private Contractor): Keep your eye out for bodies.

SMITH: Have you seen any?

Mr. WILSON: Not yet, but they're around here.

SMITH: Behind him, the firefighters visit each house. They pry open the doors and quickly check each room. Then they pull out a can of orange spray paint and leave a symbol on the side of the house. Firefighter George Reese decodes it for me.

Mr. GEORGE REESE (Firefighter): You know, we make an initial slash saying that we've gained entry into the place. And then when we clear the structure, we X it out so it's a total X.

SMITH: Then inside the X, they write the date, the unit and a code for hazardous materials, and at the bottom, the number of victims alive or dead inside.

Mr. REESE: We've been very lucky. We haven't--I mean, we're doing thorough searches. We have found no victims.

SMITH: The number of people who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina appears to be stabilizing as almost all of the New Orleans neighborhoods now have been searched. As of yesterday, officials say they have confirmed 736 deaths in Louisiana from the storm, mostly all in New Orleans, and emergency officials are following every lead they can to make sure there aren't more undiscovered bodies out there.

(Soundbite of radio)

SMITH: Police Officers Rich Wheels(ph) and John Palison(ph), on loan from New Jersey, are moving through the now drained neighborhood responding to 911 calls. The odd thing is the calls are three weeks old. They say that New Orleans got around 8,000 calls to 911 during and after the storm but no one could respond to because of the water. Now they're clearing the backlog and going down the list.

Unidentified Man: And so we've got to go to all of these houses. It's so backed up that now we're just checking on all the 911 calls.

SMITH: There's a report of looting at the Children's Hospital on August 31st that they have to look into and a call from a woman trapped in her attic right after the flood. They know they won't be finding survivors or arresting suspects this long afterwards, but until the water receded, there was little they could do.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

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