For Some, a Bittersweet New Orleans Homecoming

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New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that residents of select neighborhoods could return home Friday. Madeleine Brand talks to John Ydstie about what those returning evacuees may find.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Starting today, residents of the French Quarter and other New Orleans neighborhoods may return to their homes, but at their own risk. That's according to Mayor Ray Nagin. He says there are still dangers lurking in the city, including floodwaters contaminated by bacteria and the lack of a working sewage system.

NPR's John Ydstie is in New Orleans.

And, John, how many people are expected to come back to the city now that the mayor's allowing them to do so?

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

Well, they're estimating about a third of the city's almost half a million residents are eligible to come back today. It's not clear just how many people will come back. I've heard reports on local radio this morning that there are no backups on the highways coming into the city, which would actually suggest maybe fewer people are coming than might be expected. And I've just driven around a little bit in some of these neighborhoods and there are actually fewer people than I expected to see going back into their homes right now.

BRAND: A lack of drinkable water, no sewage system to speak of. Is New Orleans inhabitable?

YDSTIE: You know, it depends on where you are. There are parts of the city that are inhabitable. Of course, you've got to bring your own water. There's no place except the Algiers portion on the western bank of the Mississippi that has potable water. So you've got to bring your own water. They're even warning you you shouldn't shower in the water, but I think a lot of people who are back in the city are already doing that. You know, there are a few traffic lights that are blinking on now. There aren't any grocery stores that I've seen open in the Central Business District, the Garden District, etc., where people are coming back--the French Quarter. So I would think it would be difficult to live here for any length of time, but you know, people like to get back to their homes and they want to be there, and if they've made provisions to bring their own food and water, they can stay here.

BRAND: So what's the timeline for New Orleans? When do officials expect things to be back online--safer drinking water, for example, available--so that more people can come back?

YDSTIE: Well, the estimate right now is that by next Wednesday everyone in Orleans Parish--the City of New Orleans--will be eligible to come back, except for the Lower 9th Ward, where water is still standing in the streets. And in terms of drinkable water, it sounds like they're talking about, you know, in a week or so they may have drinkable water. But we're still, you know, in an area where the last estimate I saw was that three-quarters of the city of New Orleans doesn't have electrical power. So you still need electrical power as well. And things can be pretty miserable in this warm weather if you don't have electrical power.

BRAND: And, John, you were in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina swept through. How has it changed?

YDSTIE: Well, it's very different. It seemed a bit like a war zone when I first arrived. The people you saw in the streets were troops in camouflage, and in the days after that there were lots of other folks, many of them armed, and lots of people with boats and pickup trucks doing search and rescue and that sort of thing. Chaotic situation. None of the hotels were open. And things are getting back to normal now. Well, not--`normal' is too strong a word, but there's activity--recovery activity now, and the streets are now busy with workers in the Central Business District trying to get things going. There are utility trucks all over trying to get the power up. And so you see now things moving forward and making progress every day, and in the early days, you know, it didn't seem like there was progress being made. It was just sort of chaos.

BRAND: NPR's John Ydstie in New Orleans.

Thanks a lot.

YDSTIE: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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