A Return to New Orleans East

City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis prays with New Orleans East residents. i i

hide captionCity Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, left, prays with New Orleans East residents who have come home for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Cheryl Gerber
City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis prays with New Orleans East residents.

City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, left, prays with New Orleans East residents who have come home for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Cheryl Gerber
City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, the Rev. Leroy Taylor and Police Capt. Bob Bardy i i

hide captionCity Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, the Rev. Leroy Taylor (wearing bags over his boots to protect his feet from toxic floodwaters) and New Orleans Police Capt. Bob Bardy gather in the parking lot of the Lake Forest Plaza Mall.

Cheryl Gerber
City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, the Rev. Leroy Taylor and Police Capt. Bob Bardy

City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, the Rev. Leroy Taylor (wearing bags over his boots to protect his feet from toxic floodwaters) and New Orleans Police Capt. Bob Bardy gather in the parking lot of the Lake Forest Plaza Mall.

Cheryl Gerber
Lake Forest Plaza Mall i i

hide captionLake Forest Plaza Mall had been abandoned by several department stores long before Hurricane Katrina hit. But a new 12-screen movie theater had brought hope the mall would be revitalized.

Cheryl Gerber
Lake Forest Plaza Mall

Lake Forest Plaza Mall had been abandoned by several department stores long before Hurricane Katrina hit. But a new 12-screen movie theater had brought hope the mall would be revitalized.

Cheryl Gerber

Residents of New Orleans East gathered in a shopping center mall early Friday morning, determined to return to their homes for a first look since Hurricane Katrina hit a month ago. They are determined to participate in the discussion that's about to begin in New Orleans — what will happen to people and property in the worst hit parts of the city.

Over the coming weeks, All Things Considered will follow residents of one block in New Orleans East — an inner suburb that's home to more than 80,000 people, mostly African Americans, many of them middle class homeowners.

A lot of them have been sneaking in to see their homes, but officially they're not allowed back in until next Wednesday.

So, a determined group — who had evacuated to Baton Rouge — insisted on coming sooner, and the authorities relented.

The sun had not yet come up over New Orleans East when a convoy of a dozen cars pulled into the parking lot of the Grand Theater in Lake Forest Plaza Mall. The convoy had set out from Baton Rouge, 85 miles away, before 4 a.m.

The Grand Theater, with 12 screens and stadium seating, had been the centerpiece of an effort to revitalize the mall in this eastern district of the city. The mall had been abandoned by several department stores long before Hurricane Katrina. Like everything else here, it is empty now and its future is in doubt.

Resident Mack Slan organized the convoy of residents, who decided to return — with our without city officials' permission. "Most of these homes are salvageable," he said. Residents want to retrieve some of their belongings, then let contractors "clean it up [and] put us back together," he said.

Some residents had already re-entered the city in earlier days. Friday's gathering was designed to draw attention to their part of the New Orleans, which they say has been neglected by officials.

District City Councilwoman Cythia Willard Lewis negotiated permission for the convoy to enter New Orleans East with a local police captain, Bob Bardy.

Residents are eager to rebuild their lives, but the early assessment of damage by Bardy and local business operators is that many homes and business — including the mall — will have to be bulldozed because of the damage done by toxic floodwaters.

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