A New Year in New Orleans

A new year dawns in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast after a 2005 that residents would rather forget for all the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

2005 swept in on the crest of the South Asian tsunami. The year then brought floodwaters to the Gulf Coast with a series of record-breaking hurricanes, and now to wash away 2005, Mother Nature has turned on the spigot again. Heavy rains on the West Coast this weekend have swollen rivers and streams in Northern California, triggered mudslides and prompted officials to call for residents to flee to higher ground. The Associated Press reports that one man was killed when a eucalyptus tree fell on him and a woman suffered a broken leg when a mudslide hit her home in Santa Rosa. More than a half a million customers are without power. Parts of Interstate 80 were closed through the Sierra Nevada.

Stories of swamped streets and mud-encased homes remain commonplace in New Orleans. Hundreds of thousands of residents still have not returned to the city more than four months after Hurricane Katrina, but last night was New Year's. And NPR's Luke Burbank was on the streets of New Orleans for this report on efforts in the midst of devastation to let the good times roll.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

There's a feeling among many New Orleanians that the truest way to show just how resilient the city is is to party as hard as possible, especially when tradition calls for it. And so, as in years past, thousands of residents and tourists jammed their way into the French Quarter to ring in 2006. For Mayor Ray Nagin, the new year couldn't arrive soon enough.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans, Louisiana): I am so excited about leaving 2005 behind. You-all just don't know. (Laughs)

BURBANK: The crowd was understandably smaller than in years past, and though the revelers gave all the outward appearances of being carefree partiers, a heaviness lingered in the air, much like the thick fog that clung to the area and canceled the planned fireworks display. Still, with a mix of excitement and hopefulness, residents counted down.

Crowd: Five, four, three, two, one. Happy new year.

BURBANK: Just a few miles away, Private Kristen Tibodeaux(ph) felt more like she was on another planet.

Private KRISTEN TIBODEAUX: This is poo-pooh. We're missing all the fun. We're out here. We're taking a lot of sacrifice.

BURBANK: Yeah.

Pvt. TIBODEAUX: Oh, yeah.

BURBANK: You think?

Pvt. TIBODEAUX: We are in the Lower Ninth Ward right where the levee broke. Pitch black. There's no moon and fog has moved in. You can hardly see across the street. Many houses have been torn down. We're the only people out here.

BURBANK: Tibodeaux and her fellow soldiers from Louisiana National Guard were assigned to guard the neighborhood, although looking around, there didn't seem to be anything much worth looting. They built a bonfire in the middle of a deserted street. It was the only light for miles in the inky blackness. This was not the New Year's Eve celebration Private First Class Eric Rabi(ph) would have chosen.

Private First Class ERIC RABI: It's kind of like what they feared about 2000 and Y2K. It's actually like that out here.

BURBANK: You making any New Year's resolutions?

Pvt. TIBODEAUX: I haven't really thought that far yet. I'm just hoping to make it to February 23rd. That's supposed to be our deadline.

BURBANK: A deadline that looks likely to be extended. As for their countdown to midnight, the group of Guardsmen had planned on listening to the radio and maybe even shooting off a few fireworks to celebrate, but that idea was soon quashed by a New Orleans police officer, who reminded them they needed to be out making their rounds. After all, the Ninth Ward still has a curfew of 12:00 sharp.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, New Orleans.

HANSEN: The nation's capital isn't as deserted as New Orleans, but it's quiet. Congress is on a holiday break and President Bush is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. To mark the new year, Mr. Bush used his weekly radio address to hail the old year.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: 2005 has been a year of strong progress toward a freer, more peaceful world and a more prosperous America. This year, we watched the Iraqi people defy the terrorists and suicide bombers and hold three successful elections, voting to choose the only constitutional democratic government in the Arab world. We also saw the people of Afghanistan elect a democratic parliament in a nation that only a few years ago was ruled by the Taliban.

HANSEN: In the Democratic Party's weekly address, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took a more domestic approach. She talked about the national budget and how it reflects the nation's values.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): Today as Americans are making New Year's resolutions, our Democratic New Year's resolution is to renew America's promise. We will build a future worthy of the vision of our Founding Fathers, the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform and the aspirations of our children.

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