A Return to New Orleans East Residents of New Orleans East gathered in a shopping mall Friday, set to return to their homes for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit. They are determined to participate in a debate over the city's future.
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A Return to New Orleans East

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A Return to New Orleans East

A Return to New Orleans East

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

More people returned to New Orleans today, but going back means more than assessing damaged homes, roofs and the extent of the mold. It means staking out a place in the discussion about what will happen to people and property in the hardest-hit parts of the city.

NORRIS: Over the coming weeks, we're going to follow the residents of one block in New Orleans East, a suburbanized arm of the city along Lake Pontchartrain. The residents are mostly African-American, middle-class homeowners. Officially, they weren't allowed back until next Wednesday, but a determined group who had evacuated to Baton Rouge insisted on coming sooner and the authorities relented. As they arrived at 6 this morning, our colleague Robert Siegel was there.

ROBERT SIEGEL reporting:

The sun had not yet come up over New Orleans East when a convoy of more than 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 in the morning. Some of the people had protective masks around their necks. A pastor wore high rubber boots and plastic bags taped over them.

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome home!

Unidentified Woman #1: That's right. Welcome back.

SIEGEL: The meeting place was poignant. 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, a mall that had been abandoned by several department stores long before the hurricane. Like everything else here, it is now empty. Like everything else since the floodwaters receded, its future is at best in doubt.

Jumping the gun, coming back early, was an act of assertiveness, the brainchild of a New Orleans East man named Max Land(ph), who announced this week that they would come back to see their homes with permission or without today.

Mr. MAX LAND: Most of these homes are salvageable. We can get some of our personal items out of there and let contractors go back in and...

Unidentified Woman #2: Clean it up.

Mr. LAND: ...clean it up, put us back together.

SIEGEL: Like Max Land, sisters Cassandra(ph) and Tangi Wall(ph) had both gotten in to see their homes yesterday. So there was an element of theater to this morning's predawn convoy, and part of the point was to bring attention to the district. The people here say New Orleans East suffers from official neglect, and nowadays, they say, from an overeagerness to demolish.

Ms. CYNTHIA WILLARD-LEWIS: I have extensive roof damage, but still it's salvageable. And it's more than really rebuilding our homes. We're looking to rebuilding our lives here, and therefore, a reason why we're here today, just to really get in there, to assess our homes, to see what there is to salvage, and to begin recovery and rebuilding just like every other part of this city.

SIEGEL: The district city councilwoman, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, negotiated permission for the convoy to enter New Orleans East with the local police captain, Bob Bardy. The precinct lost all but a handful of its 70 patrol cars in the flood. Police forces around the country are donating vehicles. Councilmember Lewis had to lend the police captain the car that he drove up in.

Ms. WILLARD-LEWIS: OK, we're going to give our hero applause. Come on, Max. We give him applause. All right, Captain Bardy.

SIEGEL: Captain Bardy is a 31-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department. His officers were often rescued from water up to their chests, water that is widely rumored to have been polluted to the point of toxicity. One hundred of them are on the job out of a pre-Katrina force of 126.

Captain BOB BARDY (New Orleans Police Department): Our district is the district that had the biggest challenge in front of it. We were stranded out here. We were without communications for two and a half days. We had a young officer commit suicide in front of his co-workers.

SIEGEL: Have you heard anything from EPA or any kind of judgment of what they feel...

Capt. BARDY: No.

SIEGEL: ...is, you know, whether the toxicity is dangerous here?

Capt. BARDY: No, we haven't.

SIEGEL: Do you know of any word from, say, the supermarket chain owners here as to when they're going to come in and start sending people in to clean up and get back to business here?

Capt. BARDY: No, we have not heard that. The supermarkets--most of our--as you can see how our district goes, it's like a fishbowl. It all goes to the middle. Even all of our supermarkets were underwater, so theirs is more or less a demolition more than a recovery.

SIEGEL: Demolition of the buildings.

Capt. BARDY: Right, and the products.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Capt. BARDY: All of this here--you can see the water line over there. I rode through this thing in a Humvee. Where we're standing right here was this high, you know?

SIEGEL: So a lot of the commercial properties here, you figure, are--they're done for.

Capt. BARDY: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: They're going to be--they're soon to be razed.

Capt. BARDY: Yes, sir. This mall would be one of them for sure.

SIEGEL: The bulldozer is the future of this mall.

Capt. BARDY: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: But the homes?

Capt. BARDY: Pretty much the same.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Capt. BARDY: Pretty much the same. This is going to be a total rebuilding.

SIEGEL: That's how New Orleans Police Captain Bob Bardy sees the future, and that's how Robert Hill sees the future of his patch of New Orleans East.

Mr. ROBERT HILL: We're gonna get some boxes together to put this stuff in.

SIEGEL: Robert Hill is operations manager for Paradise Foods of Natchez, Mississippi, which owns several Taco Bell franchises in and around the city.

Mr. HILL: This is just mold and mildew on it. Guess we got water on it.

SIEGEL: Yesterday, he was cleaning up at the Taco Bell that Paradise owns on Bullard Avenue in New Orleans East. It's about a mile from Honeysuckle Lane, the street that we'll be following in the coming weeks. Robert Hill says he's still struck by what his restaurant looked like the first time he saw it.

Mr. HILL: Well, couple weeks ago when we got here, and it was right after it had dried out and there was no water in it, it actually looked like a volcano had gone off. It looked like a disaster had hit. No mistaking it. There wasn't much that escaped the destruction around here. In some form or fashion, everything was affected.

SIEGEL: Robert Hill says that other Taco Bells that Paradise owns around New Orleans can clean up and reopen. But here in New Orleans East the flooding lasted so long, the water was so foul, it's a different story.

Mr. HILL: All I can do is assume at this point looking at the damage that we can't recover from this without just a total scrape and rebuild, and most everybody else is going to have to do that too. What the wind didn't destroy the water, with all the chemicals in it--is going to set us back even further.

SIEGEL: So a store like this one--this Taco Bell--this is not going to be cleaned up and equipment replaced and put...

Mr. HILL: No.

SIEGEL: ...back in business.

Mr. HILL: I would say most places that had this kind of damage, it's going to have to be leveled and rebuilt. You know, mold and mildew is growing on everything. You know, there's health concerns and if anybody tries a business--I would think tries to rebuild under these conditions, they're putting themselves in a liable situation.

SIEGEL: You mean just because people who'd be doing the work would be...

Mr. HILL: Well, I mean, down the road if--you know, it's kind of like the Love Canal thing. You know, you build in a place that was kind of toxic to start off with, and people are going to come back and say, `Well, you know, I've got cancer from being in your store because all the chemicals and the pollutants and the mold and mildew.' So it's not worth the chance.

SIEGEL: New Orleans East had been losing commerce for years before Hurricane Katrina. So a question on everyone's mind is if commercial buildings and homes are bulldozed and paved over, who'll bother to rebuild and move back in? In the coming weeks, we'll check back on the people of one New Orleans East street to see how those questions are answered by them or for them. In New Orleans, this is Robert Siegel.

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