METAIRIE, La.—Wayne and Terri Fischbein stared at their small house, submerged in 4 feet of stagnant, dark water.
"I figured I would come back and see this tree on my house," Wayne Fischbein said, pointing up at a massive tree. "I did not think I would have water in my house."
It was homecoming day in Jefferson Parish, and thousands of residents came to find trees through roofs, water up to the eaves and an omnipresent foul smell.
Many others came back to find dry homes and a few shutters blown off, easing the sense of doom that had prevailed among evacuees for the past seven days.
On Monday morning, Jefferson Parish, the major suburban jurisdiction just to the west of New Orleans, opened its doors to residents who wanted to check on their property, fetch pets and retrieve any medications they'd need in the coming weeks. Many spent four to six hours making what would usually be a 90-minute journey into the parish from Baton Rouge; others, taking less obvious routes, got in quickly. And despite warnings from parish officials, many had slipped in Saturday and Sunday.
The residents were told that they had until Wednesday to get their things but they had to honor a 6 p.m. curfew. As in New Orleans, the parish—what counties are called in Louisiana—wants its citizens to stay out until water recedes, power is restored and water service resumes.
It could be weeks before that happens in Jefferson, and far longer in New Orleans. The water is so deep in many areas, the specter of disease so strong, the presence of escaped natural gas so prevalent that officials in Orleans and Jefferson parishes don't want people around to interfere with repairs.
The Fischbeins' 40th wedding anniversary was Sunday, although there was no celebration. They were preoccupied with getting in and seeing their house—they fled the day before Hurricane Katrina hit, and stayed in Atlanta—that it went right by them.
"It wasn't even on our minds," Wayne Fischbein said. "Our grandkids were on our minds." The grandchildren are the couple's life. They live less than a mile away, and Fischbein recently had converted a backyard shed into a playroom, complete with a video-game system and places for the kids to have a sleepover.
The grandchildren—still in Atlanta—were distraught at the prospect of their grandparents in the dangerous waters around New Orleans. In fact, it was only the grandchildren's pleading that had convinced "Paw-paw" to flee before the storm. The grandchildren are 8, 7 and—on Monday—5.
The Fischbeins were shocked by what they saw when they first laid eyes on the house. Wayne Fischbein began to cry. His wife gave him some space because he's a self-described "grumpy bastard."
To get to their house, the Fischbeins drove on the grass alongside the railroad tracks that dissect Metairie. Across the flooded sections of Metairie and other Jefferson Parish towns, returning residents waited for boats or canoes to get them to their homes.
Wayne Fischbein was of no mind to wait.
"Wayne, what's the plan?" Terri Fischbein yelled as her husband, dressed in sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt, plunged into the water and headed for their tidy home.
"We got no plan," he growled.
He plunged in, the water chest-deep in parts and funky with the smell of sewage and gas. Wading along, mindful of curbs and anything else they could trip over, they made it to their house quickly.
Wayne Fischbein tried to keep his humor. He opened the mailbox and peered in. "Hmm," he said. "No mail today."
He used all his force to get the front door open.
They'd lived at the home five years. Wayne Fischbein is the manager of a Terminix pest-treatment operation; his wife is a certified public accountant. They're both 59—he turns 60 next month—and they've lived in and around New Orleans their whole lives.
Inside, guided by a flashlight and some natural light, Wayne Fischbein could see a high-water mark. The couch was dingy brown up to the cushions, the wood furniture ruined at its base.
He peered into the bedroom. "Well, I got clean clothes," he quipped. They were still stacked on the bed.
He opened the door to the most important room: the den.
"The electronics are OK," he shouted to his wife. Family photos and financial records were on the hard drive of the relatively new computer.
Terri Fischbein grabbed one framed photo from a table. It was of her oldest granddaughter, the one who was most upset about the distance between the grandparents in New Orleans and the rest of the family in Atlanta. "This is my favorite one," she said, staring at it.
While she looked through the house, her husband plunged into the water out back, climbing over the tree that had crashed into the back steps and heading toward the playhouse.
No matter how he tried, he couldn't get the keys to work. He slogged around to the side window, ripped off the particle board and peered in, then grabbed the soggy board and smashed it into the window. Opening the window and reaching through, he was able to get into the playhouse.
It was ruined.
A television on the counter might be OK. But the grandkid's PlayStation had been in the water. Chairs floated around the room. A brand-new washer and dryer apparently were destroyed.
The Fischbeins reconnected in the living room. Terri Fischbein had one plastic bag and the photo; she'd also grabbed her husband's drill set. He took the computer tower and two extension cords.
They eased back into the water. Wayne Fischbein held his wife's hands, steadying her.
As soon as they made their way back to the railroad tracks, he sighed.
"I'm weak," he said. "I'm going to sit down."
He's not worried about money; he has insurance, and he's already applied for disaster relief money from the federal government. But his house can't be salvaged, given how long it's been in the water, he said.
"Oh, well," he sighed. "Sixty years old, man. Sixty years old."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-RETURN
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