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Many residents feel neglected in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish

CHALMETTE, La.—Sgt. Ray Champagne and Lt. Pete Bordes pulled up in an airboat in front of 3011 Delambert St., shotguns in their laps and surgical masks covering their nose and mouth.

Residue under the eaves of the red stucco home showed that flood waters had come up nearly 10 feet. Boards appeared to have been pushed out from a section of the roof—possible evidence that someone had sought refuge in the home's attic.

As driver Jason Eason maneuvered the lightweight craft to the grimy front door, the two state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries agents jumped out into noxious green-tinged water that came up to their knees.

"Law enforcement! Anybody here?" Bordes called out. As he used the butt of his gun to smash in a window, Champagne jimmied the front door open with a crowbar. Sulphur-smelling black mud oozed out.

A quick search of the home revealed that the residents had either been rescued or managed to get out on their own.

While residents in nearby Jefferson Parish were returning to their homes Monday, efforts to rescue and account for residents in the communities just south of New Orleans continued.

Wind and flood waters affected virtually every home and building in St. Bernard Parish, a largely working-class suburb of 66,000 that makes its living mostly through fishing and oil refineries. Subdivisions have turned into bayous. Houses have moved from their foundations. Boats have been blown onto streets.

When Sen. Mary Landrieu did a flyover of St. Bernard last week, she made the sign of the cross as she viewed an area where only rooftops remained.

"The whole parish is gone," Landrieu said, according to New Orleans television station WWL-TV. "It's completely gone."

At a news briefing Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said St. Bernard was one of the hardest-hit areas.

A week after Katrina, large pools of standing water still divide St. Bernard from New Orleans. To get to St. Bernard, a convoy of rescue workers drove through the city down the Chef Menteur Highway, where frequent reports of looting and armed gangs had been made throughout the week.

The influx of National Guardsmen may have calmed such activities. But the few people seen along the road appeared to have gone through an apocalypse, with shell-shocked looks on their faces. Ragtag groups of men gathered around a tipped-over soda machine; there were no women to be seen. A cardboard sign reading "Keep Out—Patrol" was taped on the entrance of one cul-de-sac.

Eason and his friend, Mike Jackson, came with their airboat—which is driven by a large fan mounted at the back of the craft—from Houston to help emergency workers rescue people from their homes. After three days of bringing agents from house to house, the men, both in their early 30s, had seen the living and the dead—including the body of a woman that had been tied to a roof to keep it from floating away.

"The smell and the bloated bodies—you can only take so much of this," Jackson said.

The trip down Delambert Street yielded no such sight. But at the end of the street, a woman in a yellow floral housedress leaned out of the second floor stairwell of an apartment building as the group passed by.

"You want to get out?" Eason called up to the woman. She shook her head.

"We'll just wait for a truck," replied Richard Wood, who had joined the woman on the stairwell. "We're fine."

As Champagne tried to convince the couple to leave, a truck from the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department pulled up. "Y'all ready?" the deputy yelled. "You've got two minutes, not 100 bags and we're not coming back for you."

If the language sounded brusque, it came from the stress and anger of local emergency workers who felt abandoned by the federal government. They were the ones who had to pluck residents from rooftops and they were the ones who traveled from house to house, marking the number of evacuees on the door with spray paint.

On Friday, state Rep. Nita Hutter placed a letter on the parish's Web site with a call for help that was chilling in its simplicity.

"Please Help Us," her letter said, detailing the need for food, fuel and medical supplies. "We have received no federal contact or relief. We are totally isolated and cut off from the outside world. ... This is a desperate, desperate situation. If we do not receive assistance immediately, many, many more St. Bernard, Louisiana, and U.S. citizens will die."

Several days later, the bitterness remains.

"I think their priority was New Orleans and to hell with the rest," said Warren Campagna, 63, as he barbecued ribs for workers trying to get the Murphy refinery online. "We never got no help at all. I don't even think we were on the list."

Although his family evacuated to Mississippi, Campagna, a lifelong St. Bernard resident and veteran boat-builder, rode out the storm in his home. While the nearby refinery shielded him from the winds, nothing could stop the water.

"It came up 4 feet in four minutes," he said.

A sign on the road nearby, posted before the storm, reads, "Think Positive, St. Bernard! We do!" And Campagna does, although he warns that it will take a long time for the community to rebuild.

"Maybe in five years there will be a St. Bernard," he said.

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(Gray reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Andrew Maykuth of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report. )

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-RESCUE

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