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For La. residents returning home, mud is the main enemy

SLIDELL, La.—Henrietta Vinas Guste is one of the foot soldiers in this town's slow march to recovery. Her battle, and this town's, is against the mud. And with showers forecast overnight Friday and into Saturday, Hurricane Katrina victims are again looking toward the ominous sky.

"If it were just the wind damage, it would be OK," Guste said, taking a break from picking through the mud Friday to salvage what she could from her home. All around her, neighbors were doing the same.

"Everything is covered with this nasty, muddy, stinky sludge," she said.

There's wind damage here, too. And piles and piles of debris, everything from fallen trees to refrigerators. But as residents begin to return to outlying suburbs around New Orleans, many are finding the water damage and mud the hardest to deal with.

Hurricane Katrina pounded the New Orleans area with more than 11 { inches of rain Aug. 29-30, according to the National Weather Service. Since then, the area has benefited from a dry spell, getting less than an inch of rain.

"I know that's helped them a lot," said Jim Vasilj, a National Weather Service meteorologist who's been sleeping in a trailer in Slidell since the storm shut down his New Orleans neighborhood.

The lack of rain has helped New Orleans dry out faster, said Daniel Hitchings, director of the Mississippi Valley division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Most flooded parts of the city and nearby St. Bernard Parish should be pumped out by Sept. 30, he said, but significant rainfall could set back the effort.

"The level of protection in many areas is just like there wasn't a levee there," he said. "Any storm surge ... would come right through."

Residents are depending on the sun to dry out the keepsakes that are spread out on front yards. Guste and her husband have been able to salvage a few things, the childhood scrapbooks, some artwork. But so much was lost.

"I just dug out of my bedroom pictures of my children on Santa's lap," she said, choking back tears. "Things like that really get you."

If it weren't for the mud, Guste, originally from Miami, would be able to live in her canal-front house in this town, northeast of New Orleans off Lake Pontchartrain. As it is, she's staying with friends in Mandeville, La., and looking for a temporary home for a year so she can return to teaching when the schools open in a couple of weeks.

Residents have been trickling back to town all week but started coming en masse on Thursday—contractors, cleaners, whoever wanted to come in and get the mud shoveled up.

Between 35,000 and 40,000 people lived in areas of St. Tammany Parish that were flooded, according to Slidell City Councilman Ray Canada.

"Those people, for all practical purposes, are homeless," he said. "Some of them are sleeping in their cars, if their cars weren't flooded, or in their homes in the mud. It's not healthy."

He worried that the mud might be toxic and said the city is urging all residents who are cleaning up to wear gloves and face masks.

"It's like we're in a war zone," Guste said, wearing rubber gloves, wading boots and a long black apron. "The Black Hawks are circling above. The Red Cross comes by with their sirens. The police drive by with big guns poking out of their windows. ...

"It's really strange to have somebody come by and ask if I need something to eat, and for me to say, `Yes, I'm hungry. Yes, I'm thirsty,'" she said, mud streaking her face. "And it's all because of this mud."

Small signs have sprouted in the medians offering everything from tree-limb removal to biohazardous materials cleanup. Traffic is jamming intersections. Blue tarps are spreading over damaged roofs. But Guste and others say roof repairs are the least of their problems.

The Red Cross and church groups have set up supply stations to give out food, water and clothes to Slidell residents. A line to sign up for food stamps snakes through the city auditorium, full of people who've never been on public assistance and don't know how it works.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," said Joyce Beckett, holding her baby boy, Jeffrey, in her arms. "But we've lost everything we had, and my husband's work is a mess, too. We want to stay here, but we need help. I guess everyone does."

Guste also plans to stay in the area, despite the spray-painted message on her garage door. "Dirt cheap. Fixer upper. Waterfront," it reads.

"That was a joke my children put up, but we're not leaving," she said.

She expects to spend at least a year cleaning her home—it will have to be gutted, she said. Like many, she looks for inspiration in such items as the statues of the Virgin Mary throughout town or the portrait of the Immaculate Conception that her father painted, which survived the storm.

"Everything else is covered in mud, and she's clean and beautiful," she said.

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(Nesmith reports for The Miami Herald. Thomas Fitzgerald of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed from Baton Rouge, La.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Katrina return

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