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Those trickling back into New Orleans find they've lost everything

NEW ORLEANS—Hai Pham knows why people stranded by Hurricane Katrina would steal food and water, perhaps even beer. But he will never understand their wanton destruction of his small neighborhood convenience store near the impoverished lower Ninth Ward.

The extent of damage hit home for the first time this weekend for many residents and business owners in some of the area's most devastated neighborhoods. As limited access was granted to allow the cleanup process to begin, it yielded somber homecomings.

Yet even as some evacuees returned, officials warned that the city remains dangerous, with limited police, fire and medical services. People re-enter at their own risk, Mayor Ray Nagin warned Saturday. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, commander of the New Orleans recovery effort, urged all returning citizens to use "extreme caution," and asked residents to consider waiting "until safer and more livable conditions are established."

A curfew is being enforced from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Comprehending the storm's destruction was hard enough, but for many, coming to terms with the damage done by man in the days that followed was even tougher.

"Whatever they needed they could have taken," said Pham, 39, crawling through the broken window of Mike's Food Store. He stepped into ankle-deep packages of spoiled meat, crackers and fruit smeared with oily mud. "They did not have to do this."

As officials herald the sooner-than-expected return of some business owners to check on their properties in the French Quarter tourist mecca, small-store owners like Pham contemplate the grim choice of whether to reopen several miles away in one of city's poorest sections that was first battered by nature, then ravaged by looters.

The area where Pham's store is located now bears the scars of a neighborhood that went berserk. Stores stand empty before sidewalks flashing shattered glass. Cash registers lay smashed on mud-covered floors. Torn clothes hang from racks.

"If they can show proof of looting that's one thing," said George Mouk, a certified insurance counselor who was inspecting his wife's looted toy store on Saturday. "But for small businesses, the problem is whether their insurance covers loss of income during the time the business was shut down."

Many area business owners had opted for minimal insurance.

"I don't know what I have in insurance," Pham said. "I don't know what they cover."

He said he had tried to give people a break, giving away food to single mothers and allowing families extended credit.

"I treated them well," he said, standing near a shelf that once held his cash register and now holds only pools of liquor from broken bottles of Scotch. Old bills and IOUs taped to a shelf curl from the humidity.

"I want to leave this store. I don't want to remember what happened here."

Police patrolling the area said they did not know how many stores were vandalized, but assumed almost all of them had been. They often stop at St. Claude Used Tires to fix tires flattened by roofing nails and other debris that covers the streets. The tire shop was closed during the hurricane, but reopened immediately after the storm passed

"No, no one tried to rob us," said Anthony Warren, 42, one of four employees. "Put it this way. We stayed inside. Had someone come in, we'd have had something for them."

In St. Bernard Parish, roadblocks opened at 7 a.m. Saturday so residents could check on their homes and retrieve belongings.

Angela and Joey Bernard were the only ones on their block who returned. It had been three weeks; they found a house full of gray mold with tidemarks on the walls 3 feet high. A slick layer of silt covered the floor. The couch was sopping wet.

They salvaged clothes, sporting goods, bikes and compact discs.

What was lost: "Baby books, pictures, diplomas," said Angela.

After a while she got into the Bronco to haul their belongings away. She was a housewife before, and a student one semester from finally earning her college diploma. Joey was a welder, but the company he worked for had 15 feet of water on the shop floor. He figures he'll take a job bulldozing ruined houses.

Angela rested her head on the steering wheel and covered her eyes with her arm. They had a long drive ahead, to her mother's house in Tennessee.

"I don't want to go back there," her husband said, starting to cry. "I'd sleep here in a camper, if I could. I want to be home."

Down the block on Fenelon Street, the Hauptmanns came back with two pickups and a trailer.

John, 46, is a helicopter mechanic for Chevron.

They knew it would be bad, but John vomited when he stepped into the house. It may have been the heat, the stress, the mold or the three-week-rotted shrimp.

In the big house where he and Chris, 46, have lived for 17 years and raised two children, they found not one single salvageable thing—just Mr. Redford, the cat, who looked bedraggled and thirsty and hung on Chris' shoulder like an infant.

"This house—everything is ruined," John said. "But we came off a lot better than most people."

On the Mississippi coast around Gulfport, the rootless were uprooted again Saturday.

To make way for schools to open in a few weeks, Red Cross workers bused hundreds of those displaced by Katrina into five consolidated shelters, leaving many survivors angry and anxious.

"We had made a community here," said Kevin Melton, one of more than 100 people moved from Harrison Central Elementary School in Gulfport. "Now they're moving us to Crack Central."

He was referring to the Good Deeds Community Center, home to a new Red Cross shelter and one that police and relief workers agreed sits in a neighborhood troubled by crime.

At the Good Deeds center, shelter manager Larry Boyden conceded he's working in a tough neighborhood, but said the Red Cross had arranged private security and had alerted National Guard troops to keep watch.

"As long as the people are in here, they'll be safe," Boyden said. "I can't account for them when they wander out, but we'll take care of things here."

Back at Harrison Central, the school's temporary residents packed up their few scavenged belongings and bid sad farewells to the school staff.

"We hate to see them go because it was like a family here," said principal Pam McInnis. "But we need to make room so the kids can get back to class"—perhaps as early as Oct. 3.

Some people expressed regret that they were being dislodged.

"It's like the hurricane hit again," said Melton.


(Garcia reports for The Kansas City Star, Spangler for The Miami Herald. Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star contributed from Gulfport, Miss., and Joyce Tsai of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from Baton Rouge, La.)


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

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

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