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Receding water shows parts of New Orleans built to handle flooding

NEW ORLEANS—Follow the thick, dirty waterline that circles New Orleans' neighborhoods like the ring in a just-drained bathtub and it's easy to see how widespread the damage is and how entire neighborhoods are likely to be bulldozed.

But the post-Katrina waterline etched on houses, schools and storefronts also reveals how parts of this city were built up to withstand flooding.

The waterline stopped about 2 inches below the rooms in Donna Musarra Mervis and David Mervis' green stucco home in Uptown. Like many in New Orleans, the Mervises' house is raised, with the living quarters 6 feet above ground.

"Structurally," David said, "I think the house will be fine."

So is much of their extensive art collection, which the couple piled into a truck for a sudden move to Arkansas. Nearby houses with living quarters built lower to the ground weren't so lucky. The dingy waterline striped right across the windows, and even ran along the top of garages in the hard-hit Lakeview section of town.

While Mayor Ray Nagin said 80 percent of the city was under water during the worst of the flooding, it's clear that many houses, and some entire streets, were spared by the floodwaters that inundated other homes in the same neighborhoods.

Nagin said last week that half of the city's 215,000 homes may have to be razed. Others have put the figure as high as 80 percent, but nobody will know until the entire city is pumped dry within the next week or two.

Across New Orleans, the waterline shows how some homeowners were swamped, while others were spared.

Many residents with ground-level basements survived the flooding, but lost the contents of their storage areas. In other parts of town, the levee break filled the streets with 2 or 3 feet of water, but stopped at the stoop level.

In the section of town called Gentilly, which generally had widespread and deep flooding due to the breaches in the London Avenue Canal, many homes came out all right. On Lafaye Street, just off Gentilly Boulevard, many of the homes have gently sloping front lawns. The waterline there cuts the lawn in two—the bottom half is dirty brown, the top half a healthy green. Several homes are fine.

In the area along Lake Pontchartrain, the vibrant middle-class neighborhood called Lakeview suffered massive flooding. It was right next to the 17th Street Canal levee break, and water reached the rooftops of many homes.

But not far away, the high-end homes next to the University of New Orleans' lakefront campus were dry, helped by the higher elevation right next to the lake. About two-thirds of the campus remained above water, university officials said.

Most of the historic Uptown area and Garden District never flooded, although many stately old oaks were toppled by wind. The famed French Quarter saw no flooding and minimal damage, save some collapsed brick walls.

The Mid-City area had widespread flooding, although many raised homes may have been spared.

It was in Gentilly, Lakeview, Eastern New Orleans, and the Lower Ninth Ward where the city's flooding was the worst—and where many homeowners will have to start over.

"The materials in the walls will probably now just be mush," said Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders.

Outside the city, the suburban parish to the east, St. Bernard, was devastated by flooding. New Orleans and St. Bernard combined represent just under half the metro-area population 1.3 million people.

The Mervises had braced for the worst when they arrived Friday to salvage artwork and other belongings at their home. They had checked satellite photos and heard reports that water was 6 or 7 feet deep on their block, near the intersection of South Claiborne and Jefferson avenues.

When they arrived, they found a sign that had floated onto their lawn: "Drop Water + Methodone," an apparent plea to helicopter rescuers. The couple added a second sign to keep the tone light: "Landscaping by Katrina."

The flooding left their elaborate backyard garden—with lemon and banana trees and eggplant—a sickly brown. The ground-level basement storage area is "just gross," Donna said, with woodworking equipment and old boxes soaked through.

"But everything upstairs was fine," Donna said. "When I drove into the city, I was just heartbroken. But we feel very fortunate."

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

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

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