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Progress widens the gap in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—The storms, floods and turmoil that swallowed the city recently brought locals together through survival stories, the kind they share over lunch or in grocery store lines. But as rebuilding decisions near, two sides of New Orleans are appearing: one with assured plans for the future and another without.

People with plans live in intact neighborhoods with minimal damage. Schools, restaurants and doctors' offices are opening near their homes in the city's famed Garden District and French Quarter. There, signs that Hurricane Katrina visited consist of piles of tree limbs and refrigerators on the curbs. A lack of employees limits hours at most businesses, but residents can shop at their local grocery stores, pick up prescriptions from their pharmacies and worship at their churches. The streetcar lines are halted, but most roads are open and bus service is returning. Some need to rebuild, but most simply need to clean up.

They see reasons to stay, even as services and jobs are in question.

"This street, this block has the nicest people you could ever meet," said Carmine Verchio, 47, a French Quarter resident. Verchio said he won't consider leaving, even though his job at Harrah's is suspended until the casino reopens. "I don't want to move from this spot, so I'm going to hang on as long as I can."

Those without plans have nothing so certain to hold on to—and less confidence in the city's future.

Mayor Ray Nagin estimated that New Orleans' population would shrink by about half to 250,000. Some evacuees found better lives elsewhere while others followed careers or family that landed far from home. Many people may never return to decimated areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward. In the northern neighborhood of Lakeview, residents said they expect large turnover in their tight-knit community as each family plans its future.

Residents from Lakeview and Gentilly must weigh whether to rebuild or get out. Few decisions can come before the insurance money, flood maps or zoning regulations are set—processes with ever-changing deadlines and debates.

Buildings that once housed neighborhood dry cleaners, dance studios and markets are moldy or collapsing. Businesses don't advertise reopenings; they post plastic signs advertising house-gutting services.

"I don't consider myself a quitter, but I'm never going to live in Lakeview," said Mary Allen, 41, whose two-story home there is filled with moldy walls and garbage bags of rotting toys. "This is not going to be a neighborhood any time soon."

It's not a lack of devotion to New Orleans, residents say. The difference is that some are rebuilding neighborhoods; others are still trying to rebuild houses.

Rhoda Faust's Uptown home and bookstore had little damage, so she's rebuilding in the best way she knows: keeping the Maple Street Book Shop open and trying to be a better person.

Sometimes, the weight of the city's problems are discouraging, she said, but too many people love New Orleans to give up on it.

"I am hopeful, but I can't point to concrete things that make me hopeful," Faust said. "Where could I go to not miss New Orleans? Where could I go that would not pull me back here? This is what my eyes want to see, this flat, oak-treed, bayoued, moss-covered place."

In the high grounds of the aging French Quarter, real estate broker Brett Massony and other locals gathered for meals before most stores and restaurants reopened. Now his daily routine has returned to normal, and he expects that tourists will again flock to his neighborhood.

"New Orleans is just fine, for the most part," said Massony, who grew up in the city's Uptown area. "Here in the Quarter, you can pretend nothing happened."

Returning to the city wasn't a decision, he said. It was always in his plan.

"People are really devoted to their neighborhoods here," he said. "What's heartbreaking are the people that love theirs and can't go back."

Carol Heintz, 47, doesn't know if she'll go back.

She's lived in her Lakeview home since age 6, when her parents bought it. Her one-story brick home was the headquarters for family gatherings; several family members lived within a few blocks.

She set some documents on tables before she evacuated, and although the house was underinsured, she wasn't worried. It had never flooded before. No one thought the house could fill with water to its ceiling as it did.

If renovation and building guidelines will let her renovate the house, she'll stay and continue in her job with Elmer Candy Corp., she said. But rebuilding from scratch is expensive. Some neighbors are giving up and moving on, she said, and her family is resettling in Texas and Alabama.

"You try to be happy for them, but you want it to all be the same again," Heintz said while peeling papers from waterlogged drawers. "I just don't feel like I have a clear picture, and I can't move forward till I do."

Heintz calls herself an optimist but admits that she's losing faith in the city's future.

"Leaders just need to put aside their differences and save us," she said. "I'm so fortunate compared to so many, and still I feel abandoned.

"I have a choice between anger and depression. It feels healthier to be angry."

For residents who aren't sure how or when their neighborhoods will be rebuilt, anger comes before the hope, optimism and progress found in areas that never felt a rush of water from a canal.

"I hate hearing `New Orleans is back. Bring your family,'" said Allen, the Lakeview resident. "It's too fresh to say `we're back' when I'm rummaging through a box trying to save a couple silver Christmas ornaments."

Allen and her husband, Charles, grew up in New Orleans and loved life in Lakeview before the 17th Street Canal levees broke. Even if the house was renovated, Allen said, her 2-year-old daughter's asthma couldn't handle the damp, moldy neighborhood, where lawns are covered in white film and mushrooms grow from wet couches.

So while plans for the family's home mildews in insurance battles and rebuilding regulations, the Allen family is trying a new plan: They bought a house 16 feet above sea level on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It's outside Orleans Parish, an hour's drive from their daughters' school, but closer to family, a support system like what they once had in their neighbors.

"It's hard to get excited about a new house when this is home. Was home," Allen said while digging through sludge-filled crates of wedding gifts and Christmas decorations. "I'm not going to put any money into this house till I know the levees are not going to bust with the next hard rain."

Her family was happy in Lakeview, she said. They wanted their daughters to grow up there. Moving away from the city wasn't in their plan.

Allen remembers a joke told at their wedding party in 1999, just as they were moving into their Lakeview home: Do you know how to make God laugh?

She didn't know the answer then.

Now, she easily recalls the punch line: Make plans.

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

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

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