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Amid the destruction and mud and mess, some New Orleans residents find little treasures of their former lives

NEW ORLEANS—People whose homes and apartments stood in Hurricane Katrina's path can tell endless tales of what they've lost. But many also are surprised at the treasures they find as they sort through the muck that the storm left.

Leigh Ajan nearly danced for joy when she unzipped plastic garment bags to find that a half-dozen of her sequined evening dresses were in good enough shape to wear out jitterbugging again on a Saturday night.

"I love to dress," the high-spirited grandmother said.

As her husband, Peter, shoveled mud and picked up debris outside the couple's badly damaged bungalow in suburban Chalmette, four of the colorful dresses hung on a broken porch swing to dry.

"I washed them in Dawn," she said.

She pulled a chic black gown, then a red one, from the trunk of her car and held up each one. "This one cost $650, and this one $500," she said. "Red's my color."

The Ajans know how lucky they are to be here picking through what's left of their possessions. After losing a credit card as Katrina bore down and knowing of no way to get cash, they stayed put at home. Wind and water hit so fast they didn't dare brave the outside. As the house filled with water, Peter Ajan grabbed a board and climbed to the attic. His wife grabbed an iron skillet and followed. They pounded away for three hours to break through the roof. A boat later rescued the couple and their two dogs.

"I was a little worried," Leigh Ajan said of the frantic escape effort alongside her husband. "But I trust in him, and I trust in God."

The Ajans, now staying at a niece's home in another part of the city, have turned up several treasures in their house, including a photo album of a carnival club they belong to and her gold Bellini dancing shoes. They were pleased to find a snapshot, tucked in a plastic bag, of a grandson, Peter Matthew, who died two years ago in a car accident at age 15. In the backyard—near where the garage stood before Katrina shoved it 12 feet and turned it 90 degrees—lay a bag of colored markers he'd often played with.

Up the road a few miles, Wise Wolfe combed through his mother's home in a Chalmette neighborhood that some compare to New Orleans' tony Garden District.

His younger brother's king snakes turned up alive and hibernating in their aquariums on the second floor. They had unexpected company: water snakes washed in with the wall of swamp water that Katrina delivered. A swimming pool outside became a mini-swamp itself, stocked with fish and aquatic vegetation. A few bottles of wine from Wolfe's late father's collection turned up in a neighbor's yard.

In the house, which filled with water past the main-floor ceiling and left a 4-inch water mark in the second story, they found art and other valuables that had been moved upstairs relatively undamaged, he said. A heap of sodden furniture in the yard spoke to what they lost.

"It's just stuff," Wolfe said, "but you know how we are about our stuff."

Some of the scenes amid the rubble seemed uncanny.

Wolfe wasn't surprised to see furniture in a first-floor family room strewn everywhere amid several inches of mud and crumbled Sheetrock that fell from the ceiling, "but we lifted stuff off the coffee table, and we couldn't believe it: The TV guide and remote control were sitting there perfectly in their places."

In the kitchen, Wolfe's mother's broom and dustpan still sat propped against the refrigerator. "Just as they've been for 30 years," he said.

At a bank a few miles away where little remained but the steel vaults, Wolfe found the stacks of family photos and the travel journals he'd stored in safe-deposit boxes safely preserved. He credits a bank employee who warned him the vaults weren't waterproof. He's happy, he said, to share her suggestion: "Double Ziploc bags."

Farther south in St. Bernard Parish, Rainey Lyons returned home to find his truck wrapped around the house and his two boats mangled, one of them smacked against the garage.

It seemed that he'd lost everything.

"It feels like your whole life," he said. "Everything you and your significant other collected. You had it in the house, and now they're hauling it away."

With his wife working in Dallas and his two children attending schools there, Lyons and a five-man crew scooped 8 inches of mud off the floors of his one-story home.

Little treasures began to appear. Trophies that his daughter, 17-year-old Trilby, won playing basketball, volleyball and softball lined the front porch. Certificates that his son, 11-year-old Rainey Jr., got for academic achievement and Boy Scouts sat drying on the hood of Lyons' wrecked truck. A box containing his wife's wedding dress rested against the house.

On the sill of a broken bedroom window sat the muddy jewelry box in which Lyons had left his wedding ring. He was cleaning the master bedroom when he noticed something sticking out of the mud.

"I looked down and saw the top of the jewelry box. I felt around in the mud. On the floor next to the box, there was the ring."

How did he feel at that moment?

"Excited," he said. "It's hard to explain it in words."

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

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