The dark second-floor apartment smelled of black mold and food rotting in a refrigerator. Albert Taplet picked up a last armload of belongings -- a few neckties, a pair of tennis shoes -- and closed the door behind him.
Taplet, 56, and his wife, Diane, had evacuated to Dallas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On Monday morning, they took Mayor C. Ray Nagin up on his offer to come home. But like many others, the Taplets returned only to grab a few things and leave again -- maybe for a few months, maybe for good.
Nagin’s plan was to repopulate New Orleans ZIP Code by ZIP Code, starting with the Algiers neighborhood.
And at dawn Monday, residents began streaming back -- past military checkpoints, piles of trash, tree limbs and small fires that still break out with some regularity. It quickly became clear, however, that many of them were not staying.
“Look at this place,” Taplet said as he walked back to his van. “Would you stay?”
Considering that Algiers fared better than perhaps any other sector of the city, having avoided the floods that devastated other areas, it does not bode well for New Orleans’ future that so many residents are looking to start over somewhere else.
The Taplets met 42 years ago when they were teenagers growing up in the same public housing project. He went to work as a welder, and they put together a nice life in the small apartment where they rode out Katrina.
Within hours, Taplet said, looters descended on his neighborhood. They stole the battery and the fan out of his neighbor’s car. He stood watch to make sure no one could siphon out his gasoline. Rotting trash piled up. Massive trees were on the ground, with no prospect of their being removed anytime soon. Businesses -- the Taplets live down the street from a dentist’s office and a nail salon -- were closed. There might not be any work to be had for months, Taplet worried.
Within a day or two after the storm, he said, it became clear they should leave, so they drove to Dallas and started to rebuild their lives.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other authorities in Texas found the Tap-
lets a one-bedroom apartment. Albert’s siblings -- two sisters and a brother -- have moved into apartments nearby. They are not expected to pay rent for three months, he said, and after that it will cost $550 a month, roughly what he was paying in Algiers. He has started looking for work.
“I hate to say it,” he said, “but we’re all set up.”
Taplet said he felt a responsibility to his community to return: “If God spared our life, we can come back. This is my home. I just buried my mother here three months ago. So we’ll be back. I just don’t know when.”
Taplet put some pillows and a bedpost adorned with a string of green Mardi Gras beads into the rented moving van and then went back upstairs for one last check.
There was no room in the truck, he said, for the rest -- not for the tall vase by the front door, not for the painting of a white orchid that hung on the living room wall, and not for Oscar, his fish.
“Did you feed him?” his wife asked.
“Yeah, I fed him,” Taplet said. “But it’ll only last him a week.”
Nagin -- who had to order everyone in Algiers to leave again by Wednesday because of the potential threat from Tropical Storm Rita -- acknowledged that many New Orleans residents might never come back.
“We’re going to lose some people,” he said. “I’m not naive to that.”
But he also issued a challenge to residents.
“Everybody talks about how much they love New Orleans,” he said. “We’re getting ready to find out who the die-hards are. The city of New Orleans needs its citizens. Who is going to step up to the plate? We’re getting ready to find out.”
Jon Hansen, head of the emergency response team for Autodesk, a design firm that has advised Gulf Coast authorities on the post-Katrina rebuilding effort, said it was common for those who have lived through such tragedy to want to pack up and start over.
Hansen was an assistant fire chief in Oklahoma City in 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed; in 1999, his own home was destroyed by a tornado.
“You’re going to lose some of these folks forever,” Hansen said. “There are too many bad memories. And people don’t want to wait for the long process of rebuilding.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for New Orleans.”
But on some streets in Algiers on Monday it looked as if some residents were hoping to settle in. Three friends jogged along General DeGaulle Drive. Others mowed their lawns. Brent Leviere, 28, picked up shingles and marveled that his house was barely touched in the storm, though the garden out back, where his aunt had planted basil, mint and roses, was destroyed.
“It just feels good to be here,” he said. “People need to be here. They need to start getting back on their feet.”
Charlene Zibilich, 59, and her husband, Leo, 70, wished they had the gumption to stick it out. “We’ve been here 25 years,” she said as she sat in their hot apartment. “We’ve never left before.”
They will now. Both born and raised in the New Orleans area, they returned Monday morning only to pick up what they could from their apartment. They would try to coax their cat, Little Girl, out from under the couch. Then they planned to head to Baton Rouge, where their daughter just built a house.
“I guess we’ll never come back,” Charlene Zibilich said.
Tears welled in her eyes and she shook her head: “That’s the first time I’ve ever really said it. But it’s time for a change. It’s time.”