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A battered city gets its people back

Times Staff Writers

It was people this time, not water, that poured into the streets of the storm-tossed city.

On Wednesday morning, police removed the roadblocks that had kept evacuees out of metro New Orleans. Thousands who had fled streamed back home, with wailing children in back seats and empty gas cans strapped to the tops of cars. They returned to a quiet city of fallen trees, spotty electric service, a fragile sewer system, and shuttered grocery stores and gas stations.

But at least it was mostly dry.

“I’m more than happy to be back -- I’m delighted, and relieved too,” said Esther Padilla, 74, a widow who lives alone in a brick ranch home in the Lakeview area. Her house was inundated three years ago when the 17th Avenue levee ruptured. This time it was fine, save for some debris in the yard, which she promptly set to cleaning up.

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The evacuees’ return to New Orleans has proven to be trickier than their departure, which was widely praised as a model of thoughtful government planning. On Tuesday, many of those residents fumed as they waited at police checkpoints.

New Orleans reluctantly opened its borders at least two days before officials said it was ready, pressured by surrounding parishes’ decisions to let their residents back. Mayor C. Ray Nagin warned that the city’s infrastructure was still not prepared to support the massive influx of nearly 200,000 residents who had fled over the weekend.

“My big concern is public safety. We don’t have the hospital situation straightened out,” he said, referring to a lack of crucial power at medical facilities. Restoring power was proving to be a challenge.

“In my humble opinion, I think we’re forcing the issue, but we’re just going to deal with it,” Nagin told WWL-TV. “I am really uncomfortable with this repopulation right now.”

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As south Louisianans returned home to assess the damage, officials in North Carolina and South Carolina were preparing for the predicted arrival of Tropical Storm Hanna on Saturday. Hanna, which has already killed more than 60 people in Haiti, is moving northwest over the Atlantic and could strengthen into a hurricane before making landfall.

Another storm, the Category 4 Hurricane Ike, is farther away in the Atlantic. It is too early to tell if it will hit any land.

Before Gustav, New Orleans’ poor and infirm -- about 18,000 of them -- were transported out of the city, and it may take longer to get them back, Nagin said.

He added that state officials had assured him they would be brought back within several days.

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They will return to a city shaken but by no means as devastated as it was after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That storm and its aftermath damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in New Orleans; its flooding put 80% of the city underwater.

By contrast, code enforcement inspectors Wednesday found eight collapsed houses in New Orleans and 57 in danger of collapsing.

The city informed residents that a curfew would remain in effect indefinitely. Hurricane rules still applied: Anyone leaving their properties at night could still be arrested.

It was an order that residents took in stride as New Orleans began moving inevitably back to a state of normalcy.

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At the Maple Leaf Bar, a beloved Uptown juke joint, owner Hank Staples was telling neighbors to stop by for live music from the Joe Krown Trio. He was also promising to cook up an “eclectic menu” of meat from neighbors’ rapidly thawing freezers.

Staples marveled at the difference in the post-storm atmosphere: In most neighborhoods, looters were not to be found, and the streets were crawling with National Guard troops and police.

“That’s the difference between the two events,” he said, referring to the aftermaths of Katrina and Gustav. “This time I’m not even packing a gun.”

Word of reopened restaurants coursed through the city via radio and word of mouth.

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At Sam’s Food Store in East Jefferson near the Mississippi River, returning residents lined up out the door for po’ boy sandwiches.

It was just as packed at Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street, where National Guard Sgt. Randy Bates made his way toward the counter with his hand on his assault rifle.

Bates said he and others had been patrolling the city but there was little action. He was “tired, bored, ready to go home,” he said.

“And that’s a good thing.”

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Some residents, however, returned to familiar post-hurricane frustrations.

Dave Warino, 46, operations manager for a defense contractor, was fuming as he held a cellphone to his ear in the front yard of his Lakeview home. He was calling FEMA for a tarp to cover a leaking roof but kept getting the recorded message “lines full” and an abrupt cutoff.

“There’s so much incompetence in this city, it’s unbelievable,” he said.

Warino’s two-story home on Belaire Drive is a few feet from the break in the 17th Street levee that sent walls of water cascading into Lakeview in 2005. He rushed home from Mississippi on Wednesday morning because he was worried that Gustav would damage his roof.

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Across town in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Pigeontown, Demetris Dillard, 36, was in a mellower mood. She had just returned from Alexandria, where she and her family had fled.

Dillard showed up at Martin’s Cash N’ Carry, the corner store, where a bunch of men who had stayed through the storm were hanging out. One of them embraced her in a welcome-back bear hug.

Dillard bought a cigar and a pink lemonade. Her plan today, she said, was to wait around the house for someone to turn her electricity on.

“We got to find FEMA,” she said, laughing. “We ain’t got no money. We ain’t got food stamps.”

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The hotel Dillard and her family found in Alexandria was $52 per night -- “trashy,” Dillard said. There, they waited, annoyed, as Gustav moved north and strafed that city too.

By Tuesday, Dillard and her family were out of money, so at 1 a.m. Wednesday, they left, hoping to sneak into town. When they got to New Orleans, the roadblocks were gone and they cruised home.

In the French Quarter, the streets and shops were at nearly full throttle by Wednesday afternoon.

People wandered the streets, some with a cold beer in hand, and patrons sipped coffee in outdoor cafes.

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At the French Market, chef Steve Carden stirred a thick, spicy gumbo in a 10-gallon pot heated by a gas flame. The concoction was from his restaurant, Molly’s Folly, where he said he had cleaned out the last of his food supplies.

But a few miles away in the city’s 9th Ward -- and across the Industrial Canal in the Lower 9th Ward -- the streets were still and empty. There were no signs by midafternoon that anyone had returned to the neighborhoods, which were devastated by floodwaters three years ago.

Downed tree limbs and power lines littered some streets.

On the dry pavement, the occasional police car cruised past rows of empty homes.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

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