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Last closed section of New Orleans reopens to hurricane victims

Lower Ninth Ward residents get day entry

A car drove past destroyed homes and an overturned car as residents returned on a ''look and leave'' basis to the Lower Ninth Ward area yesterday in New Orleans.
A car drove past destroyed homes and an overturned car as residents returned on a ''look and leave'' basis to the Lower Ninth Ward area yesterday in New Orleans. (Getty Images Photo / Chris Graythen)

NEW ORLEANS -- The Lower Ninth Ward, the last neighborhood in New Orleans that had remained closed since Hurricane Katrina, reopened yesterday, with some residents saying they planned to abandon the area and others vowing to rebuild.

Residents were allowed in for the day to gather what belongings they could. Until now, people had been able to view the destruction only on bus tours. Residents still cannot stay in the neighborhood, which has no electrical power.

''This is all I know, right here," Palazzolo Simmons said as he stepped onto the sidewalk from the roof of a collapsed house he shared with his mother until Katrina hit Aug. 29. Simmons said he would rebuild.

The Lower Ninth Ward was the last section of the city to reopen, owing to the destruction wrought by the storm and floods after the London Avenue Canal levee breach.

The neighborhood remained treacherous. Streets were clear, but hundreds of buildings were on the verge of collapse and yards were full of broken glass, metal shards, and boards studded with rusting nails.

Darlana Green said flood waters had carried her house off its foundation while she and her two children remained inside. She scoffed at Mayor C. Ray Nagin's public pronouncements that he wants all evacuees to come home.

''Come home to what?" she said.

She and her husband recognized the heap of debris that used to be the family's home only after spotting their children's Spiderman bed sheets and trick-or-treat bucket amid the wreckage.

Frank Wingate, who returned to inspect his mother's property, found a refrigerator lying on the edge of a neighbor's rooftop, where it had come to rest as storm waters receded.

Red Cross officials, on hand to provide water, snacks, and counseling, said about 1,000 cars carrying Ninth Ward residents had passed a city checkpoint by midday, and the traffic was backed up four blocks from the entrance.

''We just came for a little closure, just to see," said Vandell Smith, standing in his front yard with his wife, Terri, and looking at what was left of their barely upright home.

They could salvage nothing from inside -- the wood-and-brick building was too rickety to enter.

''It'll be bulldozed and we'll move on," said Smith, who said his family had planned to move to a safer neighborhood on the west Bank of the Mississippi River before the storm.

Before the hurricane, some residents had decried growing violent crime in the Ninth Ward, which has long had a reputation as one of the city's most dangerous areas.

Green said she saw a gunshot victim lying on the ground near her house about a week before the storm.

Others were determined to stay.

''This is where you're from," Michael Merricks, 18, said as he tossed salvageable clothing from the second story of his family's flood-ravaged home down to his mother and sister.

Decisions to rebuild depend in part on the extent of damage, whether insurance will require a new home to be elevated, and whether the owners qualify for federal aid.

Residents also question whether the city's failed levee system will be adequately restored by next hurricane season.

''A lot of things have to fall into place before I can decide," said Calvin Hampton as he salvaged waterlogged belongings from the house he shares with his wife.

Green said her family plans to stay in Allen, Texas, where they were evacuated after being rescued from the roof of their home.

''She was a blessing for me," Green said of Katrina. ''Everything here was falling apart."

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