New Orleans: Focus shifting to the dead; The Holdouts: An anxious quiet settles over those determined to wait
September 10, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — They sit on their front porches staring blankly into space. They sit on folding chairs in trash-filled parking lots drinking warm beer. They sit in their driveways watching as heavily armed soldiers patrol their neighborhood and helicopters thud past overhead.

For the few who remain, there isn't much else to do these days in the Big Easy except wait.

But wait for what? For the power to be restored? For the trash to be picked up? For someone to spray the city with deodorant and rid it of the awful stench of rot and decay that infuses the air? For the police to come knocking on the door and pull them out of their houses? For things to be like they used to be? For a miracle, maybe?

It's been nearly two weeks now, since Hurricane Katrina turned life on its head. After the looting and chaos of the first week, the panic has abated, the desperation has eased, but an eerie silence has settled like a pall on the city.

Frightened, emaciated dogs wander abandoned neighborhoods. Every now and then, rescuers still pull another survivor out of the attic of a flooded house, but that has become a rare event. Flocks of pigeons fatten themselves on garbage in the streets.

There are some signs of life. Bulldozers patrol the streets piling tons of tree limbs and other debris on the sidewalks. Some downtown hotels have started repairing the damage, perhaps in the vain hope that the tourists will return and the party will begin again.

Hard-hatted men are starting to restring the power lines and right the toppled poles. One by one, the levees are being repaired and the pumps that will drain the city are kicking back to life.

But this is a city without its people. They're in Houston now, or Dallas, or Minnesota, or Jackson, Miss., and thousands of them will never return. Only a handful of holdouts remain, scrounging water and food where they can. For them, there is nothing to do except wait.

'I'm not leaving my house'

Margarita Hernandez Lazaro sits alone on her tiny porch in front of her tiny house in Faubourg Marigny, her reed-thin forearms resting on the rail, waving her finger at a visitor who asks her why she won't leave. Why should she, she asks? This has been her home for 25 years. She has red beans and rice, jambalaya, coffee. And besides, her neighbor's dogs are locked up on the porch across the street and who will feed them if she goes?

She almost left on Tuesday, when soldiers pulled up in a truck so big it nearly dwarfed her house. They were gently leading the 63-year-old woman to her stairs, coaxing her, holding her by the elbow, edging her toward the truck.

"But where are you taking me?" she said.

"I don't know, ma'am," the soldier said. And then he mentioned something about a helicopter taking her out of the city.

"No. No. No. I'm not leaving my house," Hernandez said and sat herself down in her chair. Two days later she was still there, waiting for the soldiers to come back and forcefully take her away.

That is precisely what New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has vowed will happen to the stragglers who refuse to leave the city voluntarily. He is determined to empty out the city.

A personal secession

A few miles away, but worlds apart from Hernandez, sitting next to his Mercedes-Benz in the driveway of his mansion on St. Charles Avenue, a defiant Ashton O'Dwyer sips iced-down gin and tonics as he waits to see if the mayor will dare to physically remove a well-heeled citizen from his home.

He is angry. And he does not conceal his disdain for the mayor and the vast majority of his fellow residents. He has a shotgun and a sidearm. At times he paces up and down his driveway talking on his cell phone, waving his arms. A steady stream of television crews stop by to listen to his diatribes.

"I am announcing," he said one evening last week, "that I have seceded from the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the United States. I am now an independent nation."

On Magazine Street, in the shadows of downtown, Steve Thomas passes the time listening to his radio and waiting for his family, all of whom left town, to call him on the phone. He is also waiting for the nightmare to be over, for his neighbors to return to the houses he promised to watch over. He has food, water, kerosene for his lamps. His house is dry, his street is dry. He served with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam in 1966, and he can look out for himself.

He cannot fathom why it is necessary for him to leave, but he, too, waits for the knock on the door.

Bodies also are waiting

Even the dead wait. They float in water. They lie in attics or under the flood, snagged on Katrina's rubble before it was covered in filthy, black water. No one has any idea how many of them there are. Hundreds, certainly; possibly thousands.

Officials say they will be collected in due course, that they will be treated with the utmost dignity.

But two weeks after the storm they wait, just another ingredient of the toxic stew that still covers many neighborhoods to the rooftops.

By Thursday, the water that covered the Lower 9th Ward was gone, leaving behind a thick gray sludge that was drying and cracking in the heat. A hot wind blew through the deathly quiet streets, occasionally carrying with it the smell of death.

The only signs of life were the dogs. Some wandered about in a desperate search for food or tentatively lapped at the putrid puddles. Others bayed forlornly from behind locked doors. One mutt lay on the porch of its house, its head through the railings, waiting.

Marks of disaster

Many of the houses bore the increasingly common mark of disaster — an X spray-painted on the walls with the date the structure was searched, the agency that searched it and either an L, to signify a live person inside, or DB to denote that a dead body had been found.

Some people apparently grew weary of waiting for the dead to be collected. Ed Nelson, a resident of the 8th Ward who said he was staying put only because there were still elderly people in their houses who needed his help, recounted how on Thursday morning, he saw a man pulling a cart up St. Claude Avenue. On the cart was a dead body, carefully wrapped in a blanket. Nelson said he had no idea where the man was taking the corpse.

"I never seen anything like that," Nelson said. "At first I though it was somebody tired and sleeping, but I got a better look and saw it was a body."

Nelson, a counselor at the child development center at a nearby U.S. Naval base, said he would probably leave in a few days if the people he was looking out for decided to leave.

Copyright 2005, Houston Chronicle

From: Tony Freemantle, "NEW ORLEANS: Focus shifting to the dead — THE HOLDOUTS: An anxious quiet settles over those determined to wait," Houston Chronicle (TX), September 10, 2005, Sect. A, p. 1.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose. See also: Christopher Cooper, "Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood and Plot the Future," The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2005.