NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Most areas of New Orleans are clear of bacteria-laden floodwaters, but residents and business owners are coming home to the stench of garbage, undrinkable tap water and a broken sewage system.
Roads are littered with downed branches and broken-down cars that were flooded by Hurricane Katrina a month ago.
Stretches of the city are pitch-black at night and homeowners are finding moldy walls and refrigerators oozing foul-smelling liquid.
As the French Quarter and other neighborhoods that were spared Katrina”s worst officially reopened Friday, residents came back to their homes, some to rebuild their lives, others only to pack up and leave.
"We”re moving out of this stinking city," Billy Tassin snarled as he loaded his daughter”s belongings into a truck, a day after finding his home fouled with knee-deep mud. "They can finishing destroying it and burning it down without us."
Along St. Charles Avenue, its famous streetcars still idle, Maury Strong and her husband were elated to return home and find they had electricity.
"I came back to air conditioning and CNN, so I”m happy. The fridge is on, the beer is cold," she said. "I”ve been sobbing back in California for two or three weeks. I thought it was going to be much worse."
Despite the misgivings of state and federal authorities, Mayor Ray Nagin opened the French Quarter and the Uptown section as part of an aggressive plan to get the city back on its feet. Algiers, a neighborhood across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, reopened to residents on Monday.
Altogether, the neighborhoods account for about one-third of New Orleans” half-million inhabitants. Most of the reopened areas have electricity, but only Algiers has drinkable water.
At the Red-Thread dressmaker”s shop on Magazine Street, Ilona Toth wept as she began packing up to leave, 15 years after opening her business.
"It”s just too hard," said Toth, a Hungarian immigrant. "Every year a hurricane is always coming. We always have to evacuate, then clean up. It”s too much trouble." Others were intent on coming back.
"This is my home. I will never leave New Orleans," said Virginia Darmstadter, 75, who has lived in the Uptown section”s Garden District for 21 years and left her husband in a Houston nursing home to check their drenched home, which had no electricity.
Debris was stacked outside homes for miles, and included moldy mattresses and rows of refrigerators, duct-taped shut and leaking smelly liquids. Burglar alarms sounded in many buildings as the power blinked on, a sharp counterpoint to the wood chippers grinding up fallen limbs.
Along Prytania Street in the Uptown section, people cleared brush and tree limbs from their yards, while repair crews worked on power lines.
Taylor Livingston, 40, was using a leaf-blower, hoping to create a lived-in look at three homes he was guarding against looters. "I don”t know how it”s going to come together," he said. "I don”t know if there”s ever been a big city evacuated the way we were evacuated. It”s all new. I don”t know that we can come back that quick."
The city was 95 percent dry, said Maj. Jeff Kwiecinski of the Army Corps of Engineers. Water was still being pumped out of the devastated Ninth Ward, but Kwiecinski said it would probably be gone by Sunday.
Nagin on Friday announced a 17-member commission to draft a rebuilding plan for New Orleans, tapping business owners and others, including Roman Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.
The mayor said he has e-mailed the White House outlining his top priorities, including rebuilding and improving the levee system; seeking help with a rail link to Baton Rouge that could be used for emergency evacuation; and getting federal tax breaks and incentives for businesses and residents.
"New Orleans is not asking for a handout; we”re asking for a hand up," Nagin said. The Louisiana congressional delegation has called for US$250 billion (¤205 billion) in federal aid to help the state recover from hurricane damage.
Katrina”s death toll in Louisiana rose to 932 on Friday, the state health department said, while Mississippi”s toll climbed to 221 after a body was found under a collapsed motel.
In New Orleans” eastern reaches, authorities said they had found 14 dead dogs. St. Bernard Parish spokesman Steve Cannizaro said 10 dogs were shot to death at a middle school, and four more were found at an elementary school. Authorities do not know who killed the animals.