- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Dr. Jeffrey Coco’s business is gone, along with his wife’s job, his children’s school and the first floor of his house, but he was hopeful as he stood amid the debris in his front yard on New Year’s Day.

“Unless someone in my family gets sick, I can’t imagine it can be worse,” he said.

Dr. Coco and his wife and three children returned to New Orleans especially for a New Year’s Eve party held at a neighbor’s house that did not flood in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They stayed in the second story of their own house.

“We normally have a fireworks display that rivals most ballparks,” he laughed. “We toned it down a lot this year because of all the blue roofs around.” Many damaged roofs throughout the city are covered with blue plastic tarpaulins.

Dr. Coco, an infectious-disease specialist, does not expect to return to New Orleans for good until April or May. He just received his flood-insurance check, like many of his neighbors.

“I think that’s what people were waiting for,” Dr. Coco said.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin yesterday said it could take three to five years to regain the city’s population of nearly half a million before Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Nagin said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that reopening several public and private schools this month would help raise New Orleans’ population to about 200,000, double the current level, as families returned with their children.

Shortages of suitable housing would limit further growth over the near term, he said.

“We will be having a Mardi Gras … I think it’s going to send a wonderful signal to the world that New Orleans is on the road to recovery,” he said.

Hurricane Katrina’s Aug. 29 assault wrecked New Orleans and scattered the population when protective levees failed and about 80 percent of the low-lying city flooded. The storm killed more than 1,200 people in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Since then, reconstruction efforts in New Orleans have flagged, poor residents and local officials say assistance is insufficient, and others question the wisdom of rebuilding in areas vulnerable to more floods. Some experts have said the city may never regain its former prominence.

Unlike the Ninth Ward, where miles of houses were destroyed, sparse signs of life are returning to the affluent Lake Front neighborhoods, although trailers stand in front of some water-damaged houses, and muddy streets are lined with debris, ruined appliances and drowned vehicles.

“It was kind of spooky at first,” said Ray Bigelow, who is living with his wife and children on the second floor of their house. “But now we have a neighbor two doors down, and we can see some street lights down the way.”

Unlike buildings across the street that were submerged to the roofs, Mr. Bigelow’s house was flooded only 3 feet deep. The bottom floor has been gutted, and the family plans to use a trailer parked in the yard as a kitchen and dining room. Their electricity has been reconnected. It’s two miles to an open grocery store and 10 to a gas station.

“I’d like life to get back like it was, but that won’t happen this year,” Mr. Bigelow said. “It probably won’t happen in 10 years.”

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