- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — As the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina recede and parts of the city are cleaned and restored, the D.C. National Guard and other relief workers continue to act as first responders in low-lying neighborhoods, supplying such basic needs as food, water and emotional support.

“There are still people down there,” said D.C. Guardsman Spc. Kelvin Coleman, who spent yesterday patrolling flooded neighborhoods, looking for bodies. “They are our brothers and sisters. … We’ve got to help them, or what are they to do? You cannot just let them starve.”

East of the city’s French Quarter, a few residents continue to hold out, waiting for the waters to leave and their routine lives to resume.

“When things go back to normal, I’ll be here, waiting to join the work force,” said Nelson Avery, 49, who stayed in his home throughout the storm and the flooding and helped neighbors into helicopters. “I’m not leaving here until the water comes in and ruins my furniture. Until then, I’m staying.”

Despite calls for a forced evacuation, Mr. Avery was allowed to stay yesterday and received a case of ready-to-eat meals and four water bottles from the D.C. Guard unit.

Among those helping in this section is James Conover, a National Guard crisis-management specialist and a former Marine sergeant.

“I know this is one of the things that will change my life forever,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to have to see this, to see what I have seen.”

The water continues to recede as some of the municipal pumps are again working, but it remains more than 10 feet deep in some of the city’s neighborhoods. In some sections, the water has receded by more than 6 feet, but has left behind greenish-black streaks on houses and cars.

In the abandoned streets of the French Quarter, helicopters hover overhead, searching for signs of life or death, as Guardsmen patrol the streets below in military trucks.

“It smells so bad, you can taste the stink,” Mr. Conover said. “This is unbelievable. I really cannot believe my eyes.”

A group of eight camouflage-clad soldiers in a truck carrying food and water went block to block looking for residents in need of help.

“You can see the signs of life by the clothes that hang out, or other things like that,” said Sgt. Earle Willson, a D.C. Guardsman.

The search-and-recovery teams, whose members are dressed in white paper suits and blue rubber gloves, spend their days driving through the floodwaters, picking up bodies that others have reported and left tied to poles and branches.

One such unit picked up five bodies yesterday, then returned to a staging area to tear off their protective gear and sanitize themselves after contact with the toxic waters. The bodies will be taken to a nearby mortuary.

Officials had predicted earlier that teams searching the fetid water and flooded buildings could find as many as 10,000 dead.

They now say the number will be far less, but have not given revised estimates. The official death toll was 381, of which 154 were in and around New Orleans. Yesterday, the D.C. Guard unit found no dead bodies.

People are not the only ones left helpless among the debris. Thousands of dogs, cats and other pets are stranded in houses and in the water waiting to be rescued.

The New Orleans animal rescue service yesterday drove through flooded streets to leave food and water for the animals, hoping that it will sustain them until their owners can return.

The few residents remaining in the French Quarter say they want the military to leave and for this Gulf Coast city to return to how it was before the storm hit Aug. 29.

On Bourbon Street, a lone bar, Johnny White’s, is open for business and has become a gathering spot for customers to drink, smoke and talk about the destruction.

“The military wants us to leave, but we aren’t leaving here,” said Mel Landry, 28.

However, many residents once committed to staying have begun to trickle from their homes to accept help from military and police officials.

In a residential section of the French Quarter, Charles Thompson, 57, called the New Orleans Police Department and Emergency Services for medical assistance.

But convincing Mr. Thompson to leave his home was not easy. An emergency crew and a police officer had to force open a gate to Mr. Thompson’s home and order him to “drop the gun to the floor” before wheeling him on a gurney into an ambulance.

Despite the presence of helicopters overhead and police and military vehicles on patrol, officials say the city is not under a military occupation.

“This is a bunch of military folks and civilians working together to clean things up,” Mr. Conover said.

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