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Wednesday, September 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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First flight into New Orleans

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — When the pilot of Northwest Airlines Flight 947 advised passengers yesterday morning that they might be able to see the devastation of the Gulf Coast from the left side of the plane, Katie Swing raced across the aisle.

She had her pick of windows. On the first commercial flight to land at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit — and one of three inbound flights for the day — the plane carried only 25 passengers and five crew members. It has the capacity to seat 148. The passengers had come from across the United States, converging in Memphis, Tenn., for the last leg into New Orleans.

"I've heard the military's not letting residents into most of the city, but I had to get on this plane," said Swing, 35, who was making her first trip home after fleeing to Texas on the eve of the storm.

"I don't know what's happened to my home, to my neighbors and friends," Swing said. "I'm tired of watching TV, trying to find a picture of my street. If I have to sneak down there, I will. I'm dying to see what's left."

As New Orleans begins to inch toward recovery, the few passengers of Flight 947 underscored the burdens this city's residents face.

Military officers sat stoic and silent. Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) waded through stacks of infectious-disease reports. Building contractors, arriving for jobs, wondered if the work conditions would be too horrendous to take at any price.

Business people, frantic about the health of their companies, worried about missing employees.

Pressing her nose to the window, Swing, an obstetrician, scanned the landscape. At first, as the plane approached from the west, all she could see were flooded streets and marshland littered with shredded trees. Then the first few buildings came into view. None had a roof.

Flight 947, and the two other flights yesterday, made up a small fraction of the 180 commercial and cargo flights that come through this southern aviation hub under normal circumstances.

But at least it was a start.

"I'm just happy to get on a plane," said Dallas architect Jonathan Massey, 34. "It makes my job that much easier."

His employer, Corgan Associates, was working with New Orleans aviation officials to figure out ways to expand the airport when Katrina hit.

Tina Napier also was on the flight. As a regional director for the retailer Big Lots, she was heading to New Orleans to check on the status of the chain's eight stores in the city.

She planned to return by Friday, but this first trip to New Orleans could stretch out. All the area's store managers had checked in, but more than 10 percent of the company's hourly staff was missing. After the plane took off from Memphis, the travelers struck up conversations, peering over head rests and leaning across the aisle to make eye contact.

"I'm heading to the Parc St. Charles hotel. A contractor who's a good client wants to see if we can help them rebuild it," Ken Kerley, co-owner of a construction restoration company, told Sara Russell, an epidemic intelligence-service officer with the CDC.

"I'm sure I can get a crew to come to New Orleans. I'm not sure if I can keep them there, what with all this talk about disease," said Kerley, 44, who lives in Kansas City, Mo.

Russell nodded in understanding.

"I'm heading there to help monitor for outbreaks of diseases," said Russell, 30, who lives in Oklahoma City.

"I tried to get a bunch of vaccines yesterday before I left. My doctor had tetanus but not diphtheria," Kerley said. "I went to the county health department, but they'd already closed. I even went to one of those doc-in-a-box places in the mall, but they don't do vaccines. I'm worried."

All conversation stopped when, about 20 minutes before landing, the pilot suggested the travelers move to the left side of the plane. What had been an informal, almost-friendly setting grew instantly tense.

Thick gray clouds faded, giving glimpses of the landscape below. The deep-blue waters of Lake Pontchartrain came into view, where concrete pylons stuck out like tiny, rotten teeth. Rivers and waterways crisscrossed the land. Tree and housing debris covered the marsh in a blanket of green and brown.

Swing began to grow pale. She had taken the last flight out of New Orleans on the eve of the hurricane and had packed enough clothes for the three days she'd expected to stay with friends in Dallas.

A family emergency had delayed her return, as had concerns about military blockades and news reports of looters running rampant through the neighborhood where she's lived for seven years.

She will have a place to sleep at the East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, which is next to her practice. Besides the clothes she packed for this trip, she had 50 new sets of medical scrubs for the staff.

After the plane landed at 10:59 a.m., the pilot taxied past dozens of Air Force planes. Each gate sat empty, except for the ground crew patiently waiting for this first flight in front of Gate A-1. As soon as the plane stopped, Swing squeezed her way to the exit.

"Thanks for flying with us, and good luck," flight attendant Caroline Buffaloe said.

Swing tried to smile. Her eyes tearing, she left the plane and headed to baggage claim.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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