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Monday, September 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Exodus of youngest residents will change the face of New Orleans

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Even after the latest hurricane crisis eases, and downtown businesses along with French Quarter topless bars reopen, life in New Orleans will be far from normal. Among the somber distinctions: For months to come this will be an almost-childless city.

Dozens of schools were irreparably damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and only a handful are expected to open before January. Few day-care centers will be available for preschoolers, and health experts warn that children are at extra risk of contamination if they come back before the city is thoroughly cleaned of the foul floodwaters' residue.

"It's a big concern of ours," said the Rev. William Maestri, superintendent of the city's Roman Catholic schools. "We want our families back."

Until they return, a whole sector of the economy will be in limbo — not only child-care workers and teachers but also pediatricians, owners of child-oriented stores and others. Numerous New Orleans teachers, faced with payroll problems and no work in their home city, are getting jobs elsewhere.

By the tens of thousands, New Orleans' children are scattered around the United States, enrolling in new schools.

Many of their parents want to return home when conditions allow, but many others say they may settle in their new locations, almost certainly producing a significant drop in New Orleans' population of children.

For some tourists, the idea of a child-free New Orleans might seem almost appropriate, given that visitors are lured by gambling, business conventions and the French Quarter's late-night drinking and naughtiness. Locals don't see their city that way.

"A lot of people think of Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras — things that are very adult-oriented," said Torin Sanders, the school-board president. "But New Orleans is a very family-friendly place. People from here know that."

Arthur Johnson, a lifetime New Orleans resident, said one of his adult daughters evacuated and placed her four children in Texas public schools, where they were faring better than in their hometown school.

"We have bad schools here," he said. "We've been knowing that for years."

New Orleans officials hope to open a few schools Nov. 1 on the West Bank, a section of the city relatively unscathed by Katrina. But Sanders said a broader reopening in the main part of the city probably wouldn't occur until January — and even that would involve only a limited number of the 126 public schools.

The plan, he indicated, would be to open certain schools that suffered little damage, accommodating returning students even if they lived in other neighborhoods.

Sandra Adams, executive director of Louisiana Maternal Child and Health Coalition, said it was possible that the public schools wouldn't be fully operational until next fall.

"It's going to be a city without children for some months," she said. "Some people say the only way to fix the New Orleans school system is to start from scratch, and I think we're at scratch today."

The Catholic school system, under Maestri's direction, operates 22 schools in the city, serving 20,000 children.

"We believe the schools are the magnets of hope, the institutions that draw families back," Maestri said.

Children also could face health risks upon returning to a city where the water supply was tainted and almost every neighborhood — including school yards and playgrounds — coated with bacteria-fouled floodwater.

"Kids are more susceptible to toxins, bacterial contamination," said Dr. Keith Perrin, president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Perrin noted that local vaccine supplies had been depleted by heat damage when cooling units failed during the flood.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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