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Thursday, October 13, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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9th Ward searches for a future among debris

Newhouse News Service

NEW ORLEANS — The floodwaters washed away entire city blocks in this city's Lower 9th Ward, leaving 14,000 residents grappling with what to make of the present — let alone the future — of a neighborhood that struggled with blight, crime and poverty long before Katrina breached the levee walls.

Yesterday — the first day residents were officially allowed in to see what, if anything, they could salvage — made their choices painfully clear.

"It's gone," said Donald Barard, 70, as he surveyed his former neighborhood at Caffin and North Claiborne avenues.

Barard lost two rental homes to the hurricane. His own house in eastern New Orleans was washed out, too, along with his hopes for rebuilding the hardest-hit parts of the city. Katrina did him in.

"New Orleans went down in so many ways ... like politics," said Barard, who retired five years ago after 23 years in the transportation department of Lockheed Martin. "If my kids were small, I wouldn't raise them here."

The Lower 9th, a predominantly African-American community where 36 percent of the population lived below the poverty line and a quarter of households had an annual income of less than $10,000, sits in ruin. Its families are scattered in different states, and in different states of employment and financial standing. Some have said goodbye for good. Others vow to come back — someday.

The Lower 9th yesterday was a dusty, bleached-brown picture, covered with drying, cracked sludge left over from filthy floodwater that only recently receded. Entire houses had disappeared, while others are peeling off their foundations. Children's tricycles are stuck in chain-link fences. Cars are ruined. Power lines and debris cover streets near the Industrial Canal, where the water tore down the levee wall.

Electricity and water service have not yet been restored, and Mayor Ray Nagin had law enforcement block off the worst-hit part of the area.

Beverly Ladmirault said her house on Egania Street didn't appear to have structural damage.

The Lower 9th should be rebuilt, she said. "Of course. All my sisters and brothers, we all live here," Ladmirault said.

But many former residents have already moved on to new lives in Texas and other neighboring states.

"I love it," Keokuk Lewis said of Hurst, Texas, her family's new home. "It's quiet and big. And there's not a liquor store and fried-chicken stand on every corner."

Lewis, a licensed practical nurse, and her husband, Reginald, a truck driver, are optimistic about landing jobs in Texas and shopping for a new home. "You can buy more house for your money in Texas," Lewis said. "$150,000 in Texas could get me 2,000 square feet, custom built; $150,000 can't get me nothing in New Orleans."

Her mother, Celestine James, also owned a home in the Lower 9th.

"Where am I going to live?" James said of New Orleans. "The mayor's telling me to come back. What am I coming back to?"

James, also a nurse, doesn't plan to return. She said she will miss her hometown but is eager to start fresh in Texas.

"I love New Orleans," she said. "But I see now, this showed me I can go somewhere else and I can live. I can make it."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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