Metairie, Louisiana (AFP) Sep 05 2005
Miles-long lines of cars, vans and empty rental trucks with thousands of anxious residents clogged roads leading into this New Orleans suburb Monday for the first look at their homes since Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern US city.
Hauling chainsaws, shovels and wading boots the evacuees disregarded warnings by Louisiana state officials and returned to Metairie and other western suburbs of New Orleans in an area known as Jefferson Parish.
Roads leading into the area were choked with traffic after authorities told residents they could visit their homes during daylight hours Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but could not stay overnight. Louisiana state police said the backup stretched as much as 25 miles (40 kilometers) on one main artery.
State and local political leaders had dissuaded people from trying to return, fearing huge traffic jams and a disruption to a nascent relief and cleanup effort from the storm.
Officials warned those who did return to bring drinking water and food, and said Jefferson Parish had no electricity or basic services. Many roads remained impassable.
"It makes my job tougher. I would have preferred that they had locked the parish down until the things that needed to get up got up," Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee said.
Lee said however he understood the need of residents to know their homes are safe and to begin putting their lives back together.
Lieutenant General Russel Honore, commander of the military's relief effort in Louisiana, said a military convoy had been delayed heading into the city, though he said parish officials had allowed citizens back for the right reasons.
"We have had trouble moving an army division ... but we will work with that," he said.
"If it reaches a level where we can't do search and rescue, we will bring that up with the appropriate level of government."
Katrina, the worst storm ever to hit the United States, roared through Louisiana a week ago, uprooting trees, splintering homes into kindling and causing catastrophic levee breaks that drowned New Orleans and forced the evacuation of its 485,000 residents.
Since then, authorities have worked to get the remaining residents out of the city and enforce an uneasy peace imposed by thousands of soldiers who moved in to crack down on looters and armed gangs. Police roadblocks prevent anyone from returning to New Orleans.
Back in Metairie, Shaun McCarthy couldn't hide his emotion as he stood across a flooded street corner from his childhood home, which stood safe among downed trees and power lines just above the edge of the pungent black water.
A few blocks away was the 17th Street Canal, where earlier workers had closed one of the most severe levee breaks which allowed water to flood New Orleans and parts of Metairie.
Many other homes in his neighborhood had not fared as well from Katrina. Many were flooded, and downed trees poked into damaged roofs.
"Geez, it's just amazing," McCarthy said, shaking his head. "We're going to rebuild it. You know we're going to come back."
John Manard and Mamsie Manard waded through knee-deep water to fetch clean clothes, personal papers and some beer from their home on flooded Stella Street, just a few doors down from McCarthy's boyhood home. The black water gave off odors of brine and rotting vegetation.
They had slept in their car by the roadside for the chance to be among the first to return, eager to see how their home weathered the storm.
"The house is great," John Manard said.
"The roof is intact, the windows are good," added his wife. "In the big scheme of things we were incredibly fortunate."
"There is absolutely no reason to stay here. There are no jobs. There are no homes to go to. No hotels to go to and there is absolutely nothing here," New Orleans Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley told a news conference.
"We advised people that this city has been destroyed and it's completely been destroyed," he said. "No food or any reason for them to stay. There is no power, trees are down, power lines are down."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff later said he understood why people wanted to stay close to their homes -- but cautioned that flood-hit areas were a severe health threat.
"As a matter of public health and matter of public safety, we have to complete this process.
"We are going to have to get a ring around the area, and send in teams to assess what we need to do to get it running again," he said.
The warnings came as relief workers prepared a massive operation to remove the bodies of victims of Hurricane Katrina which slammed into the US Gulf Coast last Monday leaving thousands feared dead and most of New Orleans under water.
The complete evacuation of New Orleans was necessary, officials said, citing the prospect of diseases caused by rotting bodies and polluted waters as well as other risks.
Riley said he was surprised to note that there were "still thousands of people" remaining in the city.
Asked whether people were being ordered to evacuate even if they did not want to and whether police had the authority to make them go, he said: "Yes, we do."
Riley added that getting people out of New Orleans was the "biggest challenge" for his men but added that police had not reached a stage of forcing them out.
"Our law enforcement people are not involved in taking people off the street and forcing them out of the city at this point. There may come a time where we get into that mode, but we are not there right now," he said.
Police also said they were not allowing anyone to return to New Orleans although people reportedly had been allowed to come back to the relatively intact Jefferson Parish west of the flooded city.
Parish President Aaron Broussard had told residents they could check on their homes from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday but stressed they would not be able to stay.
But Riley said, "We're not letting people back in New Orleans.
"I know that has happened in another parish. How that will hinder that parish or their adjacent parishes, I do not know. I do not believe it will affect New Orleans," he said.
Riley did not give the number of bodies that had been recovered so far, saying, "It is growing, I can tell you that."
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