Katrina Victims Living In
Dark, Eerie New Orleans
By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The city nicknamed the "Big Easy" could now be dubbed the "Big Creepy."
For the handful of people living in hurricane-ravaged homes in the city's most devastated sections, life in dark, desolate silence, with no neighbors to be found, can be unnerving.
"This always was a quiet street, but this is ridiculous," said Charles Broussard, 59, who lives in a rented trailer parked at his Lakeview home, which was submerged under eight feet of water after Hurricane Katrina struck and nearby levees gave way. "At night, it's just me. "
Since the Aug. 29 hurricane and flooding that followed, many neighborhoods, from scenic waterfront on Lake Pontchartrain to the poverty-ridden Lower Ninth Ward, are void of residents, their houses uninhabitable.
Only a fifth of the city's population of half a million has returned, most to areas that did not suffer flood damage and where services have been restored.
But the many neighborhoods that suffered deep flooding remain without power. At night in the hardest-hit areas, where electrical power is still out, lights in a few houses signal that some pioneers are back. Some have successfully maneuvered the arduous task of getting individual wiring reconnected, while others use generators.
Outside, there is utter blackness and quiet, except for the howls of stray dogs, where once there were streetlights, traffic and neighbors.
"When I'm here by myself, I don't feel so safe. I hear things, and I'm constantly looking out the door to see if the gate is locked," said Stacy Andrews, 43, who lives with her husband on the top floor of their flood-damaged home in the Seventh Ward.
"But I'd rather be here with a little light than be somewhere else, imposing on another family," she said. "It's good to be home."
Even in the healthiest parts of the city such as the Garden District and Uptown, which did not flood, residents say they worry about safety and quality of life.
Fewer than half of the city's fire stations are fully up and running. Concern over the department's response capabilities has made some insurance companies reluctant to extend policies to New Orleans homebuyers.
The ranks of the police force, its reputation sullied when officers were accused of looting and desertion in the post-Katrina chaos, have thinned.
Only about 200 hospital beds are available, leaving patients waiting an average of three hours in ambulances before they can be moved inside to emergency rooms, according to the mayor's office.
In the city's most decimated and remote areas, worries about safety are magnified.
"It's scary at night. No neighbors, it's pitch black, it's awful," said Mark Wiltz, who burns a party torch in his Ninth Ward yard at night. The 43-year-old meatcutter has been living in the house doing restoration since October.
"I like to leave signs like I'm living here. I'm just hoping police see it and know there's somebody living here," he said. "I pray hard every night, and I keep a gun loaded. It's sad to say, but I have to do it."
An empty neighborhood has its advantages, said Mark Andrews, 42, an electrical contractor living in the Seventh Ward, a neighborhood that was plagued with drug-related crime and violence.
While detailed crime statistics in New Orleans are hard to come by, the city's murder rate dropped a whopping 20 percent in 2005 compared to a year earlier, when it had the highest murder rate in the United States.
"This neighborhood was in a downward spiral," Andrews said. "But with the neighborhood empty, it's real quiet and peaceful. That's the upside.
"The downside is the eeriness of being the only person in the neighborhood," he said.
Despite calls by city leaders, particularly Mayor Ray Nagin, for New Orleans residents to come home and start rebuilding, that eeriness may just get in the way.
"I want to go back, but I'm scared," said Antoine Shropshire, a 41-year-old truck driver visiting his house in the Ninth Ward. "There's no people. It's creepy here. It's too weird.
"You don't see anyone you know any more. If I sit too long, it brings tears when I think about what it'll take to get it back around."



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