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National Guard Helps with New Orleans Cleanup, Recovery


Cleanup continues in New Orleans, which was devastated two weeks ago by Hurricane Katrina. More than half of the city remains under water, and throughout the area, National Guard troops are providing security and helping with the recovery effort. Guardsman in one neighborhood say they are making progress, but their work is far from finished.

Saint Charles Avenue runs from New Orleans' famous French Quarter through the Garden District, the site of many of the city's grand Victorian mansions. Some streets now appear almost normal, except for the absence of traffic. With a mandatory evacuation order in place, most of the city's residents have left.

An unknown number, possibly thousands, defied the order. Local police are not yet using force to get the holdouts out of the city. And the National Guard is watching over residents who have stayed. Master Sergeant Timothy Palmer says the holdouts have no gas, clean water or power.

"We know where they are. We drop them off water," he says. "We encourage them to leave, provide them with any medical supplies or medical assistance necessary. So I'd say they're really not too worse for the wear, except that I don't think I would voluntarily want to be living in these conditions. That's for sure."

The California National Guard 185th Regiment, based in San Diego, uses an elementary school near Saint Charles Avenue as its base of operations. Guard units from different states are in other neighborhoods. The troops make daily rounds, checking home by home as they search for bodies, survivors, broken gas or water lines, or unusual odors.

Even adjacent houses may have different levels of damage. A tree has crushed the roof of one home. There may have been water damage or looting in another. The home next door might be in immaculate condition.

One holdout, named Bob Rue, says he expects to remain here until the normal rhythms of life return to the city. He looks forward to Mardi Gras, the French-heritage carnival held each springtime, and a parade to honor Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, which passes in front of the shop where he sells antique carpets. He stayed here to keep out the looters, and says he was not afraid of them or of the hurricane, his 36th tropical storm here in New Orleans.

"I know how to do this. I'm fine. I've got food until Christmas," Mr. Rue says. "I've got water until Carnival. You can tell everybody's that out there that's from News Orleans, that I've got my spot for the Bacchus parade right here on Saint Charles Avenue. I'm all ready, and I expect them back."

Most of New Orleans' 450,000 people are gone now, and no one knows when they can safely come home.

National Guard Captain Robert Atkinson was teaching elementary school in Bakersfield, California, just two weeks ago, before getting the call to report for emergency duty. For the past week and a half, he has been here assessing the damage.

"You still have buildings that are well over halfway flooded with water," Captain Atkinson says. "What you use as landmarks is, you use the streets signs, which you can barely see the tops of."

Captain Atkinson sees progress in the battle against the water, which is subsiding day by day, as pumps work to drain the flooded parts of the city. This neighborhood off Saint Charles Avenue appears almost normal.

A couple is cooking food on a barbecue grill in front of their house. Nearby, two women sit on the second-floor balcony. One is giving the other a haircut.

The National Guardsman says the appearance of near-normality is deceptive.

"On September 1, the water line was at our headquarters," Captain Atkinson says. "Outside our headquarters, the water is gone. It's not until you leave the area to which you're specifically assigned and you go outside that you see the devastation, that you see the water still flooding buildings up to half-way up their length that you realize there's still a lot to do here."

A drive with the Guardsman through other parts of the city reveals the force of the storm that swept through here, and the power of the water that flooded in from nearby Lake Pontchartrain. Barges and boats along the coastline have been scattered like children's toys, and whole neighborhoods of New Orleans are only slowly emerging from the water.

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