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New Orleans Residents Weigh Risks of Returning

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August, 500,000 people lived in New Orleans. Those who could evacuate did. Now, seven months later, fewer than half the city's population has returned. Recent polls indicate a majority of residents living elsewhere wants to come back, but they are worried by the city's uncertain future. Their concerns range from the safety of the levees to the lack of housing and jobs. And they worry, too, about the public health risks in the mold and muck the flooding left behind.

More than seven months after Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on this Gulf Coast city, New Orleans is still a remarkably desolate place. There are a few exceptions downtown, where many buildings on higher ground were untouched by the floodwaters that engulfed the city when its levees broke.

Everywhere else, for kilometer after kilometer, flood-damaged homes have been turned inside out with furniture, insulation, rolled-up carpets and clothing stacked in piles out on the streets. Everything is stained with the muddy residues of the flood.

Within 48 hours after the storm, environmental chemist Wilma Subra was in the field taking samples and assessing the public health situation. When the waters receded, she came to the Agriculture Street Landfill, a residential community built atop a former toxic waste dump and garbage landfill.

"You could see locations [here] where there was [what is called] a 'toxic tea.' The water in the landfill was leaching out on the streets. It was covering the streets," she recalls. "It had an oily orange sheen to it. It had high levels of the toxic heavy metals all in this water that was leaching out of the landfill. In the other areas that were somewhat drier, you had the sediment sludge [from] the contaminated water bottoms which had been transported onto the land."

Subra says the salt water driven ashore by Katrina has killed shrubs and bushes and turned some front lawns brown. Samples of the sediment Subra collected for the Natural Resources Defense Council showed levels of arsenic and lead three times higher than Louisiana state standards.

"The health impacts we are seeing are skin rashes, infections of the skin that don't respond to normal antibiotic treatment," she says, adding that there are respiratory problems too. "A lot of people have caught a 'Katrina cough,' but you also have asthma attacks. You have chronic bronchitis. All the people who come back come down with these [kind] of conditions." Subra says the long-term impacts could mean more [pregnancy] miscarriages, birth defects and cancer.

Wearing blue protective rubber gloves, Subra rubs the surface residue between her fingers. She says the sediment is easy to collect and remove, and it is urgent that the work be done. "People who come back even to look [and] see are made sick for the short term. People who come back a number of times to look [and] see are made even sicker," she says.

A short distance away, Ollie Robinson - a stout black woman in her 40s - points up at the jagged orange line running across the second story of her house that looks like an angry bathtub ring. It shows where the floodwaters stopped.

"It's like coming back to something that has been bombed," she says. "No one is here. And to see how everything had been stirred around - especially around here - all the furniture had been moved around and twisted around, a deep freezer blocking the door. You can't open your doors. It stinks. You have got rats. It is just a mess. And we are trying to just start over."

Robinson has water, but no electricity. She can't live here yet. But she has gutted the first floor down to the wall studs and treated for mold. She follows health advisories and wears protective gear when work is being done. Other than a spider bite she says she has not had any health problems. "But my brother-in-law did," she says. "My brother did. And I have a friend. He can hardly walk a block. He can't breathe good."

Seven months after Katrina, neighborhoods like Robinson's remain abandoned and littered with debris. Even in a more upscale, tree-lined community of brick homes in another part of the city that was also inundated after Katrina, sediment still coats the sidewalks and streets. Sam Coleman, who supervises the removal of hazardous substances for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of the problem. "We've picked up close to 11 to 12 million pounds [5.5 million kilos] of household hazardous waste," he notes. "Several hundred thousand household appliances have been picked up and recycled."

The EPA and other federal and state agencies have taken over 1,000 soil samples. Air and water sampling is on-going. Coleman says contrary to the reports of some environmental groups, the results give a green light to residents wanting to return. "The environment in New Orleans in particular and in the Gulf Coast in general is basically the same or in some cases better than it was pre-storm," he says. "We have data that shows that the air quality has improved slightly, probably due to the lack of vehicles and some of the industrial facilities not operating at full capacity."

Toxicologist Tom Harris with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality agrees. He disputes recent reports from the Natural Resources Defense Council that find unsafe levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals in the soil samples. "Where we disagree is interpretation of the soil and sediment data," he says. "What we are seeing is soil and sediment concentrations that were virtually no different than what was there before Katrina, in over 99 percent of the sample locations that we have collected data we are seeing levels that are protective to long-term exposure to children."

Harris advises residents to return home. "Is it safe for people to come back long-term? Is it safe for people to bring their children back? That is what we are still evaluating," he says. "The overwhelming answer is that it is safe."

Robin Barrett , a single mother with one child, hears that message and sees nothing wrong with starting over in her hurricane-ravaged home. "I kind of kept up with the reports when I was in Houston as to what was going on down here, and all the initial reports said that there wasn't really a problem of toxins coming into our neighborhood," she says. "If something comes up I will have to deal with it at that time. Right now I am coming back home. The things that I need to do as far as the inside of my house is concerned have been done. All I can do is take it one day at a time." But as Barrett looks around the gutted homes and debris piles that stretch down the street, she wonders how many others will follow her lead.