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The Economics of Return

With toilets out, management ordered everyone -- 500 family members and staff, along with 110 patients -- to use buckets lined with infectious waste bags. They were supposed to pour in bleach to kill the smell. But on the fetid seventh floor, where Mills and her family were assigned, there was no bleach. By midweek, towering stacks of those bags made the entire hospital smell like a sewer. Staff workers smashed windows to let fresh air into the stifling building, which was later declared unsalvageable.

Four days after the storm, with military helicopters lancing across the city, staff members and their families were hungry, sweaty and stuck. Boats finally hauled them away to buses on Friday. "I wouldn't say I was scared; I was angry," Mills said. "Every day we got a different story about why the National Guard couldn't come and get us."

Her anger wilted into exhaustion during a 24-hour bus ride to a church shelter in Tyler, Tex. "Imagine sitting that long on a bus after what we had been through," she said. "Our body odors and the stench from a backed-up toilet on the bus -- it was just awful."

Will It Become Whiter?

Billions upon billions of federal dollars will be spent in coming months and years to rebuild the city's levees, to support new housing and clean up the colossal mess. There seems certain to be a massive increase in job opportunities, skilled and unskilled.

Still, anxiety is building that New Orleans will not bounce back as Chicago did after the fire or San Francisco after the quake. There is concern that it will be much smaller, whiter, richer and more homogeneous: an anodyne, theme-park version of the Big Easy dominated by highbrow restaurants and lowbrow bars of the unflooded French Quarter.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin pleaded last week for everyone to "come on home," saying there is no place else where they can find "red beans and rice and gumbo and all those things that you love."

This series will follow several displaced families -- from Memphis Street in affluent Lakeview that is 94 percent white and from Delery Street in the working-class, 98 percent black Lower Ninth Ward -- as they pick up the pieces of their lives and ponder the sanity of taking the mayor's advice.

Should they bring themselves and their children back to a below-sea-level city that, for all its sweet music and gastronomical allure, is largely a ruin, as well as a sitting duck for the next big storm?

Courtesy of Katrina, these families have much in common. They are shellshocked, scattered across the country and homesick. They are sick of insurance forms and worried about how their kids are getting by without their friends.

But there is already a compelling difference.

Memphis Street families believe that, if they want to, they will probably be able to rebuild in Lakeview and resume their lives.

Lakeview, where 66 percent of children go to private school and 49 percent of residents have a college degree, was pumped dry within three weeks of the storm.

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