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The Economics of Return

Memphis Street smells now of bleach, which kills mold, and resounds to the thwack of crowbars and the whine of chain saws. Insurance adjusters have begun making rounds.

Robert Bouchon has already received a check for the $40,000 BMW he left parked next to his pool in his back yard when the family fled to Houston. State Farm has since hauled it away. He was the first on his block to hire workers to gut the first floor of his house down to the studs.

On Memphis Street, many of his neighbors are also busy organizing a comeback. Water has been turned back on and Gary Quaintance, three houses away from the Bouchons, has drained unspeakable greenish-brown liquid from his pool and refilled it twice. Many front lawns on Memphis Street have been piled high with kitchen and living room ruins, awaiting garbage trucks to haul it all away.

There was, however, much that was not ruined on the second floors of the many two-story houses along Memphis Street. Cathy Hughes, a copy editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, used her press credentials to get home three weeks after the storm to find that her musician son's precious drum set was safe inside an upstairs bathtub, where it had been stashed before Katrina.

'Go With the Flow'

For families from Delery Street, meanwhile, a realization is growing that the odds of coming back get longer each day.

"My life is moving on," said Mills, who lives now with in-laws an hour outside New Orleans in the town of Paincourtville, in Louisiana's sugar-cane country.

There, her husband, Terrelle, has a $7.50-an-hour job at an Ace Hardware store. Her mother, Ora, has a $7-an-hour job at a Big Lots discount store. Her 13-year-old, Kortney, is in a local public school, and Mills is planning to enroll in a nursing program in nearby Baton Rouge.

"I got to go with the flow," said Mills, whose fury lingers over the hardship her family endured while waiting five days for federal, state and city officials to figure out how to get them out of a major hospital. "I can't say we won't go back, but as of right now we are not going back."

In the Lower Ninth Ward, where more a third of residents lived in poverty and 6 percent had a college degree, a hastily rebuilt levee failed in late September to hold back the storm surge of Hurricane Rita. Most of the place was again submerged.

Parts of the neighborhood, including the Goines and Mills house on Delery Street, are still flooded and residents are still barred -- for their own safety, the city says -- from coming back on their own to see their homes.

Ora Goines's car, a mold-infested 1999 Hyundai Sonata that is not insured against flood damage, has been drifting around for weeks inside the chain-link fence that encircles her side yard. Her house is still standing, but much of her block on Delery appears to have been bombed, with cars flipped atop semi-collapsed roofs, telephone poles snapped in half. Her next-door neighbor's two-story house was ripped from its foundation and floated across the street.

Before Rita engulfed the neighborhood with water for the second time in less than a month, Goines, her daughter Germaine and the rest of her family tried to go back to see their house. Police would not let them get close.

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