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After an Anxious Boat Trip Home, Jubilation

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 2 -- They came home aboard a skiff, a determined father and his burly son rocking for hours Tuesday morning across the still-violent waves of Lake Pontchartrain. They worried themselves sick. Would it happen again? A flooded garage, again. A shredded roof, again. Snakes and rats swimming in their front lawn, again.

With only the dirty shirts on their backs and rubber waders on their feet, Anthony and Brandon Rodi raced to see whether Hurricane Gustav replayed the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated their home in Venetian Isles, a quiet middle-class neighborhood prone to flooding along the marshes on the eastern edge of New Orleans.

"We couldn't even talk about it," Brandon Rodi, 26, said of their worries on their four-hour journey home from Slidell, where they rode out the storm. The roads were so flooded that they could arrive only by boat.

"Five minutes ago, we didn't know what we were coming home to," he said. "We had no idea in the world. . . . We were scared to death."

"We didn't even know if we'd have a house," said his father, a 45-year-old crane operator.

The concrete garden statue of a lion had fallen over in the driveway, and Brandon, a machinist, picked it back up. Then they opened the garage door. There were only a couple of inches of mud water on the floor. The American and Confederate flags still hung in the windows. The green swing still swayed from the ceiling.

Suddenly, the Rodis expressed relief and jubilation.

"It's a glorious feeling," said Anthony, his thick brown hair blowing in the breeze on his front lawn. "I'm gonna get drunk tonight."

"It does feel good!" his son cheered, chuckling before going upstairs to fetch a 20-pack of Bud Light.

After the fury of Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc on most homes in this waterfront community, residents of Venetian Isles who braved the waterlogged roads to return by pickup truck or boat celebrated their good fortune.

Jim Roos, 82, a widower twice over, was one of the few residents to resist the mandatory evacuation order.

"This is my home," said Roos, a retired jazz and symphony musician who has survived many a hurricane in his decades in Venetian Isles. "A captain doesn't abandon his ship."

"What should I be afraid of?" he added. "An alligator coming to bite me on the butt? What could be worse than Katrina? This is a piece of cake. The storm came, the wind blew, the water rose, and that was the end of it."

For New Orleans Fire Capt. A.J. McGovern, 52, arriving home to Venetian Isles was a joyous moment. The firehouse he commanded on Old Spanish Terrace was destroyed during Katrina. Station 31 now is only a trailer sitting on the concrete slab.

The coming of Gustav took a toll on the residents of this neighborhood, McGovern said.

"I've lived here 29 years, 11 months and three weeks," he said. "I know the mental anguish people suffered. Just the fact that we had to walk away from our houses again. . . . It really plays with people's psyches. An hour into clearing my house, I physically felt ill."

But, riding through the community, the firefighters cheered.

"We did pretty good!" said Capt. Rob Pitre, 43. "We were spared, no doubt. Just luck."

"Last time, we were stuck out here nine days with no contact with anybody," said firefighter Charles Crain, 60. "We didn't see a cop for seven days. We watched people loot and stood guard at night with guns. We had to. . . . I'm real relieved to not have to go through the same thing."

A few doors down, Gus Deruise waded with his wife and stepson through water above their knees to inspect what remained of their home. They lost their chimney, and their garage -- "my man cave," as the retired police officer calls it -- was damaged by minor flooding. But that was the extent of it.

"You've got to want to come home to make it here," he said. But, he added, "this is some relief."

For residents of Venetian Isles and other communities that sprouted on the fingers of southern Louisiana that reach into the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes are a way of life.

"It's a good neighborhood, a good place to live with good people," Anthony Rodi said. "We've been living on a bayou all our life. The hurricanes seem to get bigger and bigger, but I've got to stick it out."

"You do what you've got to do," his son added. "What else can we do? Keep running?"

Crain said he would never leave, no matter how fierce the storms get.

"I've lived here all my life," he said, riding in the front cab of a fire engine as it crawled down flooded Chef Menteur Highway, dodging the yellow buoy that landed in the middle of the road. "It's where I grew up. I just don't want to leave Louisiana. I love it."

Back at the Rodi home, after checking the damage, Anthony and Brandon closed the garage door, grabbed some beers, lit their Marlboro Lights and headed back down the road. They hopped on the skiff to go back across the lake and on to Slidell.

Once the roads cleared, they would drive back home.

Staff photographer Carol Guzy contributed to this report.

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