Welcome Glimpses of Normalcy in Jefferson Parish

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; 3:44 PM

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 3 -- Residents began trickling back into Jefferson Parish just west of New Orleans Wednesday morning, finding plenty of tree limbs down but little flooding and their homes essentially intact.

Amid the scattered porch furniture and awnings knocked askew in his Old Metairie neighborhood, Ryan Aucoin got right to work on the main chore facing him after Hurricane Gustav: Cutting the grass.

Pushing his mower in front of his still-neat garden, the man and his front yard were the picture of normalcy, with no sign of a hurricane's aftermath anywhere, while other properties on his block were littered with broken tree-limbs. His wife, Jill Aucoin, pulled weeds, and their daughter Chloe, 4, petted a neighborhood cat she calls Lovey.

They seemed to be the first to have returned to an otherwise deserted neighborhood of brick homes.

"It's done pretty well," Ryan Aucoin said. "Everything was fine."

He and his family had arrived the night before, after waiting for a police checkpoint on I-10 east of the city to be opened. They had been on a pre-planned vacation to a beach in the Florida Panhandle and had extended their trip by a day to avoid the storm, which came ashore Monday. They had returned home early to beat the traffic. Aucoin wasn't sure Chloe could make a long trip stuck in a returning rush that had yet to materialize early Tuesday.

"It's kind of nice to do it in 4-1/2 hours instead of 7-1/2 hours," he said. Some neighbors, he said, had evacuated to Birmingham, Ala., and they made the opposite decision: They would delay coming home until after the homecoming rush.

Out on the commercial strips of Jefferson Parish, stores, restaurants, malls and gas stations remained shuttered, but Aucoin said he wasn't worried about supplies for the next few days. The power in his home had apparently stayed on for most of the time, because his freezer was still frozen and the food was unspoiled. He still had some gasoline, but didn't anticipate driving too far anyway.

"As soon as the employees get back here, the grocery stores and gas stations will be back open," he said, and he predicted it would be a matter of a few days.

The only problem was he had lost cable and therefore Internet service. He was hoping to make it to his nearby office where he works in commercial sales for a company that sells air conditioning equipment. The company had been very busy after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago, and he expected a smaller uptick in business after Gustav.

"I'm hoping the office is in decent shape," he said.

Early in the morning at the border between New Orleans and Jefferson Parish on the Airline Highway, police stopped motorists who were not essential personnel from returning. Those residents were not supposed to be allowed into Orleans Parish until midnight. But by late morning, the guards at the checkpoint began allowing everyone through, apparently following a policy revision announced by Mayor C. Ray Nagin on the radio.

One of those stopped in the morning was Michael Jackson, 51, a wholesale coffee roaster, traveling in a blue pickup with his poodle, Puff.

"He's dirty right now because we just rode a hurricane out," Jackson said, feeding Puff a hot dog in the parking lot of a strip mall where he pulled over.

Jackson had passed the storm with a relative in Baton Rouge and was trying to get back to his home in the Upper Ninth Ward. His last house, in the Lower Ninth Ward, was destroyed in the flooding during Katrina. Jackson was planning to test the checkpoint again later and try to make it home.

"I think it's going to be all right" back home in a city still without services, Jackson said. "I have canned goods at the house. If there's no power? I just left a house where the power was out for two days. I did a lot of cooking on the grill. I got a little fold-up grill in the truck."

Jackson happened to have stopped in a plaza owned by Celebration Church, and Jerry Ponson, the night watchman invited him over, presenting him with the hot dog for Puff. It was the first mouthful that Ponson hopes the church will be able to provide for hundreds if not thousands of people and pets returning home. The church provided the same service during the aftermath of Katrina.

"We're going to feed the people coming back," Ponson said. "There's no stores open, and there's no gas. They're coming back to what? The refrigerator's out and they're going to sweat the heat. Or, like the governor and the mayor said, 'Stay where you're at.' "

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