-- While much of the city remains empty and underwater, residents of some outskirts of New Orleans were allowed to return to their homes Sunday. They came praying Katrina had spared them. Many learned, bitterly, that it had not.
"If the water didn't get it, the wind did," said Mark Washington, 46, surveying his ruined trailer home in Belle Chasse, a southern suburb hunched hard against the levee in a curl of the Mississippi River.
Officials of Plaquemines Parish lifted their evacuation order for Belle Chasse and some other areas that remained mostly dry, where electricity and water service are being gradually restored. Some residents returned to stay, but others now know they face a future with no home.
"I really don't know where I'll go," said Melissa Trahan, 24, standing atop the heap of rubble that had been her home. She figured the winds here had spun into a small twister with its signature of oddities: Her parrot's cage was untouched -- the chatty bird welcomed her home -- and a blue porcelain teapot remained perched on a shelf, unmoved, as the house crashed down around it.
"I didn't think it was going to be this bad," she said, as she poked through the rubble. "I just left with some clothes. I thought I'd be coming back."
Many who returned to their homes Sunday had waited anxiously in shelters or with relatives for two weeks, with little news from this scruffy industrial quarter of the city. Here, modest one-story brick houses are interspersed with mobile homes particularly vulnerable to the ravages of nature.
Jane Smith, 52, spent the past two weeks in the home of a nephew with 42 other relatives closer to Baton Rouge, La. His generosity in taking in the huge clan was great, she acknowledged. "But I can't take another night sleeping on the tile floor of the kitchen," she said. "That gets bad."
When the evacuation order was lifted, she piled into a car with some of her kin, joining the line of cars threading past police and National Guard checkpoints to get to her neighborhood.
"I can't go in yet," a nervous Smith said when she arrived. "I need a cigarette first," she said, fumbling with a box of Kools. The storm had peeled part of the siding from her home, pierced a window and sent trees crashing beside it.
But when she braved going in, Smith found the tools she uses for work in a recycling plant and most of her belongings intact. She thinks the damage to the mobile home will probably force her to replace it.
She lives on a street that runs one block between a highway and the levee. On the opposite side of the levee, the river sparkled with benign beauty in the fierce afternoon sun. But evidence of its recent tempest lay in the huge buoy anchor and tremendous logs that had been thrown over the levee and into the street and lawns of Smith's community.
"Hey!" Smith yelled to her neighbor. "You looking for your bathtub? It's here in my yard."
The logs and fallen trees somehow missed the houses on her street, which from the outside appeared only battered. But Smith's neighbor, Mark Washington, found the storm had punched holes in the mobile home, and the peeled siding had let the rain soak the walls' sheetrock. Those were fatal wounds: The home would soon begin to rot and be uninhabitable, he said.
Across the street from him, Percy Johnson, 63, had a brick home, which withstood the winds better. But, unlike the mobile homes around him, it was not mounted on cement blocks, and the water rose a foot into the house he had just remodeled.
Worse than the damage from nature was that from man, he said. Thieves had broken through his glass door, stolen his computer and video recorder, and ruined his truck's steering column in trying to hot-wire the vehicle.
"I expected it from the storm. But the worst part was being broken into," said Johnson, a schoolteacher. "People took advantage of the fact that everybody was gone."
Several blocks away, Sean Shields, 44, was relieved to find his wooden chest full of blues LPs was intact, although winds had ripped off much of one side from his mobile home.
"I have nothing," he said of his prospects. "I'll just have to scratch like the chickens until FEMA kicks in."
Shields, a nurse technician, wondered about the effects of the pollutants fouling the waters he used to fish.
"With what's in there, we'll probably be catching fish with three eyes and a tail," he said. "It's an environmental hazard now."
In the central city of New Orleans, National Guard troops patrolled the dry areas and boats plied the areas still underwater, searching houses for the dead and living. The city had the air of an occupied area, eerily empty of those who live here, and peopled only by the caretakers of catastrophe: the police, Guard troops, utility workers and relief workers.
Recovery of bodies remains slow, with workers relieved to find that the large numbers predicted by the mayor of New Orleans have not materialized. But thousands of families are still splintered. Local radio stations broadcast a continuous dirge of appeals from desperate friends and relatives, seeking those lost in the confusion of the evacuation.
The stations are also broadcasting news of companies seeking their employees to restart, and of how to deal with federal disaster bureaucracies. But there were signs of returning normalcy: The broadcasts stopped Sunday for the play-by-play of the opening game of the National Football League's New Orleans Saints, a local passion. The Saints won, 23-20, over the Carolina Panthers.