This small suburb wasn't exactly wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. But for many of the people who were allowed to visit their homes Saturday for the first time, it might as well have been.

They won't be coming back again.

"I don't want it," Pete Maggio, 50, a millwork contractor said, gesturing from the sidewalk toward his brick home that he'd renovated just before the storm.

Like others facing their flooded homes for the first time on Saturday, Maggio said he'd find a house in another community farther inland, and St. Bernard Parish officials say privately that they are worried that most of the parish's 68,000 residents may never return.

Inside Maggio's home, there was thick green mold on the walls, inches of muck on the floor, his furniture turned upside down, and his dog Blackie dead. His wife could not speak of the damage without getting tearful.

"I could never put my family through this again," Maggio said. "It's devastating, and you know there's going to be more hurricanes."

Situated near Lake Borgne, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River just east of New Orleans, St. Bernard took some of the worst of Hurricane Katrina's flooding -- water flowed in from the north and from the east, from a breach in the Industrial Canal.

"It was the perfect storm -- it's a cliche but a fact," said Marine Maj. General Douglas V. O'Dell, who chose to bring his forces here because their amphibious vehicles were well-suited to the flooded terrain. "For our area of operations, this was ground zero."

Of the 25,000 homes in the parish, authorities estimate that more than half are damaged beyond repair -- and that may be a conservative estimate. Parish officials said they are afraid of scaring people away from returning, though they are putting on a brave face.

"Oh, yeah, we're going to be coming back better than ever," parish President Henry J. Rodriguez Jr. said. "You're going to find some people saying they're not coming back, and maybe a lot. But this is one of the best places in the world for fishing, and everybody loves to be on the water."

Besides, he said, "this storm was a one-in-a-million. I don't think we'll have another one for a long time."

But even those who came back Saturday and ventured that they might return said they felt that they were in limbo, either because their employers have moved out or because they lacked flood insurance -- several said they were not required to have it because they were not in a hazard zone.

It may be a long time before anyone can come back anyway.

Of the area's eight electrical substations, six are destroyed, O'Dell said. The working estimate for the restoration of power is 60 days.

"They talk about rebuilding all these homes, but there's no way," said George Ansardi, 50, a general contractor, standing outside his house. He pointed out that several buildings had floated off their foundations.

"I wish they'd just come in with a bulldozer -- get rid of it and get some closure," he said.

His wife agreed. She said it wasn't worth the emotional trauma of returning for one last glimpse. "They shouldn't have people coming back to see that everything they've worked for is gone," she said. "It's too much."

The return of residents to the parish, which officially began Saturday, brought some residents who held out hopes that something could be salvaged. One woman found her cat alive, though she said it had not been fed for more than two weeks. But many returned to their camps or hotels or relatives upstate empty-handed, and with dim thoughts about the future of a place that many had called home for generations.

"I was born and raised here, and believe me, I love my parish," said Randy Delise, 41, who owns a hardwood flooring business.

His father's house was here, and so was his grandfather's. "It was a beautiful community," he said. Then he paused and frowned. "Was," he said with emphasis.

Mindy Livaudais rests from cleaning up her home in St. Bernard Parish on the first day residents were allowed to return after Hurricane Katrina. Officials estimate half the community's homes will have to be rebuilt.