The Bud Light truck made a delivery on Bourbon Street, Brandon Gilmore picked up diapers at a neighborhood donation center, and Susan Koenig stood in yet another line -- this one at Western Union -- on Monday as New Orleans again attempted to come back from the dead.
Four weeks to the day after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city, a smattering of residents, business owners and contractors ventured back in. In 90-degree heat, the pioneers hammered plywood onto shattered windows, hauled refrigerators to the curb and searched in vain for an open gas station.
Only healthy adults -- no children, elderly or infirm -- were welcome in New Orleans, and only in a few select neighborhoods, according to a memo from Mayor C. Ray Nagin. And anyone returning faced a litany of warnings and advice.
"You are entering the City of New Orleans at your own risk, whether you are a business owner or resident. There are still many health and safety issues," the document begins. The mayor's memo suggests getting a tetanus shot and wearing a protective mask, and it advises in capital letters: "BRING A SUFFICIENT SUPPLY OF BOTTLED WATER FOR DRINKING, BATHING AND PERSONAL USE."
A week after Hurricane Rita and federal officials thwarted his plans to begin reopening the city, Nagin moved forward Monday with a modest effort. The first few allowed back into the city were downtown businesspeople and residents of Algiers, a neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River that received minimal storm damage and supplies its own power, water and sewer systems. Even with those services, few people returned and many said it would be difficult to stay with little in the way of food, gasoline, banks or medical facilities available.
"This is the grocery store for most people," Barbara Longworth said as she distributed paper towels, baby food and canned goods from a tent in an Algiers parking lot. "I came for aid the first day, then I realized they needed help."
The provisions came from the Church of Christ in Baton Rouge. The Salvation Army passed out sandwiches, and California National Guardsmen distributed bags of ice and cases of water. One grocery store has opened in Algiers, but lines were long and many people said they did not have much money.
Gilmore, 25, lost his job as a computer technician when his employer fled Katrina for Texas. On Monday he was collecting a few free supplies and looking for work to support his son and girlfriend.
"I don't want to leave my family," he said. "I think I'll be able to make money doing hard labor like construction."
Coming home required patience and flexibility. With New Orleans police stopping every car that tried to enter the city, traffic quickly backed up on Interstate 10. At mid-morning, the line was growing at the Western Union counter in neighboring Jefferson Parish, where people went to collect relief payments from the Red Cross.
"We did this last Thursday, but Western Union went down because of Rita," Koenig said. Though she applauded fellow Algiers residents for coming back to start cleaning up the neighborhood, Koenig said it was false advertising by City Council member Jackie Clarkson to say the area was up and running.
"She cut the ribbon, but she needs to tie it back on," Koenig said, as many in line agreed. "She got on television and said everything is open. The only things open in Algiers is a Winn-Dixie that stinks and a Walgreens. There is not one place to eat. They haven't picked up our garbage."
In the French Quarter, where pockets of bar owners and patrons have partied straight through two hurricanes, pigeons and flies feasted on garbage. Music blared from a handful of strip joints.
Much of downtown resembled a construction site. But some of the heavy equipment was parked in the Canal Street median, which is usually filled with trolley cars.
Jake Krieger said his Metairie contracting business is looking to hire skilled carpenters and electricians. As his crew removed tables and chairs from Seafood & Co., Krieger estimated it would take at least a month to replace moldy drywall and make other repairs.
"With as many flooded homes and businesses that I've seen, it's going to be a slow process," he said. "It'll be at least a year before you see any semblance of normalcy."