It was a Thursday, the first of September, just four days after Hurricane Katrina, and floodwater stood seven feet deep in the living room of Robert Bouchon's big brick house on Memphis Street in Lakeview, this city's largest middle-class, white neighborhood.

The Bouchon family, though, had already assembled an interim middle-class life on the outskirts of Houston, where Robert and his wife, Cathy, together with their three young children, had fled in their minivan.

They moved into a furnished two-bedroom apartment in a gated enclave in a suburb called Kingwood. They had enrolled the children in a Roman Catholic primary school similar to the one that was still underwater in Lakeview. They had also called State Farm Insurance to collect on their house and their BMW X3, a three-month-old SUV that was submerged in the driveway back home. They registered online for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and decided for the sake of family mental health not to watch news coverage of "the craziness" back in New Orleans.

"Everything was out of control, so we just kind of put on blinkers to our little Kingwood experience," Bouchon, 43, a soft-spoken structural engineer, said in a recent interview as he sat on a sofa in his Houston apartment.

When Katrina blew in and levees gave way, the high water, in many neighborhoods, was colorblind and classless. It clobbered Lakeview, a leafy and serene white area where longtime residents cannot remember serious flooding, as cruelly as the Lower Ninth Ward, a black neighborhood with a long, dismal history of high water.

But in New Orleans, where affluent whites live high and working-class blacks live low, the privileges of neighborhood quickly asserted themselves. For many, race and class predicted patterns of escape, dictating whether flight would be a nervous drive out of town or a caged week of torment and humiliation.

These days, as planners and politicians look ahead, many realize that the future of this city, which before the storm was more than two-thirds black and nearly one-third poor, swings on two simple questions:

Are residents coming home? If so, which ones?

It now appears that long-standing neighborhood differences in income and opportunity -- along with resentment over the ghastly exodus -- are shaping the stalled repopulation of this mostly empty city.

On the same day the Bouchons moved into the apartment in Houston, Ora Goines, 59, a retired hospital secretary, remained mired in chaos here, together with her daughter, her son-in-law and her two grandchildren, who are 13 and 2.

Their one-story, wood-frame house was underwater on Delery Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, and they had evacuated to one of the city's public hospitals, where Goines's daughter, Germaine Mills, 33, worked as a clerk and where employee families had been offered refuge.

But it soon turned into a prison, as storm water rose eight feet deep around University Hospital. Power, plumbing and air conditioning failed, and backup generators flooded. Most of the hospital's food reserves flooded before they could be moved to higher floors.

With toilets out, management ordered everyone -- 500 family members and staff, along with 110 patients -- to use buckets lined with infectious waste bags. They were supposed to pour in bleach to kill the smell. But on the fetid seventh floor, where Mills and her family were assigned, there was no bleach. By midweek, towering stacks of those bags made the entire hospital smell like a sewer. Staff workers smashed windows to let fresh air into the stifling building, which was later declared unsalvageable.

Four days after the storm, with military helicopters lancing across the city, staff members and their families were hungry, sweaty and stuck. Boats finally hauled them away to buses on Friday. "I wouldn't say I was scared; I was angry," Mills said. "Every day we got a different story about why the National Guard couldn't come and get us."

Her anger wilted into exhaustion during a 24-hour bus ride to a church shelter in Tyler, Tex. "Imagine sitting that long on a bus after what we had been through," she said. "Our body odors and the stench from a backed-up toilet on the bus -- it was just awful."

Will It Become Whiter?

Billions upon billions of federal dollars will be spent in coming months and years to rebuild the city's levees, to support new housing and clean up the colossal mess. There seems certain to be a massive increase in job opportunities, skilled and unskilled.

Still, anxiety is building that New Orleans will not bounce back as Chicago did after the fire or San Francisco after the quake. There is concern that it will be much smaller, whiter, richer and more homogeneous: an anodyne, theme-park version of the Big Easy dominated by highbrow restaurants and lowbrow bars of the unflooded French Quarter.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin pleaded last week for everyone to "come on home," saying there is no place else where they can find "red beans and rice and gumbo and all those things that you love."

This series will follow several displaced families -- from Memphis Street in affluent Lakeview that is 94 percent white and from Delery Street in the working-class, 98 percent black Lower Ninth Ward -- as they pick up the pieces of their lives and ponder the sanity of taking the mayor's advice.

Should they bring themselves and their children back to a below-sea-level city that, for all its sweet music and gastronomical allure, is largely a ruin, as well as a sitting duck for the next big storm?

Courtesy of Katrina, these families have much in common. They are shellshocked, scattered across the country and homesick. They are sick of insurance forms and worried about how their kids are getting by without their friends.

But there is already a compelling difference.

Memphis Street families believe that, if they want to, they will probably be able to rebuild in Lakeview and resume their lives.

Lakeview, where 66 percent of children go to private school and 49 percent of residents have a college degree, was pumped dry within three weeks of the storm.

Memphis Street smells now of bleach, which kills mold, and resounds to the thwack of crowbars and the whine of chain saws. Insurance adjusters have begun making rounds.

Robert Bouchon has already received a check for the $40,000 BMW he left parked next to his pool in his back yard when the family fled to Houston. State Farm has since hauled it away. He was the first on his block to hire workers to gut the first floor of his house down to the studs.

On Memphis Street, many of his neighbors are also busy organizing a comeback. Water has been turned back on and Gary Quaintance, three houses away from the Bouchons, has drained unspeakable greenish-brown liquid from his pool and refilled it twice. Many front lawns on Memphis Street have been piled high with kitchen and living room ruins, awaiting garbage trucks to haul it all away.

There was, however, much that was not ruined on the second floors of the many two-story houses along Memphis Street. Cathy Hughes, a copy editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, used her press credentials to get home three weeks after the storm to find that her musician son's precious drum set was safe inside an upstairs bathtub, where it had been stashed before Katrina.

'Go With the Flow'

For families from Delery Street, meanwhile, a realization is growing that the odds of coming back get longer each day.

"My life is moving on," said Mills, who lives now with in-laws an hour outside New Orleans in the town of Paincourtville, in Louisiana's sugar-cane country.

There, her husband, Terrelle, has a $7.50-an-hour job at an Ace Hardware store. Her mother, Ora, has a $7-an-hour job at a Big Lots discount store. Her 13-year-old, Kortney, is in a local public school, and Mills is planning to enroll in a nursing program in nearby Baton Rouge.

"I got to go with the flow," said Mills, whose fury lingers over the hardship her family endured while waiting five days for federal, state and city officials to figure out how to get them out of a major hospital. "I can't say we won't go back, but as of right now we are not going back."

In the Lower Ninth Ward, where more a third of residents lived in poverty and 6 percent had a college degree, a hastily rebuilt levee failed in late September to hold back the storm surge of Hurricane Rita. Most of the place was again submerged.

Parts of the neighborhood, including the Goines and Mills house on Delery Street, are still flooded and residents are still barred -- for their own safety, the city says -- from coming back on their own to see their homes.

Ora Goines's car, a mold-infested 1999 Hyundai Sonata that is not insured against flood damage, has been drifting around for weeks inside the chain-link fence that encircles her side yard. Her house is still standing, but much of her block on Delery appears to have been bombed, with cars flipped atop semi-collapsed roofs, telephone poles snapped in half. Her next-door neighbor's two-story house was ripped from its foundation and floated across the street.

Before Rita engulfed the neighborhood with water for the second time in less than a month, Goines, her daughter Germaine and the rest of her family tried to go back to see their house. Police would not let them get close.

Goines concedes that her house is a goner, and so does her insurance company, which has cut her a check for $66,000. She says, too, that she is a goner, as far as New Orleans is concerned.

"I decided that I don't have any use for New Orleans," she said recently in the dining room of her son-in-law's father's house in Paincourtville. Like her daughter, she sounds angry. "I wouldn't have thought like that, but it flooded, and I don't trust New Orleans anymore."

Planners have raised the possibility of razing much of the Lower Ninth Ward and turning it into a flood-plain park. It is talk that infuriates those who have been forced to flee and are resigned to the necessity of bulldozers.

"I know they are going to have to tear my house down," said Joan Howard, 36, a housekeeper, who lived across Delery Street from Goines. "But I believe it's only right that they build me another house -- if I decide to go back. I know it's like a war zone down there, mister. Everything is destroyed. But I got the flood insurance."

Howard and her husband, Danny, 50, a truck driver, live now in the western suburbs of Houston, where they say they nearly emptied their savings account to come up with three months' rent for a $527-a-month, one-bedroom apartment for themselves and Howard's two teenage children, Ashton and Ashley. They have furnished it with three air mattresses from Wal-Mart and a kitchen table and chairs from Goodwill Industries. Joan Howard's father bought them a big-screen TV.

Three times in the past three weeks, Howard and her family have tried to get back to see their house on Delery Street. The first time, they got past police, wrapped plastic bags around their legs up to their knees and waded. Howard said they had to stop when the stinky water reached their knees. Two more recent trips failed because their three-bedroom, one-story brick house, in perhaps the lowest corner of the one-time swamp that is the Lower Ninth Ward, is still inaccessible without hip boots and permission from police.

"Us being homeowners, this flooding has really thrown us on our side," said Howard, who had been in her house for 11 years. "We wasn't poor really. We was really blessed, but we had to work for it. We had a big, beautiful house."

The house stills stands, unlike many on the street. Inside, the ceiling has collapsed. Furniture, appliances and other contents appear to be have been run through a savage rinse cycle, as in a washing machine with toxic water. Webs of mold are everywhere, and the smell is horrific.

Anger over the possible razing of portions of the Ninth Ward is fueled by the neighborhood's high home ownership rate, which is nearly 60 percent, and by its many years of residential stability. Despite long-standing problems of crime, drug abuse and inferior public schools, families stayed in the community for generations, anchored by churches and block parties and friendship.

Howard and her family, who knew most of their neighbors on the block (although they have lost touch with all of them since the floods), often marched behind a brass band in the anniversary parade of the Big Nine social club as it wound its way through the Lower Ninth Ward. One year, Howard marched as a maid to the queen of the Big Nine.

Until the storm hit, nearly three-quarters of families in the Lower Ninth Ward had been in the same house since 1995. In this respect, the neighborhood was considerably more stable than Lakeview, where over the past decade 57 percent of families had been in the same house.

As when Hurricane Betsy washed out much of the Lower Ninth Ward in 1965, there is again widespread grumbling about a "plan" to create a whiter New Orleans.

Howard does not believe in white conspiracies, saying she has worked for too many "nice white people." Still, she remembers Betsy. "When she came through, they say the white man opened up the walls upon us."

Germaine Mills, too, is skeptical of conspiracy talk, but she says something is going on that is not right.

"I'm thinking they probably think less blacks, less crime," said Mills, who left her mother's house on the Sunday before the storm with only a change of clothes for herself and her family.

In Lakeview, which was recently described by a Times-Picayune headline as a decimated neighborhood where "Homes Are Sludge Pits With Little to Salvage," the notion of a hurricane conspiracy to remake the city strikes rebuilding residents as absurd.

"Why would you flood a whole city to run one set of residents out of town?" said Quaintance, 53, a retired policeman who plans to renovate the first floor of his Memphis Street house, doing most of the work himself. "It is just so ridiculous."

Officially Closed but Open

Robert Bouchon was one of the first residents to come back to Memphis Street. He tied a canoe to the front porch of his house on Sept. 13, two weeks after the storm. The city was officially closed to residents, but police and the National Guard were quietly allowing Lakeview residents in.

"It was very hot and very quiet," Bouchon said. "The tops of cypress trees were sticking out of the still water. There were no birds. It was pretty except for the fact that, you know, it was your neighborhood and it was underwater."

The front door was swollen shut, but he used a log to break down a side door, which opened onto the pantry.

"That's when it hit me," he said. "It was like a bad science experiment. The smell was just awful."

Furniture had floated from room to room. An antique mahogany dining table, which belonged to his wife's grandmother, had fallen to pieces. The water had risen high enough to take the paintings off the walls, which were bare and stained black from the flood. Mold had started to grow.

Boxes of brownie mix and bags of chips floated on the pantry floor. The Bouchons had long planned and hurriedly canceled a birthday party for Emma, their 12-year-old, for Saturday before the storm. In the refrigerator were 24 rotting hamburger patties that Bouchon and his wife had prepared for the party.

It was to have been the first chance for 15 kids from the neighborhood to swim in the Bouchon's new pool, completed just two weeks before Katrina.

After he drove back to Houston and told his wife, Cathy, about the house, she began waking up at all hours of the night.

"I would picture everything that I owned floating in that nasty water," she said. "Your mind can't stop. I was picturing the mold growing on my wedding dress."

A week later, Sept. 20, Robert returned home again. Memphis Street was impassible because of fallen trees, but it was dry. Lakeview was still officially closed, but authorities were letting many residents in.

In rubber boots and shorts, Bouchon slathered bleach on first-floor walls, found that nearly all the family photo albums had been ruined and rescued the kids' computer, which had been upstairs on the undamaged second flood and was fine. The children had begged him to fetch their video games.

Two weeks later, he hired a four-man crew that spent two days clearing out soggy sheetrock and dragging ruined kitchen appliances out to the front yard. As they worked, he found his wife's wedding dress, which had blackish-green tendrils of mold climbing up white satin, and hung it outside on the back porch.

As foul as the mess was, all the Bouchons wanted to do was go home.

"We miss our possessions, but mostly it is the neighborhood, our friends, the kids' friends," he said. "It was so close."

Memphis Street is in the heart of a neighborhood of middle-aged professionals and young families. Like the Bouchons, many had bought old houses in the past decade and rebuilt them with gourmet kitchens, wide-open family rooms and swimming pools out back.

Nearly all the children on the street went to St. Dominic Elementary School, just two blocks from the Bouchon's. Life on Memphis Street revolved around the school calendar, parish dinners and rotating Friday get-togethers at parents' houses.

Since Katrina, the Bouchons have been in constant contact with their scattered neighbors, by cell phone and by reading the St. Dominic Web site and its "Lakeview forum," on which there have been more than 1,330 postings.

As an engineer, Bouchon is certain that his house can safely be rebuilt. His quick decision to gut the first floor seems to have stopped the spread of mold. His flood insurance -- $180,000 for the house, $30,000 for its contents -- will probably not be enough to pay for the massive renovations needed to restore the house, which was worth about $650,000 before the flood, Bouchon said.

"Luckily, we have options," he said. "We had some savings."

He expects, too, that his business -- inspecting and designing foundations for residential and commercial buildings -- will boom in the rebuilding of New Orleans. He has already been asked to evaluate a number of damaged buildings.

But returning is not without its anxieties. What scares Bouchon and his wife is the levee -- just a half mile from their house -- that failed on the 17th Street Canal and deluged his neighborhood with outpouring from Lake Pontchartrain. A team of engineers from outside the city has concluded that floodwater did not overtop the levee; the barrier apparently gave way because of poor construction.

"Look, I am an engineer and I know how these things should be put together," Bouchon said. "Before the flood, I had no reason to believe the levees wouldn't work. Now, I have questions. This was not a natural flood, in my opinion. It shouldn't have happened. If they just rebuild the levee the way it was, that's not good enough.

"We want the neighborhood to come back; we want the school to come back. We just have to answer all these questions, and that will take time."

The Bouchon children -- Emma, Owen, 9, and Patrick, 7 -- have seen pictures of their house, but their parents do not believe it would be good for them to visit.

"We won't take them there for a while," Bouchon said. "It would be so overwhelming."

'Not Much Hope'

Mayor Nagin toured shelters in Louisiana last week, telling people that in New Orleans crime was down, wages were up and jobs were abundant. He promised a FEMA mobile home for those willing to come back.

Joseph Williams, formerly of 2513 Delery Street, is not even tempted.

In a two-car caravan, with his wife Kesa, his two children and his parents, he left the Lower Ninth Ward on the Saturday before Katrina and lives now in a three-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Atlanta.

"The mayor doesn't get paid unless he has citizens in the city," said Williams, 32. "Right now, there is not enough progress to change my mind. There aren't enough people back there and not much hope."

A probation officer in Jefferson Parish, Williams said he will begin work this month in a similar position with the Georgia Department of Corrections, but with a $4,000 jump in salary over the $24,000 a year he was being paid back home.

His wife, 28, an accountant, has done even better. Within a week of arriving in Atlanta, she found an accounting job at a small engineering company starting at $40,000 a year, a $14,000 raise over her job in New Orleans.

"There are good things that came out of this hurricane," Williams said.

Their daughter, Kayla, 7, attends a public school in the suburb of Riverdale, and Williams says it is a major improvement over Martin Luther King Jr. elementary in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"They are putting pressure on her at school here," he said. "In the long run, it will make her better."

Williams is part of a huge, multi-generational New Orleans extended family that he said has about 200 members, most of whom lived in the Lower Ninth Ward but are now scattered across Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia.

His mother and her nine siblings talk endlessly about going back, if the Lower Ninth Ward becomes livable, Williams said. But he and his brother and his many cousins, Williams said, have been keeping in touch on cell phones over recent weeks and are agreed that they are through with life in a city vulnerable to floods.

"We don't want to be in the position again," he said. "We are not as stubborn or headstrong as our parents' generation."

Marcelle's Diary

Marcelle Martinez, age 10, is the self-selected voice of Memphis Street.

When her neighbors down the street, the Bouchons, got their new swimming pool in mid-August, Marcelle popped by, interviewed the family and wrote it up for her newsletter, the Memphis Street Times. Before the flood and with the help of her mother, Marcelle published five issues on the family computer (since ruined by the flood).

When her parents loaded her and her brother Evan, 11, into the family car and fled the storm for the Midwest, Marcelle wrote her reaction in her diary:

"Here we are in Indiana. SIGH In case you don't know Katrina is a stupid hurrican that has completely destroyed my life. Well at least an entire year of it."

Marcelle, like her parents, expects her exile is temporary.

"I'm sure we will go back," she said. "I want all my neighbors to come back, and I want everything to be like it was."

Marcelle's parents cashed out some of their 401(k) retirement plan two weeks ago and bought a $210,000 house in Destrehan, a town on the Mississippi River about 35 miles west of New Orleans. They've enrolled the children in Catholic school there.

It is a holding pattern, something they hope will stabilize family life until they can rebuild in Lakeview.

"Look, the best thing we did in our lives was move into this house," Cathy Martinez, 42, said recently, while standing on the water-buckled, oak floor of her 3,000-square-foot house on Memphis Street, which she and her husband had spent most of the past four years remodeling. "We have lost more than a house. We have lost a way of life -- the way life should be."

Before the flood, she said, her block on Memphis Street was "like the '50s." She and her children walked to school, to church, to the supermarket and to the library. Cathy Martinez said she was one of five professionally trained women on Memphis Street who had chosen to given up their careers to raise children. Her husband, Ron, 48, a partner in a small architecture firm, had a 15-minute drive to the office.

Soaked with sweat from carrying intact second-floor furniture out to a rental truck, Ron Martinez said his flood insurance, capped at $250,000, would not pay enough to rebuild the house, which he said was worth about $600,000 before the storm. His expects his architecture firm, however, to prosper, with more work than it could handle as New Orleans rebuilds.

"The people on this street were all in position in their professional lives where we could live where we wanted, and it was here," he said. "The thought of not being able to come back here kills us."

Marcelle has been daydreaming about her bed on Memphis Street.

"I used to lie on the bed like the wrong way, with my legs and my head hanging off the sides," she said. "It would be cool if I could do that again."

Ora Goines, left, and her family have no plans to return to New Orleans.

Leslie Quaintance pauses during cleaning up. Her father plans to renovate their flooded first floor.

"I can't say we won't go back, but as of right now we are not going back," said Germaine Mills, whose house at Delery Street, in the background below, was wrecked by flooding from Katrina.

Already rebuilding his house, Robert Bouchon was one of the first to return. Authorities quietly allowed Lakeview residents into the officially closed city.

In Houston, Joan Howard, center at left, with Ashton Booker, 16, husband Danny Howard and Ashley Booker, 17, has mixed feelings about moving home. "I know they are going to have to tear my house down," Howard said. "But I believe it's only right that they build me another house."

"The thought of not being able to come back here kills us," said Ron Martinez, left, as he retrieves Legos for his son, Evan. He expects that the reconstruction of New Orleans will help his architecture firm prosper.

Lakeview friends Amy Quaintance, left, whose father will rebuild, and Gretchen Janssen chat behind the Quaintances' Memphis Street house.

Katrina left its mark on Delery Street, a working-class neighborhood whose residents are reluctant to move back to the Lower Ninth Ward.