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U.S.: Only The Stench Drives Survivors From New Orleans (Part 3)

Michelle Joe’s New Orleans home was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but it was the stench of the city’s chemical- and corpse-ridden waters that finally drove her family from the legendary city. Homeless and without work, they are surviving on insurance cash and government handouts -- and sheltering in a trailer park north of New Orleans. Joe is grateful to the park’s owner, Roy Estay, but has lost hope of going home soon -- and despairs at how her family can possibly begin to rebuild their lives. RFE/RL looks at their ordeal in part three of a five-part series on Hurricane Katrina.

Estay RV Park, Louisiana; 9 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Michelle Joe really wanted to stay in her New Orleans home, despite its damage by Hurricane Katrina.

But after trying to repair her home’s destroyed wooden floors, it was finally the horrific stench of the water covering New Orleans -- a toxic brew of sewage, chemicals and rotting corpses -- that drove her out.

“And in the process to try to pull that [floor] up we all got sick because the smell is so bad and then because there are little creatures underneath the hardwood floors and we couldn’t do anymore, so we just hope the insurance company will accept that. We tried to go in and salvage what we could and salvage the house but it’s just too bad,” she says.

With 60 percent of New Orleans underwater, and thousands believed to have been killed, stories like Joe’s have become commonplace.

Joe, 39, has been living for more than a week at a trailer park north of New Orleans with her two children and jobless husband. She says she is grateful to Roy Estay, the park owner who is hosting 18 displaced New Orleans families in his mobile homes.

Estay tells RFE/RL he feels very lucky that his trailer park suffered little damage. “I’ve got a lot of trees down, the yard was full of debris. I’ve got roofing and stuff from the church next door. No water damage, just mostly trees and lamps and I’ve got few shingles off the house. That’s minor," he says. "Other than that everything is OK, my family’s all here, everybody’s doing great, helping and healthy.”

His sister lives in a severely flooded part of New Orleans. The roof of her house caved in, he says, and they are trying to salvage whatever they can.

Several people whose houses have been in some of the heavily flooded parts of the city have relocated to the trailer park, and more trailers are being brought in by FEMA, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinating the rebuilding efforts. The trailers provide basic comfort including a stove, refrigerator and TV, but it’s no house:

“It’s bad. A lot of them that’s coming in here, it’s shocking. The only thing they have is what’s on their back, man. It hurts,” Estay says.

New Orleans is unrecognizable. Death and destruction are everywhere. “The New York Times” reported today that the macabre has become so common, that a dead body lay decomposing for days in a dry part of the city before anybody even bothered to remove it.

The usually calm Estay, 62, visibly tenses where he hears stories about loose snipers shooting at police in New Orleans who are trying to get residents out of the city.

“People trying to clean up and do rescue work and you got people shooting at them," he says. "Man, look, if you see somebody out there that’s not supposed to be there and he has a weapon -- don’t ask questions, just put him in with the rest of the fatalities. I’m sorry I feel that way; times are rough, man.”

In Joe’s neighborhood, trees are and electrical poles are down. Trying to find a contractor is impossible. And she and her family do not qualify for FEMA assistance because they have homeowner’s insurance.

Moreover, she doesn’t want to keep her children in a shelter because of a fear of disease.

“I have two kids and you hear all the medical people that keep coming on the radio and things like that and saying that people that are rescued and that are staying in shelters -- there’s a possibility of meningitis going around and tuberculosis and things like that," Joe says. "I can’t, I’ll do whatever I have to make sure that my kids stay healthy, that’s the most important thing.”

U.S. President George W. Bush warned Americans today to expect “a very ugly situation” as water is pumped from New Orleans and more corpses are revealed.

The official death toll remains in the hundreds but is expected to rise into the thousands. Louisiana health officials said yesterday they had 25,000 body bags on hand, should they be needed.

As for Joe, she’s scraping by on money from her insurance company. She searches newspaper and Internet adds for accommodation in Dallas where she would like to move permanently. But Dallas is expensive compared to New Orleans, she says, and monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment could easily cost $1,100. Still, she thinks there is no way back to New Orleans, at least not in the next two or three years.

“The city is not. So the businesses are going under, my husband works in New Orleans, is a delivery driver, all of his routes are underwater. And it could take years and years for New Orleans to be established again, so he doesn’t have a job,” she says.

To help out families such Joe’s, FEMA has begun providing vouchers to buy food and well as $2,000 to each Katrina evacuee.

It’s not much but survivors like Joe say it’s a start -- even if the road ahead is long.

Audio Slideshow: Inside The Baton Rouge Shelter Real Audio, Windows Media

See also:

Despite Wealth, America Not Prepared For Disaster (Part 1)

Hurricane Devastates New Orleans, Unique American City (Part 2)

Volunteers Provide Shelter To Homeless Victims (Part 4)

Damage From Katrina Poses Risks For Global Energy Market (Part 5)