"We've got (portable) heaters," says Steve Glynn, chief of special operations for the NOFD. "They're just like fire."
Behind the men are a yellow building and a neat stack of fresh-cut logs. The blade of a yellow fire ax rests in a stump. Several feet away, a lone firefighter sits at a table, manning one of two laptop computers.
Across the street from the firefighters' makeshift command center is the PeteÊ Sanchez Multi-purpose community center at Caffin and North Claiborne avenues.
Before Katrina, this corner of the Lower Ninth Ward was perhaps best recognized as the starting point for the city's annual Martin Luther King Day peace march.ÊToday, the intersection is a grim gateway to a devastated neighborhood, which, according to Glynn, may have suffered Katrina's deadliest blow in Orleans Parish.
The killer storm pushed water more than 20 miles inland, up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping channel, flooding tens of thousands of homes in St. Bernard Parish and, to the east, the Lower Ninth Ward of neighboring Orleans Parish. "We've never seen anything like this," says Wade Ragas, a recently retired professor of real estate studies at the University of New Orleans.
Of the more than 1,000 storm-related deaths in Louisiana, at least 700 bodies were found in Orleans Parish. The rest were recovered in St. Bernard Parish.
Since Oct. 10, when the New Orleans Fire Department assumed command of search-and-recovery efforts for the entire city, Glynn's team has found 49 bodies. Most of the dead have been recovered in the Lower Nine, a neighborhood of some 5,600 modest, mostly one-story homes bounded by the Industrial Canal to the west, the Mississippi River to the south, a swamp to the north and the St. Bernard Parish line to the east. In November alone, 12 of the 16 bodies recovered locally were found in the Lower Nine, Glynn said, noting that his 14-member team now focuses its efforts in the 220 square blocks north of North Claiborne Avenue. He says the search area was selected because of the concentration of wreckage.
The damage is more awesome the closer one gets to a now-repaired breach in the Industrial Canal. Houses, swept off their slabs, rest atop crushed cars. The blown-out side of a house exposes a kitchen and its clean, white stove. Cars with muddied windows lay strewn about like discarded toys. "We expect we'll find more (bodies) when they (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) start moving those rubble piles," Glynn says. "We searched some with the cadaver dogs, but the area was too concentrated."
Firefighter Kevin Harrell, a team member, elaborates on the search as he warms his hands by the fire.
"It's like when you go into your house and smell gas," Harrell says. "If you smell gas everywhere, you can't tell where the leak is, you just have to open the windows or get out the house."
Similarly, Harrell says, the cadaver dogs are more effective when they are tracing one scent of one body in a limited area.Ê
Glynn's team works 16-hour shifts, aided by a missing persons list. The list originally bore 2,000 names, but many have since turned up alive elsewhere or have since been accounted for. "We have a few addresses yet to cover," the chief says.
On Dec. 1, Glynn's team took on extra duties when Mayor Ray Nagin reopened the Lower Nine for indefinite "look and leave" visits by returning residents.Ê
Nagin said the visits are an opportunity for residents to salvage what they can from their flooded homes -- but only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
The signal lights were still out at Caffin and Claiborne, which was choked with traffic the first day. A total of 671 vehicles passed into the area, carrying more than 1,000 people.
Red Cross, FEMA, the Salvation Army and mental health counselors all were on hand in the parking lot of the Sanchez Center to help returning residents. Cleanup kits, food, water and restrooms also were provided at a tent.
Glynn's team quickly switched its focus from a search for the dead to a concern for the safety of the living. Numerous houses are unstable and marked for demolition by red tags. "We hope people will stay out of the red-tagged houses and call us if they need assistance salvaging waterproof containers, safes, and valuables," he says.
At the corner of Forstall and Rocheblave streets, Palazzolo Simmons, 49, hoists a rusting bicycle from the wreckage of his family's home. He then climbs up on the roof, which lays in the side yard next to the house, taps the kick-stand with his foot and triumphantly parks the bike on the roof. "I ain't selling nothing," the disabled construction worker says of his ruined house and the lot underneath. "Everybody I talked to here says they ain't selling nothing."
Relatives and friends say Simmons was here the day the levee of the nearby Industrial Canal broke, flooding this residential neighborhood of mostly working-class African Americans in the poorest section of New Orleans. "My neighbor drowned in this blue-and-white house," Simmons says, pointing toward wreckage closer to the Canal. "Every time I come here, I feel a messed up vibe. The system failed us."
Simmons recalls that he swam for his life as the water poured into his neighborhood, pushing homes off their slabs and sending people scrambling to their rooftops and attics for safety.
"There were women and kids floating on top of a whole wall," he recalls, excitedly pointing toward the canal. As they drifted by, he says, some lost their grips and disappeared from sight. "I couldn't do nothing for them because I was trying to save my own life," he said. "I feel for them, though."
Simmons was later rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter and ultimately evacuated to Houston. He has since returned and now stays in another section of New Orleans with his mother, who is paralyzed, and his father, who is blind.
One by one, Simmons' cousins and neighbors show up near his house, and a day of somber reclamation becomes a joyous street-corner reunion. "Everybody knows everybody here," saysÊSimmons' sister Yolanda Miller of Waynesboro, Miss. "We felt safe here." She says she saved a brick from the ruined house and plans to put it in front of an oak tree in her yard in Mississippi. "I'm going to put my whole family's name on that tree. Let them know this brick is the foundation of the family," Miller says.
Simmons and Miller say their mother declined to join the family for their return home, three months after Katrina leveled the neighborhood. "My mother has been through five storms" and suffered one of several strokes during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Miller says. "She didn't want to come back. She's had enough."
Nearby, Thomas Smith, 35, a neighbor of the Simmons family, squints into a camcorder. He films the ruins of a house owned by his sister-in-law. Smith says he escaped Katrina by evacuating his pregnant wife and two children to San Francisco. Today marks his first day home in the Ninth Ward. "You can't do nothing with this," he says, gesturing toward his ruined neighborhood as his eyes tear up. "You can't rebuild from this."
Another friend of Simmons', Stanley Rogers, 45, says he is home to rebuild his house and his electrical business. Both were destroyed in the storm. Rogers says he escaped Katrina's flood in a boat with his wife and their three children. Since then, he says, it is clear to him that God has a plan for his life. "The good Lord left me here to survive and take care of (my) babies," he says. "His will be done, and I can't question Him. He runs the show."Ê
Five days later, the stream of returning residents has dropped to a trickle. Chief Glynn happily reports that no returning residents have been injured since the Lower Nine reopened. The firefighters' work has not gone unnoticed.
A steady procession of dignitaries, notables and news media crews have toured the search area since CNN broadcast images of the destruction around the world. Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England, and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of York, came last month. Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League, visited last week. Other big-name visitors include Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin.
Harrell and Capt. Autrey Plaisance were chosen to represent the NOFD when Prince Charles and Camilla visited emergency workers and Ninth Ward homeowners last month. Harrell says he never thought he'd meet the future king of England -- and certainly not in the Ninth Ward. Still, expectations of serendipity among the powerful and the famous seem to pale amid the ruins of Katrina "You think you're going to get some phenomenal comment or question," but it does not happen, Harrell says.Ê
For example, Prince Charles "commented on the devastation and the resiliency of a lot of people trying to clean it back up," Harrell recalls. He offered condolences to the families and the recovery workers for the difficult days ahead.ÊThe prince shook hands with Harrell and Plaisance, and asked them about their families and their West Bank homes, both undamaged. "It was basically normal conversation," Harrell said.
As the firefighters recalled their brush with British royalty, a bespectacled African-American man in a gray jogging suit walked casually up to another group of firefighters standing about 10 feet away. It was filmmaker Spike Lee.
Harrell walks over and talks briefly with Lee, poses for pictures, then returns to the warmth of the fire.
Did Spike Lee say anything different than Prince Charles?, a reporter asks.
"No," Harrell replies. "Just regular conversation."Ê
Christmas is approaching, but there are no holiday decorations at the corner of Caffin and Claiborne. The topic does not even come up among the shivering firefighters gathered around the fire. Their work is not yet done.Ê
Somewhere in the rubble of twisted homes and cars are the rest of the city's dead, unknown and unburied -- but not yet forgotten.