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Publish Date: 9/20/2005

Wearing a mask and gloves to protect himself from the filth left by floodwaters in his St. Bernard Parish home, John Filizola thumbs through ruined family photos he found Sunday on the living room floor. Filizola said he grew up in the house and at least one person in his family has lived at the residence since the 1950s. Times-Call/Joshua Buck

Rita halts repopulation
Gulf Coast residents may be in harm’s way

NEW ORLEANS — Another storm is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, and there is no rest in sight for the weary population of St. Bernard Parish.

Communities in the Florida Keys are evacuating, while the people of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes uneasily listen to weather reports and pass along the news that they have heard about the ifs, whens and how-hards of Rita.

“We have a large number of generators, a large number of vehicles,” said Steve Cannizaro, the public affairs officer for St. Bernard Parish. “They are making plans to save the equipment that is here now.”

The threat of Tropical Storm Rita still was three days out Monday, but that was enough for parish officials to plan for yet another possible emergency.

Residents had been returning to the parish throughout the weekend to assess damage in their homes and businesses and to begin salvaging what they could.

Cannizaro said parish officials would consider suspending resident access to the parish today to keep from placing residents in further danger.

The potential for more lost lives and property also prompted a reversal to the northeast in New Orleans, where the mayor suspended the reopening of large portions of the city Monday and instead ordered nearly everyone out because of the risk of a new round of flooding.

“If we are off, I’d rather err on the side of conservatism to make sure we have everyone out,” Mayor Ray Nagin said.

The announcement came after repeated warnings from top federal officials — including President Bush — that New Orleans was not safe enough to reopen. In pressuring Nagin to suspend his repopulation plan, Bush said he had “deep concern” about the possibility that New Orleans’ temporarily patched-up levees could be breached again with the approach of Tropical Storm Rita.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, in a televised address Monday, urged residents of coastal southwest Louisiana to make preparations to leave.

“We are taking Rita very, very seriously,” Blanco said. “Prepare your family, prepare your house for the possibility of evacuation.”

Tropical Storm Rita was headed toward the Florida Keys and was expected to become a hurricane, cross the Gulf of Mexico, and reach Texas or Mexico by the weekend. But forecasters said it could veer in Louisiana’s direction.

“We’re watching Tropical Storm Rita’s projected path, and depending on its strength and how much rain falls, everything could change. Residents moving into the area may have to evacuate again,” said Col. Duane Gapinski, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers task force that is draining New Orleans and repairing the levees.

Once the danger from the storm is past, Cannizaro said, St. Bernard Parish would eventually come together to help rebuild the region.

“The message that the council and the parish president is trying to get out is ... we want to rebuild; we want this parish to grow again,” he said.

Before Katrina, the parish boasted a population of about 68,000 people and a low crime rate. It was a community where people knew their neighbors.

To St. Bernard residents, Cannizaro said, “We would like to come back when you get your insurance money or FEMA help. Come back. Rebuild.”

The Colorado National Guard has been the primary military support for the civilian government in the parish. About 620 of the 900 National Guard soldiers who are camped at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility are based out of Colorado. The 3650th Maintenance Unit, based out of Longmont, had 63 soldiers assisting with security and cleanup.

The return date for the Colorado soldiers still hasn’t been determined, although most estimates place it at the end of September.

“The guard’s help here has been phenomenal, you know,” St. Bernard Parish Councilman Craig Taffaro said. “We’re glad to have them. We actually wish they could stay longer.”

Until Monday, parish officials had been working out of an emergency operations center that was clogged with military personnel, medical workers, suppliers, contractors and others who are part of the rebuilding effort.

With the approach of the tropical storm, however, operations have been packed up and moved 160 miles north to the city of Alexandria.

Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273, or by e-mail at pshields@times-call.com.

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