Ninth ward: The hardest Nola story yet

Normally a Charlottesville-based home inspector, Peter Drenan is on special assignment as a FEMA leader and a Hook stringer. This is the fifth in a series of dispatches from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

It's Thanksgiving Day, almost three months since the hurricanes hit.

Still, to this date, nobody has been into the lower Ninth Ward. It was the epicenter and the iconic symbol of the devastation. It's sacred. Everything about it is simply too sensitive and heartbreaking to address.

Until now.

Returning residents are able to see their former neighborhoods only from buses as they slowly roll through the few passable streets. The residents seem like witnesses to a strange spectacle from behind the sealed bus windows.

They see entire city blocks, several blocks wide and long, where everything has been obliterated. They see other areas where the houses are piled three or four deep– held in place by a barricade of trees.

In other areas, houses are reduced to shards, some recognizable, but most not. And finally, the quiet result of floodwaters that reached the ceilings and filled these houses for over a month: ubiquitous decay and mold. Not nearly so dramatic as shattering levees and surging floods, but the impact is no less damaging.

The insides of many structures have been reduced to a monotone quagmire of unrecognizable entrails. Silt and sediment color all personal belongings in a blanket of sameness. The drywall has collapsed from the weight of the waterlogged materials. Attic treasures have fallen through open rafters to become part of the sameness. As a final act of dreariness, everything is covered with a thick fur of mold. Searching for family treasures would be difficult. And the effort is heart-wrenching and discouraging.

Despite the obstacles, each resident, each family member, and each neighborhood deserve the right to make their own decision about their destiny. Their lives have been disrupted and controlled by the storms, then by FEMA and all the other governmental agencies that help. They feel completely at the mercy of the bureaucrats with their unassailable mandates and doctrines. They have been victims of forces beyond their control for months while their lives have been shattered.

Mayor Ray Nagin announced two weeks ago that the Ninth Ward would be open for unlimited "look and leave" by December 1. This first move to open the Ninth Ward to the residents is a small step that means big things.

The Mayor wants residents to be able to come back and get out and walk around their former neighborhood. To touch the earth. To see for themselves what has become of their homes, their neighbors, their lives. This is the first time they can see what they can build from or what must be torn down– or what they must leave behind.

The choices are horrible. Nobody should be forced to make these choices after working a lifetime– or multiple generations– to build a home, a life, and a community. The most important thing we can do is help them as they face these awful choices. So we need to clear the roads to allow residents to come home.

We've been working with the City developing a strategy for entering this sacred ground. We cannot be sensitive or careful enough. The cadaver dogs are still searching and, sadly, still finding bodies. Once the wreckage is dismantled, we expect to find many more.

There are houses atop cars in the middle of the street– perhaps someone was driving away to escape. There are houses atop houses– no doorway was available to escape the terror. As the water climbed higher, people hid in the attics hoping for rescue. We don't know what we will find there.

The piles of debris themselves must be slowly, carefully picked apart because bodies are almost certainly still within. There will be no heavy equipment moving large masses of materials; small, delicate operations will be the rule here.

Over half of my crew are local hires. They've lost their former lives and jobs, and yet they're grateful for the chance to work and provide for their families. A couple of young men have been supervising the area around the Ninth Ward, and I've been impressed with their work– sharp, self-motivated, and insightful. Their observations are meaningful and their reports succinct. They're about to become the wardens of the Ninth Ward.

Supervising this effort would be difficult for a grizzled veteran of many disasters. We don't have that luxury. My crews have been working for almost eight weeks now. They have experienced more devastation than most people will see in a lifetime. I have no choice. I have to ask them to step up and run this operation.

We meet every morning at six to talk about yesterday's events and plan for today. After the normal assignments and kidding around that naturally comes with working in these conditions, I stand to address the entire team, "This is it. Today's the day we've all known was coming." The tone in my voice catches their attention. The words catch in my throat as I lay out the strategy.

The two young Ninth Ward captains look at me, their faces filled with questions. I can see their chests fill as they steel themselves. Then a simple nod of their heads, "Yes. We can do this."

That's all they needed to say.

That's all there was to say.