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Columbia Spectator Staff

NEW ORLEANS, March 16-The kitchen cabinets were stocked with unopened bottles of ketchup and Tabasco sauce and a full spice rack. In the baby's room, the Winnie the Pooh clock still kept the time. But the clothes in the closet were stuck together with mold, and shoes crumbled when touched. The calendar hanging in the master bedroom still showed August.

Two days after volunteers walked through the home and began removing everything from it, the house was almost mold-free-and reduced to its original wooden frame.

New Orleans East was one of the areas that was hit the hardest by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods. Almost seven months later, most of the houses are untouched, with only the water removed.

The streets are lined with what was once the inside of the houses-moldy toys, books, diplomas, and photographs mixed with fiberglass insulation, drywall, and the occasional item that can no longer be hidden-a rusted revolver or a pile of pornography magazines.

In one house, four feet of water sat stagnant for almost a month before being pumped out. In another, the watermarks are an inch from the ceiling. In the bedrooms, the beds were tipped on top of one another. The dressers were on their sides with clothing tangled in the blankets. A birthday card disintegrating on a cracked mirror read, "happy birthday baby girl. Sweet sixteen." In the dining room, a backpack hung from the chandelier.

The tub was still full of some of the flood water, brackish and hidden beneath clothing, toys, and pieces of wall. When the layers of debris were removed, a smell of sulfur and rot filled the house.

The neighborhood, unless interrupted by the sounds of volunteers or contractors gutting houses, was silent. Almost no residents have moved back to their homes, and the stores and schools that once supported this area have not reopened.

"We're just waiting for neighbors to move back in," said Thomas, a resident of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, as he cleaned up his friend's New Orleans East garden. "Everyone is waiting for someone to make the first move. This guy's doing it. He'll be back within the month," he said.

Thomas's friend will be one of the first on his block to return, and it will only be the beginning of a long process of recovery. "We've got all sorts of things growing," Thomas said as he pulled scallions from the yard. "I wouldn't eat them [the scallions], though," he said; toxins mixed with the floodwaters have contaminated much of the soil.

Thomas himself is living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in the Ninth Ward, which is often cited as the hardest hit district in the city. "It's nice and quiet," he said. "It's right across the street from a graveyard." In the direct path of a levee failure, the houses were swept off their foundations, leaving clearings that have only the outlines of the houses that were once there and remnants of homes tipped sideways or tossed on top of cars.

Addresses are spray-painted on the roads to mark where houses once stood. These houses, for the most part, are too destroyed to be gutted, and signs of reconstruction are almost entirely absent.

But signs of determination are present throughout the city. "I am coming home! I will rebuild! I am New Orleans" signs adorn a front yard, and "No trespassing! This is still my home" is scrawled in spray paint across a garage door. "Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again," another slogan reads.

"Make levees, not war," a bumper sticker challenged, and a child dressed for the Jewish holiday of Purim wore the omnipresent X, which was sprayed on all houses that were checked for bodies, on his shirt. A sign in a French Quarter store reads "Katrina, you bitch, I'm never speaking to you again."

Though signs of Katrina are still present-some French Quarter buildings have X's painted on doors and Department of Health "approved for re-opening" signs in the windows-the city's vitality is returning. Bourbon Street, famous for its Mardi Gras ribaldry, was full of drunken tourists (and college volunteers escaping their daily work), jazz music flowed out of bars, and people danced in the streets. In the higher parts of the city, notable for large colorful houses with long front porches, some roofs are covered with tarps, but private and charter schools are open, and residents collect their newspapers in their pajamas in the morning. Blue Frog, a chocolate store in the area, boasted a banner that read, "Now open. Chocolate therapy."

"As soon as there is sheetrock in one room, I'm moving in," said Tracy, who was watching the installation of insulation in his New Orleans East home. He predicated that he will be the third or fourth person to move back to his block. Tracy, who went to Tennessee just before Katrina hit and is now in an unaffected part of the city, said that he comes to his house just to watch the construction and to wash his truck, so he can feel like he is at home.

The only thing he saved from his house, which was flooded up to a few inches from the ceiling, was a barbecue grill because it's been the center of "so many good times." Though he said he knows it is unusable, he can't bring himself to throw it out until he can buy a new one and have a barbecue when people move back. He said he expects all but two of the families on his block to move back, some as soon as the beginning of April.