Editor's Note: Erick Studenicka, of Carson City, is a sergeant first class in the Nevada Army National Guard. He is temporarily working with the Guard's Public Affairs staff in New Orleans. The National Guard has about 15,000 soldiers and airmen deployed in support of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Studenicka and four other Nevada Guard soldiers return to Reno today.
NEW ORLEANS - During her first visit to what remained of her Urqurt Street home in the hurricane-ravaged Ninth Ward, Marie Johnson was able to salvage her daughter's diploma and some souvenirs from a recent trip to Mexico.
The one item she hoped to recover - the only photo of her father with all of his grandchildren - was, like the majority of the neighborhood, destroyed beyond recognition.
"All I can say is 'Wow,'" said Johnson, 56, who fled to Grosstete, La., when the Industrial Canal levee breeched on Aug. 30. "My washing machine is upside down and the refrigerator is in the back yard. But all of my family got safely out."
Johnson was one of several hundred people who was allowed to visit her home in the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time on Wednesday.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin had declared the area safe for visits on Tuesday after the New Orleans Police Department and National Guard soldiers secured the area. Residents were told to "look and leave" the area as quickly as possible.
Some areas of the Ninth Ward, which had suffered through as much as 12 feet of flooding following the initial levee breech during Hurricane Katrina and re-breech caused by Hurricane Rita, remained too dangerous to enter and were barricaded and guarded by National Guard military police. Residents entering the ward were told to get an updated tetanus shot prior to entry and to wear masks, rubber boots and gloves.
"It is important for people to see their homes and move forward with the process of building a new future for their families," Nagin said.
It is expected the majority of the Ninth Ward will be razed, but Nagin wanted to give families an opportunity to return and see the extent of the damage. This could also be the one opportunity some people have to gather personal items before the inevitable bulldozing of the devastated neighborhood begins.
Although the receding waters show the Ninth Ward is completely devastated and will have to be built from the ground up, there are optimistic signs throughout New Orleans that life is returning to normal in the country's original "sin city."
The curfew in the city was extended from 8 p.m. until midnight last weekend. More than 50 percent of the businesses in the French Quarter have reopened and The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper is once again being printed in the city after moving its operating location to Baton Rouge for more than a month.
But the recovery is not going to happen overnight.
Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commander of the southwestern division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has estimated that it may take up to 30 months to complete necessary infrastructure repairs.
"At the beginning it was totally overwhelming. We had soldiers and civilians from 12 states who had never worked together, but we are ahead of schedule," he said. "We are pulling together. We have been dubbed Taskforce Hope because we are making a difference."