NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Margaret Richmond stood watching, tears streaming down her face, as members of the 82nd Airborne Division used a crowbar to try to pry open the door of her looted antiques shop on the edge of the city’s upscale Garden District.

The store, Decor Splendide, had been looted in the chaotic days that followed Hurricane Katrina. Antique jewelry, a cement angel with one wing broken off and lamps were lying scattered on the floor. Someone had wedged a piece of metal in the door to jam it closed, hoping to deter other looters.

“What they didn’t steal they trashed,” Richmond said, gazing through a window of her shop, before the soldiers were able to break open the door. “They got what they could and ruined what they left.”

It was a scene repeated over and over Saturday as business owners were allowed back in to some sections of the city to begin the long process of cleaning up and rebuilding.

Mayor Ray Nagin said this week that he wanted to prepare some of the flood-ravaged city’s dry sections for the return of up to 180,000 residents over the next two weeks. His goal was to begin the city’s revival by resuming a limited amount of commerce.

But the head of the federal disaster relief effort said Saturday that the plan raises concern because of weakened levees, lack of drinkable water and heavily polluted floodwater.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen said federal officials have worked with the mayor and support his vision for repopulating the city, but he called Nagin’s idea to return up to 180,000 people to New Orleans in the next week both “extremely ambitious” and “extremely problematic.”

“Our intention is to work with the mayor … in a very frank, open and unvarnished manner,” Allen told The Associated Press in an interview at Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Baton Rouge.

Business owners, facing damage that could take months to repair, said hopes for a quick recovery may be little more than a political dream.

“I don’t know why they said people could come back and open their businesses,” said Richmond, whose insurance policy will cover the lost merchandise. “You can’t reopen this. And even if you could, there are no customers here.”

The Wal-Mart store in uptown New Orleans, built within the last year, survived the storm but was destroyed by looters.

“They took everything – all the electronics, the food, the bikes,” said John Stonaker, a Wal-Mart security officer. “People left their old clothes on the floor when they took new ones. The only thing left are the country-and-western CDs. You can still get a Shania Twain album.”

If the store had not been looted, it could be open in two weeks, Stonaker said. Now he doubts it will be open by January.

“They’ll have to gut it and start over,” he said.

Algiers, a residential area located across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, is scheduled to reopen Monday, the first neighborhood to welcome back residents. Uptown, including the historic Garden District neighborhood, also is scheduled to reopen next week.

Nagin said he wanted the French Quarter open for business by Sept. 26, but city officials have since backed off setting a date for reopening New Orleans’ oldest and most famous neighborhood, the main draw for tourists.

All the areas to be reopened in the week ahead were spared Katrina’s flooding. Electricity and clean water have been restored to some sections.

Some business owners in the French Quarter, which suffered only cosmetic damage, threw an impromptu street party Saturday, complete with a traditional feast of red beans and rice.

Donald Link, the chef and co-owner of Herbsaint, an upscale restaurant in the city’s arts district in New Orleans, evacuated to Lake Charles, La., leaving his house beneath 20 feet of flood water. He considered a number of job offers before deciding to return.

“I wasn’t sure there was any reason to try to go back,” Link said. “I really thought about starting somewhere else, but then I thought, ‘This is my restaurant, this is my city.”‘

The storm did not damage the restaurant, but the ensuing power failure spoiled his store of food.

“I looked at the lost food – the pig heads in brine were the worst,” said Link, who is famous for his earthy dishes. “And I thought I can’t do this. I can’t take it.”

Using a commercial gas mask he obtained from the oil refineries in Lake Charles, Link was able to empty the five coolers and freezers of their rotting food, enough to fill almost 70 garbage bags.

“Now we have to decontaminate the restaurant, probably get all new coolers and freezers,” Link said. “Once we open, it will be all new food, all new equipment.”

Link hopes to be doing business within three weeks. Some of the larger hotels already have been operating, hoping to generate income even as they repair damage.

The Hyatt was severely damaged, but some hotels along Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter had less recovery work ahead.

The Sheraton had damage to the top floors and to a huge ballroom where a retractable skylight and massive window were smashed. The hotel also had a solid disaster plan in place that included bringing in portable toilets, stockpiling water and sheltering the guests.

They began renting rooms two weeks after the storm. By Saturday, 100 rooms were taken at $249 each, mostly by FEMA workers and journalists. They had air conditioning and working bathrooms, thanks to water the company trucked in and treated. Twice-weekly maid service would start next week.

“We haven’t had any complaints,” General Manager Don King said.

But even its quick return to business won’t prevent the Sheraton from suffering big losses.

“We have insurance for the damage and for the interruption of business,” King said. “But the policies have huge deductibles, millions of dollars in deductibles.”



Associated Press Writer Doug Simpson contributed to this report from Baton Rouge.

AP-ES-09-17-05 1648EDT


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