NEW ORLEANS – President Bush called on Americans Monday to conserve fuel and cut non-essential car trips in the wake of two major hurricanes as residents and business owners of this storm-ravaged city trickled into reopened neighborhoods to resume the massive challenge of restarting lives and rebuilding the Big Easy.

Bush also directed federal agencies and departments to cut nonessential travel and urged federal employees to use car pools or mass transit to get to work.

Bush said everyone can “pitch-in” by “being better conservers of energy,” a remarkable shift in policy emphasis for an administration that has placed a premium on expanding supplies of oil even as gas prices spiked in recent months.

“People just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption,” Bush said after meeting with officials at the Energy Department.

The Bush administration was assessing the impact of Hurricane Rita, which roared through the Gulf Coast region Saturday and cut a swath through an area that accounts for some 29 percent of the country’s domestic output of crude oil production. There were reports, though, that refineries in the hurricane zone came through the storm without significant damage.

Rita came on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, large areas of Louisiana and Mississippi and parts of Alabama.

“If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail non-essential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees,” Bush said. “We can encourage employees to car pool or use mass transit. And we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There’s ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation.”

Bush also said he instructed Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to consider ways in which the Strategic Petroleum Reserve could be used to help lower gas prices. And he said the storms showed the country needed “additional refining capacity.”

“The storms have shown how fragile the balance is between supply and demand in America,” he said.

Bush also said he was still considering the appointment of a “reconstruction czar” for the storm-battered Gulf Coast, with reconstruction costs expected to cost in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

“Now there’s going to be a lot of federal involvement because we’re going to spend money – wisely, I might add,” Bush added.

The slow, fitful recovery could be seen on the ground in New Orleans, four weeks after Katrina struck, as parts of the city were reopened to residents and New Orleans officials pressed to quickly repopulate.

Among those to return to the Algiers neighborhood Monday were Mark and Gena Stephens and their daughters, Sara, 18, and Lindsey, 14. Their home was devastated by the storm.

“We lost our roof,” Gena Stephens, 35, said. “The roof caved in.”

“It’s a mold hotel,” said Mark Stephens, 48.

After spending around a month living in a church in Baton Rogue, the family said it will return for good to Algiers, living with Gena Stephens’ parents.

“We’re in an area that is secure,” Mark Stephens said. “Now, if we only had a job to go back to.”

Gena and Mark Stephens work for a company that sells books to schools, and most schools in this area are shut.

At the Greater St. Mary Baptist Church in Algiers, Pastor James Brown and a staff of volunteers continued to provide meals to around 1,000 people a day.

Brown said the neighborhood’s recovery will be slow but he remained confident that New Orleans could rebuild.

“We need the businesses back. That will build the momentum,” said Brown, whose church hall was filled with stacks of food and toiletry items that poured in from donations from across America and even around the world.

Algiers

There were few children present in Algiers, but one of the kids was 7-year-old Addison Lotz, who ate his meal of beans and a burger at the church hall while his mother Chere Lotz, 30, and grandmother, Jo Ann Lotz, 69, sat nearby.

The family is living together in an undamaged Algiers home. But the family refrigerator had to be trashed after the power went off and food rotted.

“I’m amazed at how much they have cleaned up Algiers,” Jo Ann Lotz said. “They are not finished but it’s in good shape.”

Chere Lotz hoped other families would return.

“We need people to come back and then everyone will feel safer,” she said. “We need people in a neighborhood.”

Back to life

All along the west bank, even outside New Orleans, the small towns were brought back to life as some restaurants, drug stores, gas stations, hair salons and even car dealerships reopened. Residents began the long job of clearing out the tree limbs and debris and restoring order in their homes.

Kirk and Katie Boudreaux had been away from their Terrytown home so long, it seemed a little foreign to them. On their first day back, their three children asked if they could all sleep in one room, until they could get used to the place again.

“It’s so quiet, it does seem a little spooky,” Katie Boudreaux said. “Hopefully if our neighbors come back and more people get back it will start to seem normal.”

Still visible

Although the stores were open and the west bank wasn’t the ghost town it had been, the after affects of the storm were still visible. At the grocery stores, customers had to stand in line in order to get in. And at the fast food restaurants, the last order had to be made well before the nightly curfew.

When Long Pham returned to his Gretna home and opened the front door, he was hit in the face with the stench of weeks-old, rotten seafood from his refrigerator that filled the entire lower level of his house.

Pham didn’t even bother trying to clean up the mess. He simply carted the refrigerator to the front of his house along with all the other trash and debris.

“It won’t work anymore,” he said. “Let the insurance company deal with it.”

As dozens of residents piled back into the west bank of New Orleans, many were thankful they didn’t have the flooding most of the city endured.

But throughout most of the residential neighborhoods, residents sealed their refrigerators with duct tape and carted them to the front lawn for the parish to dispose of.

“It smelled like bad fish and shrimp,” Pham said. “It stinks.”

At A-Cool Appliances in Marerro, the store was averaging about 10 refrigerator sales a day, owner Theresa Celino said. Before Hurricane Katrina, the small, independent store sold about three a week, she said.

“People are not wanting to face the smells or the rotten meat,” Celino said. “We’re talking maggots and everything else. I’m not trying to be gross, but it is. People don’t want to eat food where all that bacteria and filth has been.”


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