Katrina-ravaged Gulf fearing Gustav's wrath

A big sign at the harbor here encourages: “Think Positive, St. Bernard!” But after three years in a government trailer, Beth Basile is finding that hard to do.

Nearly every structure in St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, was damaged or destroyed when the levees protecting the area failed during Hurricane Katrina. Basile was about a month away from finding out whether a grant would come through to finally redo the floors and replace the asbestos siding on the two-bedroom house she and her husband, Bubby, were renting to own.

Hurricane Gustav is just a few days away from striking. As she prepared to evacuate, she wondered whether there would be anything left.

“If it's like Katrina, they might not let us back,” says the 52-year-old old Wal-Mart cashier, her eyes baggy and smudged with worry. “They might put a fence around the whole parish and say, ‘Go away.'”

In places like St. Bernard, the Lower 9th Ward, and trailer parks along the Gulf Coast, those still reeling from Katrina are now the most vulnerable to Hurricane Gustav.

Though Gustav wasn't expected to hit New Orleans directly, officials announced that there would be mandatory evacuations. Anyone caught violating a 24-hour curfew would be arrested and transported to Angola State Prison.

Eleven-year-old Brandon Sass told his dad many of the girls at his school broke down on Friday.

“He said a bunch of the kids over there was crying and saying they may not come back,” Gary Sass said as he performed last-minute oil changes on the family's car and truck in preparation for leaving.

His wife Deana's shirt was soaked through from her efforts to make room in the truck for their belongings, two dogs and four rabbits. They left two rabbits behind in 2005, and they drowned.

The family's red and white house looks as good as new. But Sass owes a $40,000 small-business loan, and his mortgage isn't getting any lower.

“I'm trying to be optimistic,” the 46-year-old construction worker said, rubbing grease from his hands. “But Kentucky's looking better and better.”

The Sasses' neighborhood, like most in St. Bernard, is still a patchwork of renovated homes, government trailers and empty slabs. The gate on the house next door to the Sasses still bears a bright red “X” left by rescuers searching for survivors after Katrina; a yellow sign with another red “X” hangs in the window, marking the home for “involuntary demolition.”

Across the street, Maria DiMaggio lacked just a little electrical work before being able to move back into her two-bedroom home. The 42-year-old disabled woman was working to beat a Sept. 15 deadline to vacate the government trailer she shares with her 83-year-old father, Joe.

“We've got floors – beautiful brand-new floors,” she said as her three dogs milled around the kitchen cot where she sleeps. “I mean, my house is not even finished and, then, what? It's going to float away again?”

All but one of her four siblings left the parish after Katrina. If Gustav destroys her house again, she says she will follow them.

“I was hoping to get all the way right at least before another hurricane came and ate up my world,” said DiMaggio, who lost $22,000 to unscrupulous contractors. “If I would have been in my house for a day it would have been OK. Then I could have dealt with it.…

“But I can't do this again.”

New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward was the symbol for all that seemed to go wrong after Katrina – poor residents, many without a means to get out on their own, stayed behind. As the waters rose, many sought refuge on their roofs and had to be plucked away to safety.

Peter Scott was one of those who was rescued from a rooftop. This time, the 61-year-old left his 9th Ward home at 7 a.m. Friday to get to Union Station for the evacuation.

“I don't have a car, I had to come with my neighbors,” Scott said. “But I wasn't going to wait. Not after Katrina. These things can be killers, we know it now. You'd have to be a fool not to get out while the getting's good.”