Tue, Sep 20, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Counting New Orleans' death toll in orange paint


The orange paint next to the front door told what happened inside the little white house on Mendez Street after the floodwaters came. Along with the date, "9-17," there was this: "2-D," for two dead.

A few submerged blocks away, a more explicit notation -- "1 DB in back" -- marked a small red-brick church, Iglesia Bautista Getsemani, where the desiccated remnants of an elderly woman, in a brassiere, underwear and socks, spread-eagled across the top of a set of outdoor steps, were discovered.

But searchers affixed a different inscription on Gerald Martin's home on nearby Painters Street. Martin, 76, was pulled out of his wrecked home last Friday by rescuers in a boat who heard him cry out to them. He had been there 18 days, surviving on a single plastic container of water. Now, his front entrance, still surrounded by water, is decorated with a day-glo insignia: "1-L."

Only now are searchers beginning to force their way into homes in this neighborhood, just south of Lake Pontchartrain and part of the Gentilly section of New Orleans, to unlock its watery secrets.

While much of the city is drying out and making halting steps toward recovery, this mostly middle-class neighborhood's topography and proximity to a breach in the London Avenue Canal has given it the distinction of being the largest remaining swath of the city still under water. Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, this area remains a waterworld, a wilderness of downed power lines, submerged cars, stinking water and death.

Gentilly, in better days, was a quiet, predominantly African-American community. Much of it is several feet below sea level.

On Aug. 29, when Hurricane Katrina struck, the levee broke in two spots on the London Avenue Canal. The breach that occurred just north of Mirabeau Avenue was the neighborhood's undoing. Water poured into it from the west, quickly flooding the houses to their roofs.

"You can tell in this area, the water came in really quick," said J.D. Madden, 29, a firefighter from Santa Clara, California, who helped rescue Martin from his home.

Last Friday, Madden and his partner, Eric Mijangos, both members of a FEMA urban search-and-rescue team from California, were floating down the street in front of Martin's home. They had just worked their way down a line of homes across the street, when they thought they heard someone yelling.

Shocked, they shut the motor off and yelled back, peering through the branches of a toppled tree that partially obscured the entrance to Martin's home.

"I asked him where he was," Madden said. "He had the window open. He was in the kitchen area."

By now, the water that had once been up to the ceiling in the home had receded to about 3 feet, barely up to the front stoop of Martin's home. Mijangos used a sledgehammer to break down the door. They found Martin inside, naked, hungry and thirsty. He told them that he had been living in his attic until two days before and that theirs was the first boat he had heard, even though searchers had regularly been making their way past his home for a week. Martin's home had never been searched because the water level and the downed tree in front of it had made entrance to it impossible, Madden said. But with the water receding rapidly over the last week, searchers could finally get up to his front door.

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