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Page last updated at 07:37 GMT, Wednesday, 28 September 2005 08:37 UK

'Left with nothing' after Katrina

By Verity Murphy
BBC News, New Orleans

"You will have to forgive me, I am a messy housekeeper," Louise Pagano jokes as she leads us up the slime-caked steps of the house where she and her husband John have lived for the last 27 years.

St Bernard Parish
St Bernard Parish was devastated by Hurricane Katrina

Inside is a scene of utter devastation - ceilings collapsed, furniture destroyed, the entire contents of their home smashed and covered in a thick layer of mud.

Louise, known as Weezie, and John have just returned to St Bernard's Parish, one of the worst hit areas of New Orleans, where the floodwater reached up to the rooftops of the once neat rows of houses.

When the couple left a month ago they took little with them because, as Louise explains, "we never dreamed the levees would break and the water come up to here".

Now with permission to return from dawn until dusk they are determined to salvage as much as possible.

"I want to get my dishes and photographs, the pictures of my son as a baby and other personal things," Louise explains.

Joining her in her efforts are her son Johnny Pagano and daughter-in-law Tammie, who live just a few doors down the street, and have also lost everything.

'Treasures'

Across the street from Johnny and Tammie is their cousin, Toni Mistretta-Gass, and yet more relatives are waiting back in St Louis where they have taken refuge.

Picking up the pieces in St Bernard's Parish

In fact four generations of the same family lived on this street, four generations who have now been left with nothing.

"We have 11 families. Nine of them had their houses completely flooded, one had their house half flooded, and one was spared," Toni explains.

"We had a different way of life here, the kind of life you can't buy."

Toni is also scouring the wreckage for what she calls her "treasures". At the top of her list is her rosary and her grandmother's wedding ring.

Refusing to believe

Toni was able to get her 80-year-old father and 82-year-old mother out before the floods hit, but she says that they are having a hard time coping.

"My mother has Alzheimer's and she doesn't really know what is going on. She has seen some of the stuff on the news and we have shown her pictures of the house, but she refuses to believe that it is her house that has been flooded."

Residents of St Bernard's Parish
Returning residents are determined to salvage as much as possible

Tammie's six-year-old daughter Alexis is having a similarly hard time comprehending what has happened.

"Every now and then she says she wants to go home and I have to explain again that she can't and it just breaks my heart," Tammie says.

As the family go about the work of picking through the debris stacked up in every room, more of their neighbours return.

Angel and Leroy Chevolleau's family have stayed in seven different shelters since Katrina hit.

"We stayed mostly in church shelters, but as people returned home they closed and we had to move on," Angel says.

Despite their desperate plight they have are keen to praise the many people who have helped them on their journey and the generosity of their fellow Louisianans.

"The people at the Baptist Church in Forest, Louisiana were just wonderful," Angel says.

"It was hard for the kids to have to wear second-hand clothes and hand-me-downs, but the people at the church had a collection and took the kids down to Walmart and let them pick out whatever they wanted. They spent $500 on them so they could have their own shoes and clothes."

Search for Louis

Thirteen-year-old Tiffany did not come with her parents as they returned home, but 17-year-old Jeremy and Angel's mother, Candy, did.

Candy says that she is concerned that they still have not heard from her cousin Louis Mascaro, who lived nearby.

"I know Louis isn't the kind of man to have evacuated. He is a fisherman and he will have figured 'I can handle this'," she says. "But we've had no news from him, his wife Francis or any of the kids or grandkids since."

Like their neighbours, the Chevolleau's lived their lives surrounded by relatives, but Katrina's winds have scattered them far and wide.

"We have 15 families who are now all over the place," Candy says. "And that's the really sad thing; it is so bad here now that some of them don't want to come back."

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