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In New Orleans, fewer luxuries for the holidays

In New Orleans, where Katrina's destruction lingers, luxuries like grand turkey dinners and festive holiday shopping are far from the minds of many residents.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Glenn Poche looked for sales in the hardware department and his wife combed through racks of clothing, luxuries like grand turkey dinners and festive holiday shopping were far from their minds.

For the Poches, the date on the calendar is the only indication the holiday season has arrived. There’s not enough space in their federally issued trailer to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — even the oven is too small for a turkey — and there’s certainly not enough room under a Christmas tree to replace what they have lost.

Since Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29 and their home was flooded by Hurricane Rita just weeks later, the Poches have been focused on rebuilding. But even if they and thousands of other New Orleans-area residents try to celebrate a traditional holiday season, they’ll have a hard time — damaged stores have found it hard to reopen, there’s a shortage of workers and inventory is limited. Long waits in lines are common, whether it’s a shopping trip for household items or popular gifts like iPods.

Still, merchants are doing their best to bring holiday cheer. Christmas trees, holiday wreaths and decorative garlands have gone up in malls and shopping centers. Royal Street store owners have offered to expand their traditional decorating into other parts of the city’s French Quarter.

But even the fanciest lights and ornaments cannot conceal the destruction. A giant wreath strewn with red ribbon hangs in the shadow of stories-tall scaffolding loaded with workers resurfacing a mall’s exterior. At some stores, shoppers walk around caution tape where floors are stripped bare and lower walls are ripped out.

The Sears just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans is the only store in Oakwood Mall open since the shopping center was gutted by fire and looting. Large portions of the store remain closed off by blue drapes because of damage or lack of merchandise.

Sections that are open are packed with rows of chain saws, refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, as well as sheets, towels and clothing. Missing are the singing and dancing Elmo dolls, Finding Nemo toys and Hello Kitty purses.

“I don’t know if I can get into Christmas, to tell you the truth,” Poche said, lugging a large sabre saw, one of the replacement tools on his list since his shed was wiped out by floodwater. He said he plans to shop for his grandchildren, eventually, but won’t be able to spend as much as he usually does.

Refrigerators, not holiday gifts, in demand
Residents trying to restock their homes have different priorities this holiday season. Karen Wheat, manager at a Sears in suburban Metairie, said the store has been selling in one day the number of refrigerators it used to sell in a week.

There are more men in the stores now, she said. With many schools still closed and homes too badly damaged to be lived in, “wives and children are still away,” she said. “Women who are here are stocking up on clothes and shoes.”

Simply getting into the holiday spirit has been hard as many residents remain separated from family members and are living in temporary housing. Even those lucky enough to return to their homes are finding daily life so far from normal that a holiday season just doesn’t seem right.

Wetahanna Walton, whose house in Uptown New Orleans had some wind damage, is the only member of her family who has been able to return.

“It doesn’t feel like the holidays without them,” she said.

Walton’s family has been scattered among Baton Rouge, San Antonio and Houston since Katrina, and, she says, most of them don’t want to return anytime soon. She’s not sure where the family will get together for Christmas, but she hopes everyone can make it to her house in New Orleans.

Walton managed to grab some sweaters and pajamas for her 13-year-old daughter at an Old Navy store but says she’s having trouble finding the iPod her daughter wants for Christmas.

“Going to the store is very discouraging,” Walton said. “The lines are long, they’re sold out of this, sold out of that.”

Elenora and Joseph Clinton were shopping for their seven grandchildren at Target while talking about how they’re going to have Thanksgiving dinner on the bare concrete floors of their home, which has been stripped because of water damage. They said it can’t be fixed until January.

“That’s the soonest we can get workers here,” Joseph Clinton said.

For some, the last holiday season in New Orleans
For Nancy Lopresto, this will likely be the last holiday season she spends in the New Orleans area. Katrina so badly damaged her father’s house that he moved to Denham Springs and isn’t sure he’s coming back. Lopresto, with her husband and two young sons, is moving to Austin, Texas, in January. Even Lopresto’s mother has decided to retire from her job at a hospital here and move to Austin.

“It doesn’t feel the same. New Orleans doesn’t feel the same,” Lopresto said. “Every time I look around and see decorations, I can’t believe it’s the holidays.”

Lopresto and her husband aren’t swapping gifts, she said. “Our present to each other is the move, a new start,” she said.

“The boys know we’re moving. They know it’s going to be a small Christmas.”