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A different kind of Christmas in New Orleans

Huge swaths of New Orleans remained empty this Christmas Day, only months after the streets were filled with flood water from Hurricane Katrina.
Alfred Davis holds his four-month- old daughter Alachae during services at the First Emmanuel Baptist Church in New Orleans on Sunday.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Harold Hansford didn’t make it home for Christmas.

He just visited.

Hansford spent part of Christmas morning wandering around the gutted house in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi that he, his wife and son called home for the past 17 years.

“You get 14 feet of water in your house and it don’t leave much,” said Hansford, who had managed to salvage a few Christmas decorations from the attic. “We always fixed the house up for Christmas.”

This year it’s decorated with the marks painted on by rescue workers as they made their way through the neighborhood looking for people and bodies.

“I never imagined Christmas like this,” he said. “Not much of left, but we’ll be back.”

Huge swaths of New Orleans remained empty Christmas Day. Streets that filled with flood water after Hurricane Katrina crushed the city Aug. 29 were still stretches of smashed houses and debris.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, where most of the dead were found following the levee break, a few sad relics of Christmas past stand forlornly among the wreckage — a waterlogged stuffed Santa, a headless angel. A wrecked car has “Merry Christmas” spray painted on the side and a stuffed reindeer in the driver’s seat.

A tree-less Christmas
Cheryl Anderson was only too happy to get up at 2 a.m. Christmas morning to begin cooking in the tiny kitchen of the trailer she shares with her husband, son and three grandchildren. Even the location, on the grounds of Metairie Cemetery, where her husband works, didn’t bother her.

Anderson, 46, floated away from her house on a door when the water hit 9 feet. She spent two days on an overpass, then took shelter at the Superdome before being evacuated to Birmingham, Ala. Her family was scattered across four states and it took her months to find them.

“I didn’t think I’d live to see this Christmas,” Anderson said. “Now we’re having everything like a regular Christmas — the gumbo, the ham, all of it. Everything except a tree. That won’t fit in the trailer.”

In St. Bernard Parish, where water had covered almost every building, Charlie and Andrea Licciardi watched daughters Alixandria, 5, and Abigale, 4, open presents inside the tiny FEMA trailer they’ve called home for three days.

The girls excitedly pointed out the skylight that Santa used to bring gifts into the trailer, but seemed unaware of the wrecked houses that he had to fly over to find them.

“They really haven’t noticed all of that,” Andrea Licciardi said. “We haven’t slept in a house since the hurricane and haven’t had a real bath, the kind you can sink into and relax. But we’re a step closer.”

'We’ve come home'
The congregation of First Emmanuel Baptist Church drove from Baton Rouge, Houston and other points far and wide on Christmas, then walked past collapsed buildings and piles of storm wreckage to worship in their old church for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

“This means everything. We’ve come home,” said Lila Southall, the minister’s wife. “My house is gone but I’m still home for Christmas.”

The 118-year-old church had lost much of its roof, part of the ceiling still hung precariously and the soggy carpet had not yet been replaced. But the magnificent stained-glass windows survived unscathed, and so did most of the 1,200 members.

Only a handful of people swayed in the pews to the music on Christmas morning, calling out “Amen” to the pastor’s words, but that number will grow, Southall said. The church in the Uptown section, several miles west of the French Quarter, will run a bus from Baton Rouge each Sunday to bring members back for the 7:30 a.m. service.

“It’s a grand feeling to be back home,” said Southall, whose house was submerged in 8 feet of water after the hurricane. “We’re back together. We’ll go on from here.”