By MARY FOSTER
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS- The apartment building in Eastern New Orleans has not changed much in the more than 10 months since Hurricane Katrina hit - piles of trash and downed trees outside, waterlogged furniture, mold-covered walls and mildewing clothing inside.
It looks uninhabitable, but eight National Guard members decide to check it out, splitting into two groups, guns drawn, for a methodical search.
"You'd be surprised the conditions some people will live in," Sgt. Corbett Reddoch says. "People are here trying to earn a living and they have to stay someplace. Some of them will squat in these empty buildings."
They are some of the 300 troops who arrived to help keep order a few days after the city's worst act of criminal violence since the Aug. 29 storm - the shooting deaths of five teenagers on June 17.
The Guard patrols Eastern New Orleans, the Lakefront and the Ninth Ward, where miles of empty buildings offer fertile grounds to looters, squatters and those looking for a hide-out. This allows police to turn their full attention to populated areas, especially those where killings blamed on turf wars, drug disputes or revenge have bloodied the streets.
Many of the troops were here right after the storm. But if they mind pulling another tour in the demolished city, they don't show it.
"Hey, I'm from Louisiana, I love this city," said Sgt. Kermit Manuel, who rejoined the Guard after his brother was killed in Iraq. "Anything I can do to help out here I'm glad to do."
On this night, the soldiers ride in tan Humvees, blue lights fastened with bungee cords to the hoods. They drive past the remains of fast-food restaurants, mom-and-pop-businesses, motels with high fences around them.
A strip mall parking lot is filled with big trucks and the tents of itinerant workers. A line of portable toilets and a garden hose the only amenities for the people staying there.
"It's a hard life for a lot of these guys," Manuel says. "They're earning hard money."
At another small apartment complex, an open gate puts the Guardsmen on alert, but the soldiers only look into the rooms without entering because of newly installed carpet.
"I don't think the guy renovating this place would appreciate us tramping across this new carpet with our muddy boots," Reddoch said.
At one locked door a soldier yells, "Come out or we'll send the dog in," and a buddy does a realistic bark.
When they are certain the building is empty they secure the gate and head out.
In the first month after arriving on June 20, the Guard has been responsible for almost 300 arrests, Lt. Kevin Cowan said. Most of the troops are military police or are in law enforcement in their private lives.
While they aren't dealing with much violent crime, they do face looting, which remains a problem in the deserted areas.
"Contractors have been a big, big problem for us," said police superintendent Warren Riley. "They're working in one house, and have crews taking copper, plumbing materials, roofing materials, things like that from other places."
That's what the soldiers deal with during the day - people snooping around empty houses.
At night, they check to make sure there is no trouble at recently reopened bars in some of the sparsely populated areas. They also look for squatters using deserted buildings as hideouts.
When the night patrol rolls around a corner in the Ninth Ward a man quickly leaves the stoop where he was sitting and runs inside an apparently deserted house. The Humvees stop and Guardsmen fan out around the front of the building. He quickly reappears; he speaks little English, but says he's renovating the house and his boss lets him stay there. The owner vouches for him, so they move on.
A car is stopped in the middle of the street while three men talk. The Guardsmen take their time talking to them, finding out where they live.
"That's fine with me," said Darryl Stewart, 37, who has returned to town to work on his house. "Crime's on everyone's mind. Besides, I shouldn't have stopped in the middle of the street. These guys are doing the right thing."