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In disaster area, cops are victims, tooLisa Sandberg, EXPRESS-NEWS STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS -- Police Capt. Marlon Defillo is sworn to protect the citizens of his city, but the week Hurricane Katrina hit, he was unable to save even his own men.

On the Saturday morning after Katrina left the Big Easy in ruins, his deputy, Sgt. Paul Accardo, left the Superdome, where officers had retreated for a few hours sleep, got into his gold Taurus police car and drove to a restaurant parking lot 15 miles west of the shell-shocked city. He removed his weapon from its holster and, still sitting in the driver's seat, fired a bullet into his head.

Defillo, the department's chief spokesman, replays the last few hours he spent with Accardo in his mind like a worn cassette. When he noticed Accardo appearing lethargic in the storm's aftermath, why didn't he ask more questions? Why didn't he take Accardo with him when he left the Superdome that morning, knowing the fellow officer had lost his home in the floodwaters and had become depressed by the devastation around him?

Accardo, 36, was one of two New Orleans police officers who took his life the first week of the storm -- casualties of Hurricane Katrina.

The department's overwhelmed force has had to endure much more than looters and failed radios in the two weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit. Of 1,750 officers, at least 300 have not shown up for work. Some of those may be dead; most simply couldn't -- or wouldn't -- contend with the mayhem.

Hundreds have lost homes and vehicles but have stayed behind while their families fled. Their superiors call them the true heroes.

Defillo believes his normally affable colleague and right-hand man, a professional spin guy, was simply unequipped to deal with Hurricane Katrina.

"He kept saying, `I can't believe what I'm seeing. I can't believe I'm leaving people behind and some of those people aren't going to make it,"' Defillo recalled.

The city's Police Department is now rotating its exhausted force to Baton Rouge for physicals and psychological counseling. Officers left behind will soon return to a five-day workweek, from the seven they now work, and their shifts will be reduced to 12 hours, from 16.

Defillo, who lost his own home in the flooding, does what he can to keep busy. He was unable to get away from work to attend Accardo's funeral last week but is seeing to it that the gold Taurus police car his deputy kept so polished is cleaned and restored to its mint condition.

"He was so proud of that car," Defillo said.

6th District officers

The 6th District, otherwise known as Fort Apache because of the mean housing projects that surround it, operates out of a looted Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street.

When floodwaters made their headquarters unreachable, the officers of the 6th District commandeered this superstore from looters three days after the storm and the district's 130 officers survived on what the looters left behind.

In the topsy-turvy world of post-storm New Orleans, the district's commander makes no apology.

"I don't think Wal-Mart would have a problem with what we're doing. We saved the store from being burned to the ground," said Cmdr. Anthony Cannatella Sr., a 39-year police veteran.

Almost a third of the district's officers lost their homes to Katrina. Seven haven't reported to duty. Cannatella accuses two of them of being cowards; the others may be dead.

Today, most of the district's remaining officers sleep in the parking lot in their cars or in tents. The store's inside entrance serves as both department headquarters and dining hall.

The officers pretend not to notice the stench from rotting food that pervades the place. It is a smell that penetrates much of the wrecked city where human corpses have gone uncollected, raw sewage mixes with floodwaters and there is no garbage pickup.

The 6th District can consider itself lucky. Its headquarters sustained only minor damage. Unlike the 7th District, which lost its entire fleet of patrol cars to floodwaters, its fleet, which Cannatella ordered parked in an elevated garage, will be accessible once floodwaters recede.

With the hurricane knocking out emergency communication as well as telephone service, it took hours for Cannatella and his officers to learn of the levee breach.

While most of the city became virtual lakes, the 6th District, which includes part of downtown, remained relatively dry. The most visible damage, said Cannatella, who ordered his officers to ride out the storm at district headquarters, was a few uprooted trees.

By the time a visitor rushed in and informed officers of the chaos that was engulfing the city, the streets were in the hands of bandits armed "better than we were," Cannatella said.

Fearful surrounding floodwaters eventually might consume their headquarters, 6th District officers retreated first to a parking lot across the river, in Algiers, and later to the Wal-Mart, where they remain.

Back to the beat

Everyone has a story. Most stories sound straight out of the movies.

Kristi Forret, 25, a mother of two who has a month on the force, spent four nights stranded on her roof, waiting to be rescued. During those long hours, she and a neighbor were able to pull an 11-year-old girl in an adjoining house from her attic; it was too late for the girl's mother.

When help finally arrived and she was returned to safe ground, she checked on her two children, who were staying with her mother in a nearby suburb, and reported to duty.

Chad Perez, 28, lost his home to flooding in St. Bernard Parish. So did his parents and his grandparents; his three siblings; and his aunts and uncles.

All are safe and staying with relatives in Florida.

An 8-year-veteran, Perez is accustomed to taking charge in emergencies. He couldn't take charge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He couldn't do anything for the poor older man on Magazine Street who pleaded for help in removing his wife's body from the sidewalk. Hospitals weren't receiving bodies, nor was the morgue.

"There was nothing you could do," Perez said.

So as gingerly as he could, he told the new widower to do whatever made him feel comfortable. Then he drove off, leaving the man beside his wife's corpse. The encounter still haunts him.

So does the memory of watching impassively as the city descended into chaos.

"There were five days of shootouts," he recalled.

With police spread so thinly and no backup, there was little he could do even when radio communications were partially restored and fellow officers called out for help.

These days, Perez does what he can to keep busy. The 12- and 16-hour shifts are good for keeping his mind focused. Before Katrina, he worked narcotics. Now he's assigned to rounding up looting suspects. It beats body recovery.

He's got half a plan to fly out to Las Vegas in a few weeks for some rest and relaxation. For now, with no home to go to, he spends his nights sleeping in a borrowed patrol car in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

A nearby property owner is setting aside 10 apartments for homeless officers. Perez thinks he should be able to find a spot in one of them.

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