By choice or chance, some stay to ride it out

Unable or unwilling to flee, they wait for Katrina

Hurricane Katrina

August 29, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Signs for daiquiris and hurricane drinks hung above boarded-up windows along Bourbon Street yesterday as the thoroughfare renowned for its wild crowds and jam-packed parties emptied to make way for Hurricane Katrina.

Antiques stores and art galleries along the quaint blocks of the French Quarter were covered with plywood. Several remaining residents and tourists made last-ditch efforts to buy supplies or get out of town. And an unusual stillness fell over the heart of this city.

"I don't think I've ever seen Bourbon Street so empty," said Brenda Ramirez, a frequent visitor to New Orleans who was here with her husband yesterday celebrating her 46th birthday.

Ramirez was supposed to fly home to San Diego today, but with New Orleans' airport closed, she found herself forced to stay and ride out the storm, like scores of other tourists.

Others chose to stay put, ignoring a mandatory evacuation order. A few business owners said they were afraid to leave their stores, worried about flooding and, later, looting. Other residents had no place to go and no way out of town, so they went to a shelter for safety.

Norman Fields, 73, was one of those. His house is old, he said, and not likely to withstand winds that could reach 175 miles per hour. So Fields packed up some food, clothes, blankets and a pillow and headed to the Superdome, which officials turned into a shelter for thousands of people yesterday.

"I had decided early on, if it had come this way, I wasn't going to stay at the house," said Fields, who lives in New Orleans. "I was going to the shelter."

Myra Smith and her son, Bryn, are staying there, too. Bryn is in a wheelchair because of a pinched nerve, and Myra said all their relatives went to her brother's house in Mississippi and left them behind.

"Every time we have a little rain, my house floods," the mother said. So they headed to the Superdome.

Police opened the Superdome's doors to the public about noon, and long lines of people with luggage, plastic bags, blankets and bottles of water waited to get inside.

Among them were Becky and John LaRue of Des Moines, Iowa. They arrived here on vacation Saturday and couldn't get out before the storm.

It was their first, and "probably our last," trip to New Orleans, Becky LaRue said.

Thuong Vo and his new wife, Stephanie Tran, were also vacationing here. It was their belated honeymoon, and they were supposed to leave today. They called the airlines, Greyhound and Amtrak - all to no avail.

"We tried everything," Tran said.

Rather than stay at a hotel, they decided to ride out the storm at the Superdome. It seemed safer for Tran, who is pregnant, to be surrounded by the medical and other emergency personnel stationed there. Plus, Vo is a doctor and thought he might be able to help.

Some tourists and residents planned to ride out the storm at home or at downtown hotels.

Patti Fischer and her business partner, Laurie Labruzzo, own a specialty lighting store in the French Quarter and were planning to stay in a hotel near their shop. They drove 12 hours from Tennessee back to New Orleans so they could ready their store for the storm.

"We can't leave," Labruzzo said, standing in the doorway of her boarded-up shop. "We've got too many people counting on us to get up and running. "

A few blocks away, James F. Thiers and his daughter, Dominique Thiers-Schmidt, moved the paintings in their art gallery to higher ground and put plywood over the windows.

"We don't really feel like we can leave behind the business," Thiers-Schmidt said, adding that the two would ride out the storm in their second-floor apartment across the street.

Doug Whitlow, who lives in New Orleans and works as a chef, also planned to stay in his apartment for the storm. But he won't be alone. His soon-to-be stepfather, Bob Pessagno, came in from the San Francisco area with two of his friends for a bachelor's party. Now all four men will be sharing Whitlow's studio apartment until the storm blows over.

With Hurricane Katrina putting a damper on their party, Whitlow and his houseguests managed to find the only bar open on Bourbon Street yesterday afternoon. The Daiquiri Delight bar was serving up pizzas and frozen cocktails to the few remaining partyers.

"Every hurricane, we are always the only hurricane party on Bourbon Street," owner Charles Wandflun said.

Alexandra Nicol of Montreal and her friend, Natalie Wetenhall of New York, were having a few drinks at Daiquiri Delight before heading to their hotel to hunker down for the storm. The two had been talking about a vacation in New Orleans for years. Finally, they made the trip down Saturday, with hopes of taking in the city, visiting plantations and having their palms read.

"I guess we should have taken our readings before we came down here," Nicol said.

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