A few whiffs of normality begin to flavor daily life

Katrina's Wake

September 13, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - For nearly two weeks, Patrick Pearson guarded his suburban neighborhood against the unknown. His arsenal consisted of orange cones, tiki torches and a rifle. He stopped anyone trying to gain entry. He slept little and ate less.

"I had to use every skill I had to keep these people safe," said Pearson, 45, a former Marine who lost 12 pounds in the chaotic week after the storm. But over the weekend, for a few hours, he let his guard down. The New Orleans Saints were playing their season opener, and he was going to watch.

"I'm going to turn on the TV, and I'm not going to eat any MREs," he said before the game Sunday, referring to the meals ready to eat handed out by the Army. "I want a big-ass rib-eye, some baked potatoes, broccoli and cheese."

Pearson's brief respite before the television is but one instance of the normality returning to New Orleans. A few bars and restaurants along Bourbon Street have opened for business. Several hotels are accepting guests. Joggers and dog walkers can be seen in the grass along levees that are drying out. The international airport is expected to resume limited commercial service today.

Electricity and running water have returned to some sections of the city, though many neighborhoods are still flooded and there is much work to be done before the city is functional again. The streets are littered with debris, and the air reeks of stagnation. Uprooted trees and fallen branches line the roads.

There are more military and law enforcement personnel than residents. National Guard troops march down the center of streets in groups of five or six, automatic weapons slung across their chests. But they also have time to lounge on upholstered furniture brought onto the street, to listen to sports on the radio, to chat on cell phones.

Some law enforcement authorities and contractors could be found over the weekend at Johnny White's, a Bourbon Street bar that has not closed in 14 years. The bar doesn't have electricity or running water, but it does have bottles of Budweiser Select, Newcastle, Bass and Heineken on ice for $2.50.

When two men parked heavy construction equipment on the street outside the bar, someone wondered whether they were there for a drink.

"Of course they're here for a drink," said Irwin Lenghoff, 52, a contractor taking a break at the bar. "This is the French Quarter. This is New Orleans."

Inside the bar, a cell phone rang. Bartender Larry Hirst said, "If that's the president, tell him to stop by. I'll give him a kiss."

President Bush visited New Orleans and Mississippi yesterday, and spent time in the French Quarter. But the president, a teetotaler, did not stop by Johnny White's. No one seemed too disappointed.

Outside the bar, Jason Plunkett, 41, was straddling his bicycle. He said he was on his way to Canal Street, a hub for the news media, law enforcement and the National Guard, to get water and ice. He operates a hot dog stand on Bourbon Street, but until the tourists return he'll be clearing streets for $150 a day.

"I've been through it all," he said. "I've been through my drug days. I've been through my alcohol days. I've been through my family days. I got through it all. This is my home. I'll get through this."

In some working-class parts of the city, residents have devised ways of getting by. At Barracks and Royal streets, at the edge of the French Quarter, residents share the only working pay phone in the area. A note is attached to the booth: "This phone works!" A notepad and pen are supplied for taking messages.

Heidi Ochs: Your Mom called. Keep trying.

Jason Carver: Your friend Matt Taylor called.

If Syndi Smith calls, please write down her number. Thanks.

Residents have also bartered. Georgia Walker, 55, traded cigarettes for cat food. She has 10 cats and eight kittens. A waitress at the Hotel Intercontinental, Walker was sweeping the streets for free yesterday.

Barbara Hoover, 54, has found another way to feed her two dogs and the 40 or so that her neighbors left behind. She was looting a grocery store in her neighborhood. She said police had opened it up to residents after the storm. The store had been picked over, so her dogs were given Whiskas cat food.

"It's not about right or wrong," she said of taking food from the store. "It's what we need."

There seemed to be more guns than people in New Orleans. Besides the weapons carried by police and the National Guard, many homeowners brandished firearms.

Ashton O'Dwyer, a lawyer lunching in his Garden District driveway Sunday, was quick to show off a pistol and a 12-gauge Mossberg pump action shotgun, both of which he keeps loaded on the marble island in his kitchen.

He said he was willing to use them but was more concerned about finishing his lunch. He had assembled sardines in olive oil, green beans, dried fruit, wheat crackers and lemonade with ice and a slice of lime. He ate on a wrought-iron patio set brought from his backyard.

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