New Orleans Notebook

In the Big Empty, a Calm After The Storm

As Hurricane Gustav pounded the New Orleans area, patrons at Johnny White's on Bourbon Street did what they do every day: drink and talk about what's happening in the French Quarter. The bar hasn't closed in the past 18 years. Video by Travis Fox/
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 1 -- The Big Easy became the Big Empty -- few people and no floodwater, hardly, given expectations. Man, was it strange. Strings of Mardi Gras beads from parties past flapped like pennants from shredded awnings. But it was a good strange.

Midway through Hurricane Gustav in late morning -- with wind uprooting palm trees, rain shooting sideways and water in the Industrial Canal sloshing over the levee like a menacingly full bathtub agitated by an evil child -- the streets were empty, which was no surprise. It was hellish out there.

But then the wind and rain subsided, and all those evacuees from Houston to Atlanta in motel rooms and overloaded relatives' homes must have heaved a sigh of relief. New Orleans was spared, pretty much. The levees held. It was nothing like Katrina: Thank God, or thank the better preparations of authorities, or thank the decisions of nearly everyone to heed official advice this time and flee.

City and state officials warned Monday that the city was still not safe and residents would not be allowed to return until the streets are cleared of debris and power lines. But the worst appeared to be about over by late afternoon. There was a pleasant breeze under thick clouds that dropped periodic rain into the night. Yet there was hardly anyone to creep out of shelter and enjoy the dodged bullet.

It was so quiet. Where there was power, the street lights dutifully blinked green and red for no one. The interstate was an elevated curving channel of void. The toll barrier on the bridge over the Mississippi River was untended, offering a $1 break to no takers. New Orleans after Gustav was like a post-apocalyptic thought experiment without the apocalypse. Does a city exist if no one is there to experience it?

"There's no way to verbalize it," said Burwell Jordan, a business consultant who rode out the storm in his warehouse film studio in the Upper Ninth Ward. "You have to smell it and taste it. You have to use all of your senses to absorb what this place is like now. It is a literal ghost town. And that's good."

The Big Empty smells and tastes kind of fresh: The rain washed away the trash. The fragrance of crushed pine and magnolia rises from the sidewalks from all the downed tree limbs. It tastes like a cold drink from one of the kind Louisiana National Guard patrols toting orange coolers of water on the back of their camouflage trucks.

Or it tastes like a glass of white wine before noon, held just so by a slender hand dangling out the doorway of a 130-year-old historic wooden rowhouse in the French Quarter. The hand belonged to a blond female friend of Tenney Flynn, owner of GW Fins restaurant. They were sitting by the open door of Flynn's rowhouse. The air was so fresh they hadn't even bothered to crank up the generator in the living room.

"The breeze is nice," Flynn says. "This is a quiet day, a day when nobody is going to call you on the phone and expect anything of you."

It is a luxury to be able to savor the aftermath of a hurricane, which in the end is a terrible weather calamity that brings civilization to a temporary halt. New Orleans could afford to indulge itself in that vital space between the memory of Katrina and the reality of Gustav, which was initially forecast as a potential Category 5 monster but came ashore as a Category 2.

Gustav veered west, a near miss, and the worst destruction was elsewhere. As of Monday night, New Orleans had suffered no serious flooding. Officials warned that more flooding is still possible.

The city did not escape harm. At least one elderly patient reportedly died in transport from a city hospital.

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