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In the Big Empty, a Calm After The Storm

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.

Plenty of trees fell in the empty city with nobody to watch. Palms snapped at the trunk in the Garden District, or were uprooted like dandelions in the decorative median strips of gas stations.

The West Bank neighborhood, tucked into a Mississippi River bend, appeared to have escaped the feared storm surge. The network of drainage culverts flowed placidly beside and under empty streets. The miles of shopping strips and malls were shut drum tight, with acres of empty parking lots. Pieces of aluminum roof blew down the empty streets like tumbleweed, rolling over the snaking fallen utility lines.

Throughout the day, Gustav kept faking everybody out. Violent squalls of wind and rain alternated with interludes of calm that could not be trusted. During the calm periods, American and French flags hung shredded.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Gustav ripped free and left scattered a confetti of foamboard signs advertising drywall, home-remodeling and carpentry services. These posters appeared during a period of attempted rebuilding after Katrina, when water from a breached levee filled the houses and drowned residents.

Now another storm was tearing more roofing and molding from those still battered and condemned homes -- while next door the new or remodeled homes, with their neat gardens and statues of the Virgin Mary, were empty. Nobody in the Lower Ninth was taking any chances.

At lunchtime, James Robinson, the 76-year-old porter at the shuttered Maison Bourbon jazz club, took a phone call. "I love you, everything is all right," he said into the phone, before hanging up. "That was my little girl," his 13-year-old daughter, the youngest of his eight children, whom he had sent to safety with family in Macomb, Miss. "They keep calling me, they're worried about me," he said.

But there was nothing to worry about. He watched the empty streets from his stool. It was strange to see in the streets of the city of his birth, "nothing but police, walking around and in cars."

Virtually the only people around were people with a mission, or people who appointed themselves a mission, like the Guardian Angels. They walked in the rain in pairs of two in their soaked red caps and white T-shirts, keeping in touch by walkie-talkie, looking for action, finding none.

Then: "We gotta secure this door," said Angel Robert McClintick, pointing to the wood door of an art gallery that had blown in, breaking the lock. McClintick pulled some boards from a garbage can and his partner ran to get some nails and a hammer.

On the Claiborne Avenue Bridge over the Industrial Canal, the wind was blowing strong enough to cause big men like Sgt. Maj. Albert Vanzant and First Sgt. Thomas Thornton of the Louisiana National Guard, carrying M-4 assault rifles, to lean sideways to stay on their feet.

Thornton's mission was to keep an eye on the levee separating the canal from the neighborhoods. Small waves went over the wall, but so far, so good.

"If there's a breach, we'll report it," he said, "and evacuate any civilians from the area, which I haven't seen any. Which is good."

Empty was good, but also "eerie," said the New Orleans native. He still can't get used to empty. "Driving down Loyola and Canal streets, they were just dead empty," he said. "That's not something you see. It was just vacant."

The people who defied empty and stayed behind betrayed a hint of self-satisfaction that it wasn't so bad after all. "The only reason I would stay is I know I'm totally self-sufficient," explained Jordan, who was running power into his Ninth Ward Studios from a generator elevated on the back of a Dodge Ram truck, in case of flooding. Parts of "Easy Rider" and "Pretty Baby" were filmed here, under a previous owner, he said.

Sunday night, there was a protest against empty in the French Quarter. It was supposed to be the annual Southern Decadence Parade, a gay pride event that draws thousands. A handful of men in extravagant silvery costumes accompanied by a bed on wheels paraded down Bourbon Street.

"I was reassured my neighborhood is still full of nuts," said Flynn, the restaurateur. "They weren't going to let a hurricane get them down."

It was a small parade, and short. But it represented the inimitable soul of New Orleans, reminding the world that it wouldn't be the Big Easy without the people, without the characters.

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