Their roots, they figure, are as deep as you get in the shallow ground of the bayou.
Until Hurricane Katrina, the family members who were gathered in Suzanne Smith's Annapolis home yesterday had been tied to New Orleans for four generations. Their love of the city is so great that their now-ravaged residence -- three blocks from one of the levees breached by the floodwaters -- was virtually a monument to it, filled with lithographs of the old Claiborne Ice House, the City Park carousel and all those jazz legends along Bourbon Street.
They attended the first Saints home football game in Tulane Stadium, before the Superdome was built, and nearly all the home games since. Everywhere they went in the Big Easy, they seemed to bump into old friends.
"New Orleans is really a special city. Everybody knows somebody," said Smith's mother, Patricia Wegener, 70, who arrived in Annapolis on Wednesday night with her husband and son. They were followed the next day by Smith's sister, who is eight months pregnant, along with her husband, their 2-year-old son and their dog, a boxer.
Suddenly, Smith's home was a republic of dislocated family members.
But they were among the fortunate ones. They had the financial means to escape. They had a warm and welcoming place to stay in the Maryland home where Smith and her husband, Paul, moved 16 years ago.
Before they left New Orleans, some of them saw corpses floating in the streets and pushed up against doorsteps. Water is up to the roof of the home in which they grew up. They are unsure of when they can return and whether anything of their old lives will be there when they do.
They are certain of this: They will go back. "It's hard to leave New Orleans. . . . There's just no place like it," said Smith's brother, Marc Holliday, 48.
The face of Katrina has been the city's poorest and most desperate, those who were unable to escape and are struggling to hang on long enough for relief to find them. But for thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class residents who were able to get out, there are weeks, months or possibly years of uncertainty ahead.
At the Smith home, as in thousands of homes across the country, the New Orleans tragedy has meant impromptu family reunions. Instead of celebrations, the gatherings are a chance to reorganize, chart the future or simply wait for word of when they can go home.
Smith's sister, Paulette Schott, 35, wanted desperately to stay in New Orleans, close to her doctor. Her pregnancy was considered high risk because of her age and a melanoma diagnosis early in the pregnancy.
By last Sunday morning, though, she and husband, Eddie Schott, knew from the long lines at gas stations that it was time to get out. They packed a few bags, 2-year-old Jackson and their 4-year-old boxer into their Volvo and headed east.
After arriving in Annapolis, their first task was finding a hospital and a doctor. They plan to stay until she gives birth and the baby is old enough to travel -- and until they're sure they have a place to travel back to. Their home was near her parents' but on the other side of the levee in Metairie, where hurricane damage was less severe.
Holliday, a real estate appraiser, is eager to return. He figures no one will be interested in buying New Orleans real estate for a while, but he can use a hammer and he can paint. He can help rebuild.
His home, also in Metairie, was not as severely damaged as many. He and Eddie Schott plan to catch a plane to Houston tonight and drive from there to the New Orleans area tomorrow, when authorities are allowing people to return to gather what belongings they can.
"They're saying you don't have to leave, but you're not going to want to stay because there's no water, electricity, sewage," Holliday said.
Even so, Holliday said, he's going to try to stay on and volunteer with the fire department or aid groups trying to restore the city.
His mother and stepfather (though no one in the family uses the term "step" for him, just "dad"), Patricia and Paul Wegener, left New Orleans with a handful of clothes, their medications and little else.
The Wegeners' home is in Lakeview, an affluent section of the city hemming Lake Pontchartrain. They bought the spacious ranch-style house in 1970 and raised their three children there. It was a gathering place for grandchildren who splashed in the pool on humid days. And it was filled with irreplaceable keepsakes, including memorabilia from years of hopeless Saints football seasons.
It sits three blocks from the 17th Street Canal levee break that has flooded most of the city. Suzanne Smith found an aerial view of the area on the Internet and saw the home nearly covered. The family has heard it may take a month or more before the water is pumped out.
The Wegeners also lost a beach house in Waveland, Miss., a devastated town of 7,000 along the Mississippi Delta.
Patricia Wegener scoffed when asked what she'll miss from her home. "None of that is important," she said. "Everything that's important is here with me, my family."
The family is cozy in the Smiths' three-bedroom house. Suzanne Smith set up a bed for her parents in the den. Marc is on the couch in the playroom. Paulette and her husband and son are in one bedroom, and Smith's children, Harrison, 11, and Alexandra, 7, are in the other.
"They're my family," Smith said, her husband nodding in agreement. "They can stay as long as they want."
Paul and Patricia Wegener aren't sure what's next for them. He was close to retirement as vice president of a shipping firm. The disaster probably will hasten that.
For now, they will remain Annapolis residents, transfixed by the television, haunted by the images of the city they left behind.