Just blocks from a smoldering fire and walking distance from bodies floating in the floodwaters, John Crouch and Andy Guzman debated what to make for dinner.
As the sun set, the men had hurriedly chained up the cast-iron fence and locked themselves into the 10,000-square-foot, gray-green Greek Revival mansion for the night. Three dogs, three handguns and five shotguns kept them company.
Earlier in the week, the men feasted on Cornish hens and jumbo shrimp. Now they had exhausted their supply of meat and seafood, but there was a bit of good news: There was plenty of champagne in the ice chest.
"It's like luxury camping," said Crouch, 42, founder of an architectural restoration company. His own multimillion-dollar home was nearby, but he set up operations in this even fancier mansion because it still had running water and functioning phones.
Crouch and his friend Guzman, a high-end housing contractor and a neighbor, have been living here for the past 10 days, among the few thousand people who have refused to leave the city despite a mandatory evacuation order. They are standing guard in one of New Orleans's wealthiest areas over their own homes and those of about 30 neighbors who fled town. The lights from their generator cast an eerie glow on a part of the city that is otherwise pitch black after dusk.
Night in New Orleans brings into focus the unfairness of Hurricane Katrina's wrath. This has always been a city of the very rich and the very poor, and the storm, which has changed so much, has done nothing to change that.
While many of the poorest parts of the city became a toxic swamp of unspeakable things, its wealthiest areas -- including the central business district, the French Quarter and the area around St. Charles Street that includes the Garden District, the predominantly white neighborhood where Crouch and Guzman are staying -- escaped almost damage-free.
The first place the lights were turned back on, on Wednesday, was the central business district, and now the signs for the Hyatt, BellSouth and the Sheraton -- albeit with some of the letters missing -- glow in the city's skyline. In the French Quarter, Johnny White's Sports Bar & Grill continues to operate, dispensing cold beer, along with music from a boom box, to patrons who flow in and out all night. On St. Charles Street, a single gas lantern flickers in the night at the door of one of the larger houses even as some of the newly homeless scrounge in the streets for food.
Crouch's roof was partially torn, and Guzman's house lost five sideboards, but they stayed dry inside.
The mansion where they've taken up residence -- owned by some friends, the Sinclairs -- was in the best shape of all. About two square yards of the ceiling in the dining room became waterlogged and fell, but the antiques, the paintings, the lovingly restored frescoes and the furniture imported from Paris were just fine. The pool and its fountains were in good shape, and the men have been pouring chlorine into it and taking their baths there.
When the Sinclairs heard that Crouch, a former Marine who studied architecture at Tulane University, and Guzman, the son of immigrants from Guatemala who specializes in work for luxury houses, were going to remain in the city, they asked if the men wanted to stay at their house -- one of the grandest of the grand. They agreed.
The men left the city with their families before the worst of the storm, embarking on a quest for supplies through Memphis, Pensacola, Fla., and Baton Rouge, La., that netted 200 gallons of water, 100 gallons of gas, a truckload of food, a $4,000 electrical generator and other essentials.
Their wives and children went to other cities, but Guzman's father, 82, a retired carpenter whose house was damaged, decided to join them back home in New Orleans. They returned Sept. 1 after talking their way through a checkpoint.
The men say they aren't sure how long they'll stay but have supplies for months: Chef Boyardee lasagna. Uncle Ben's rice. AriZona iced tea. Listerine. Off bug spray. Tylenol. Folgers coffee. A box of citrus-scented hand sanitizer.
At first, the men were watching over the three houses, but then they got phone calls from friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, who wanted them to look in on their properties. Now they spend their days visiting every house on their list, clearing debris and making sure things are secure.
"Everyone thinks they are coming back to nothing. They will call and say, 'Is my house on fire?' " Guzman said. "But around here, everything is okay."
The men have also gone out to "save" a Harley-Davidson and a silver Mercedes-Benz S500 from looters. By the time they found the car, its gas cap had been pried open. They tried to leave the city only once, to go across the river to get more supplies, but had such a hard time getting back in (they finally persuaded a checkpoint guard with 15 gallons of gasoline) that now they vow to stay unless forced out at gunpoint.
Security is a major concern. Like a handful of others who have stayed behind to guard valuable property, the men keep firearms handy at all times. Nearby, the owner of the Oriental Rugs antique store was holed up behind wooden boards and had spray-painted a sign that says: "Don't try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer."
Some homeowners have hired companies such as Blackwater USA, whose contractors protected members of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and charge up to $1,000 a day for their work.
Crouch and Guzman seem to run into a military or police patrol every day: Lafayette police, Louisiana State Troopers, California Highway Patrol.
Mostly, the patrols want to make sure the men have permission to be in the house but also want to make sure they are okay. Earlier this week, Guzman was on the sidewalk talking to a SWAT team from Texas when his father walked out with his gun in a holster around his waist. Someone yelled: "Gun! We see a gun!" The entire team -- eight young men -- immediately cocked and aimed their weapons at Ernesto Guzman, who is a bony 5-foot-2. The younger Guzman assured them his dad was no threat.
The evenings are quieter. Crouch and Guzman sit on the patio playing dominos and watching the one channel they can get on the portable TV -- Channel 6 out of Baton Rouge. They talk to their families at least twice a day; Crouch's wife has told their three daughters, triplets who are 6 years old, that he stayed behind because he is "saving the house."
He misses them terribly. "The other day they asked if I had saved the house yet, or did I die?" Crouch said.
The men feel strongly that they are right to stay, having spent most of their lives restoring the city's finest houses. They are alarmed about reports that officials are debating whether the whole city should be razed.
"They can't tear this place down," Crouch said. "It's part of history."
By nightfall, they have the area nearly to themselves. Search and rescue teams have retired to their bunkers, and the 6 p.m. curfew means those wandering the streets are mostly people trying to avoid law enforcement. There's occasional commotion, such as the three armed looters police chased into a house in a neighborhood across from where the men are staying, an explosion and the helicopters flying overhead and the Humvees rolling by. But all things considered, New Orleans, the city once known for its wild all-hours partying, is now silent -- somewhat, Crouch said, "like living in the country."