As I drive into New Orleans on the West Bank Expressway, the bruised-looking Superdome is on my left, and an abandoned, 10-foot boat sits on the shoulder to my right. Straight ahead is a phalanx of guys in fatigues. They're pointing the kinds of guns that could put a Dodge Stratus-sized hole in my Dodge Stratus. I hold up the plastic card that says I'm a writer, and they let me go. Seconds later, I'm driving over the Mississippi River on the Crescent City Connection Bridge and headed into the city.
In the two days I've been in Louisiana, I've heard enough Katrina horror stories that I'm afraid to look at water. A friend from high school waited for a week for the levels to recede enough so he could open his door and find a neighbor with a working cell phone. A seventysomething relative of a friend swam in the murky water thinking he was about to drown only to cling to a tree and eventually climb to his roof. That all happened in wet New Orleans: the Lakefront, Mid-City, and pretty much everywhere else that isn't within spitting distance of the high ground near the river. On my first day in the city, I start in the small, sheltered enclave of dry New Orleans, the arid streets between the river and St. Charles Avenue.
Cruising up and down St. Charles—the wide, mansion-filled avenue where the streetcar runs—has always been a good way to get myself reoriented to the city after being away. It's still a good place to start—as I drive toward Uptown, the damage isn't as severe as it could be, but there's enough flotsam around to steel me for the waterlogged areas. On St. Charles, sagging power lines arc just eight feet off the ground, and downed tree limbs clog the sidewalks. The road is dry as a bone, if a bit crunchy. When I get out and walk, the tiny twigs that cover the ground crack under my feet like potato chips. The weirdest sight, though, is all the Mardi Gras beads lying in the middle of the road, shaken loose from the branches that once caught and held wayward throws 50 feet off the ground.
Reports of fires in the Garden District have been all over the news, but on my abbreviated tour of the area's fancy houses I don't see any with significant structural damage. Many of the three-story private homes do carry distress signals, though. Among the hastily painted warnings on fences, walls, and gates: "GO IN AND DIE," "LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT," or the more curt "LOOTERS SHOT."
Looting may have been rampant a few days ago, but I've never felt safer in New Orleans than I do driving around today. Such are the benefits of an occupying force. High-riding military vehicles and gun-toting troops blanket every block. Every so often, someone asks me to roll down the window and show ID before waving me on, but the soldiers mostly look like they're killing time. Sitting on milk crates and folding chairs in the middle of the road. Sitting on the steps in front of Bultman Funeral Home. On Carrollton Avenue, a forklift sticks out from the front of a drugstore where a group of enterprising scofflaws used it to peel back the steel security door. For the soldiers standing guard, the novelty has long since worn off. I ask one of them what they talk about to make the days go faster. "Each other's mothers, mostly," he says.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the authorities in New Orleans have started telling the city's few remaining residents—even those who live on dry streets and have enough gas to run their generators for months—to evacuate or else. I don't see any conversations like that, but all the folks I run into on the street (primarily white homeowners, one or two a block in the most populated areas) tell me they're not getting off their land, no way, no how. (OK, not everyone. One ponytailed guy in bedroom slippers tells me he has to skip town immediately because the city has completely run out of weed.)
A few blocks off St. Charles in the Garden District, a woman named Suzie Lyons leads a petting-zoo-sized convoy of small animals up Seventh Street. Lyons says she's broken into at least 30 houses at the owners' behest—kicking down doors, breaking glass, finding hide-a-keys—to feed and rescue dogs and cats that owners left behind in their rush to evacuate. "Can you imagine if they die in their houses—how that would smell?" she asks.
Mixed in with the people who won't leave are a few who sneaked back in, mandatory evacuation be damned. When I see a guy wearing scrubs, I roll down my window to ask what hospital he works at. Turns out he's not a doctor—a dentist friend of his gave him scrubs so he could sneak past the security detail.
On Napoleon a few blocks north of the bar Tipitina's, I find a normal New Orleans scene: five guys, several shirtless, drinking cold beers on the porch. In the shade next to the neighbor's house, there are enough bottles of liquor and mixers—Maker's Mark, Crown Royal, pineapple juice, Dr. Pepper—to keep the party going for at least a few more days.
Kirby Gee, who owns the house, works as a bartender at Miss Mae's down the street. He says the bar did pretty good business even through last Wednesday—the cops kept them in shotgun shells as long as they kept pouring drinks. Gee says the police taught everyone around here how to loot. They were the first to bust into the grocery store down the street and the Wal-Mart a mile or so up the road. He also says they took to breaking into car lots in the days after the storm and driving off with brand-new Escalades. I'm not sure whether to believe him, until a cop car drives buy towing what looks like a mint-condition Corvette Stingray. "And these are the people telling us to evacuate," says one of the porch dwellers. Every time a Humvee rolls by, a few of the guys make sure to flash the peace sign.
Driving toward the river on Magazine Street, I see Audubon Park on my left and pull into the parking lot. A guy driving a motorized cart and smoking a pipe passes by, and I ask him if I can hop on and ride around with him. Don Meinert, who works maintaining the park's small golf course, says he's been living in the maintenance shed since his house got deluged by floodwater. The golf course looks like you could play on it tomorrow—in fact, Meinert says a couple of National Guard guys have played a few holes in the last couple of days.
The park is completely dry but there's lots of tree damage, mostly to younger, smaller trees. When we see one felled giant oak, Meinert stops the cart. "That was a good tree," he says. "I miss it, but it's gone, ain't nothing I can do about it." As we're winding back to the Magazine Street side, Meinert stops the cart again. "Don't tell me they did that," he says, looking toward a group of soldiers who've set up camp 100 yards away. He says it again, more loudly: "Don't tell me they did that." I'm assuming they chopped down a tree or something—there are a couple of big ones down in our field of vision. "They're flying the Texas flag," he says. "Ain't gonna let no other flag fly over this state."