Taken by Storm

Hurricane Katrina was less than 24 hours away. The Category 5 hurricane threatened to overwhelm the dikes surrounding the city, much of which sits below sea level. The mayor had ordered a mandatory evacuation. Who would choose to stick around?

On Lizardi Street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, plenty of people. The weather was clear and sunny that Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28, and children were playing in the yard while their parents chatted on their porches or worked on their cars, NFL preseason games blaring on the radio. Lisa Moore, 37, says that she was in church with her husband, Larry Morgan, and never heard the mayor's warning. "We didn't think it was going to be that bad," she says. Besides, they had no place to go. "New Orleans is our home, our culture," says Lisa. "It's everything." Larry and Lisa, who have been together since she was 18, have 10 children, ages 2 to 18. Before Katrina, they "had a good life with beaucoup stuff," says Lisa. There was the widescreen TV, their favorite spicy foods (red beans and rice) and federally subsidized rent (only $280 a month) for their large, yellow four-bedroom house. On most Sundays, Larry donned a white suit and top hat and waved feathered fans as a member of a "second-line club" that marches in jazz funerals (the "main line" is the grieving family; in the "second line" come the friends and revelers). Larry, who could make $2,500 a month as a roofer, could make hundreds more marching behind coffins. Even though Lisa and her family lived in the city's most impoverished neighborhood, they never felt poor in New Orleans. "That's why they called it the Big Easy," says Lisa.

Charles Davis III came to the Big Easy 30 years ago and never wanted to live anywhere else. One of the world's leading African-art dealers, Davis, 60, lives in a 160-year-old Greek Revival mansion with thick white Corinthian columns on the high ground along the banks of the Mississippi. He is a member of one of the city's exclusive Mardi Gras clubs, or "krewes" (sworn to secrecy, he couldn't say which one), and a lover of the city's tradition of art, music, food and bacchanal. He is an adventurer who has been jailed by corrupt cops in Tanzania and threatened by nomadic tribesmen in the Sahara. In New Orleans, he prefers living in a mixed-race neighborhood, though he says he sometimes feels vulnerable as a white man and keeps a gun for security.

On the Saturday before the storm, he was driving back into New Orleans from his country house, partly to protect his valuable art collection, but also, he later admitted, to satisfy "an insane curiosity. I wanted to see what would happen." He did feel a little uneasy as he drove across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway on Saturday morning, cruising alone in the southbound lanes while the traffic was bumper-to-bumper leaving the city. "One wonders about one's sanity when you're the only fool rushing toward the inevitable," he recalls.

There was something touching, if slightly daft, about the willingness of New Orleanians, rich and poor, black and white, to hang on to their city that Sunday in late August, when it was so ominously threatened by Hurricane Katrina. But the essence that bound Lisa Moore and Charles Davis to their city--New Orleans's "funk," as Davis calls it--was a gossamer veneer in the face of a monster storm. And some of the city's less desirable cultural attributes--fatalism, racial suspicions and a got-mine, feuding political culture--both put lives at risk and continues to jeopardize the city's effort to rebuild.

Hurricane Katrina would have physically ripped apart any city, much less one situated in a bowl surrounded by dikes designed to withstand only a lesser storm. But New Orleans is not just any city. It is a quirky, noble, damned expression of the best and worst in human nature. To tell the story of the storm and its aftermath, NEWSWEEK reconstructed the challenging, sometimes harrowing experiences of Moore and Davis and two of the public servants sworn to protect them: New Orleans Police Capt. Tim Bayard and New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas. Theirs is a tale of bravery and foolhardiness, resourcefulness and lassitude, spur-of-the-moment competence and deep institutional ineptitude.

New Orleans's own story may yet have a happy ending--a city rebuilt and reborn, a bit smaller (and drier), perhaps, but still vibrant. Yet the cultural flaws that weakened New Orleans before Katrina's blast also threaten to undermine the city's renewal.

When Lisa Moore put her family to bed on the night before the storm, her eldest, Ranlisha, stayed awake, sitting nervously on the porch as the wind began to pick up. At about 11 p.m., electrical wires began snapping and tree branches rattled off the house. As glass shattered around them, Lisa and Larry herded their kids into closets on the second floor. "It felt like the whole house was coming loose," Lisa remembers.

The floodwaters arrived in the morning. The levee on the Industrial Canal that protects the Lower Ninth failed. On Lizardi Street, floating cars thumped against houses. Murky water gushed into Lisa and Larry's home, like a giant toilet overflowing. "All of a sudden, the icebox started moving, the sofa started moving, the freezer, everything," Ranlisha recalls. As the water churned up the stairs, the family scrambled up a ladder into the attic. The storm tore off the roof piece by piece; as Lisa and the children screamed, they were pelted by pink chunks of insulation, which burned their skin. When the eye of the storm passed, everyone "got very quiet," says Lisa. "We wanted to survive."

By late afternoon, a blazing sun was burning through the holes --in the roof. The younger children were vomiting. The day passed; then a night and another day. Larry managed to fish a can of fruit cocktail out of the muck and gouged it open with his keys. He tried to dribble juice onto the cracked lips of Irielle, the 2-year-old, who was badly dehydrated. Calls to 911 were useless; overwhelmed, the emergency operators told them just to stay on the roof. The family waved a red sweater at a passing helicopter. "We had to damn near cry and scream, and no one could come get us," Lisa recalled many weeks later, her bitterness welling up.

Some eight miles away, in uptown New Orleans, Charles Davis had felt fairly confident. His mansion was nine feet above sea level, he had 10 cases of bottled water and three freezers full of game, including trout, wild duck and venison. His canned goods were more haute cuisine than survivalist--artichoke hearts and coconut milk, instead of beans. "I rather screwed that up," Davis later reflected. But at about 4 a.m. on Monday, he figured he had weathered the worst of Katrina and called his wife, Kent, who was with their daughter in Jackson, Miss. "Hey, this ain't so bad," he told her. "Well, no, it's not so bad," she replied. "It's still 150 miles south of you. "

Davis was dumbstruck. The full fury struck after dawn and kept up for nine more hours. Davis's massive, 6,500-square-foot mansion began to shake convulsively. Only later did he discover that a huge sycamore tree had split and lodged itself in the roof. The embedded trunk and foliage were acting like a mast and sail, catching the wind and threatening to tear the roof off. "When is this s.o.b. going to run out?" Davis recalls thinking as he lay in his basement. At about 4 p.m. on Monday, Davis finally poked his head outside. The street, Louisiana Avenue, was a "flowing green river, just an absolutely verdant landscape. It was like the Amazon Basin."

The city government of New Orleans was slow to grasp the full measure of the calamity. On Tuesday morning, Oliver Thomas was asleep in his office at city hall downtown. The president of the city council thought his city had survived. "We got some water here," Thomas told Det. Wilbert Theodore, head of the protection detail for all city council members. "But it'll be going down pretty soon. Everybody better go home." In truth, Thomas had little idea what was going on in the city. Communications had completely broken down, and he was guessing.

A garrulous bear of a man with a hearty laugh, Thomas, 48, was born to New Orleans politics. His aunt Leontine Luke, a Pentecostal Baptist minister and head of the citywide PTA, ran the Lower Ninth Ward machine for at least a generation. With a hand from Aunt Leontine, Thomas had won a seat on the city council in 1994 and never left. Having grown up surrounded by addicts and alcoholics, Thomas drinks virgin daiquiris. He is a student of the town's dysfunctions in other ways, too. "New Orleans is one of the few towns that's known for sore winners," he says, "and I think it's why the community has been so left behind. Especially in the African-American community. The black political leadership here, they spend eternity fighting against each other. Twenty-year-old vendettas never go away. Let's stick together? Not in New Orleans. Not in New Orleans. It's a blood feud like the Hatfields and McCoys."

For years, the African-American community was divided between the Creoles, light-skinned blacks who were skilled laborers--carpenters, masons and artisans--and sometimes "passed" for white, and darker-skinned blacks relegated to more menial work or unemployment. Today Creole is "more a state of mind" than a skin color, says Thomas; still, sharp divisions persist. Mayor Ray Nagin is a light-skinned black and former corporate executive who had won election in 2002 by making common cause with the white business establishment. He is not close to Thomas or the council members who represent poor black wards like the Lower Ninth. During the storm, Nagin and his crowd holed up at the Hyatt Hotel; Thomas and other city council members stayed at city hall. Communication between them would have required an effort that neither side was willing to make. (Nagin told NEWSWEEK he tried to keep the city council "in the loop," but "under a state of emergency I gotta make decisions and get to them in the back end.") In the Machiavellian world of Louisiana politics, there was also little contact or cooperation between Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who was still mad at Nagin for backing her opponent in the 2004 election. For at least the first few days after the storm, there was no effective command structure. Too often, city cops, firefighters and rescue workers were essentially on their own.

The Big Easy has always been an ethnic gumbo, a strange stew of live-and-let-live and racial tension. Mostly black run-down housing projects sit in uneasy proximity to the mostly white French Quarter and Garden District. Working-class whites have gradually moved out of the Ninth Ward as blacks have moved in. About 20 years ago the New Orleans police force had to be compelled by court order to integrate its mostly white force to roughly 50-50 white and black (the city is 70 percent black).

Big and burly, Police Capt. Tim Bayard, 49, was born of mostly French heritage in the Upper Ninth Ward. He gets along with everyone, calling middle-aged women he never met "baby" or "girlfriend." As head of the Vice and Narcotics --units, he was proud to note that only one of his 50 cops fled without permission during Hurricane Katrina (overall, about a seventh of the 1,606-person force failed to report for duty). As he cruised New Orleans on Monday afternoon, he wasn't too sure how bad the damage was, until he heard an exchange on the police radio. A fellow policeman was trapped in the attic of his house in New Orleans East, an area just above the Lower Ninth. His voice beginning to crack, the cop reported that the water was up to his chest. "I can't get out, I can't get out," he cried. A police captain calmly told him to use his service revolver to shoot a hole in the roof. The man did so and narrowly escaped. Bayard looked at his second in command, Lt. Mike Montalbano. "God looked out for him, brother," Bayard murmured.

Bayard's mission in the hurricane was to run boats rescuing people from their houses. Sometime after 4 p.m., he arrived at the St. Claude Avenue Bridge over the Industrial Canal separating Lower Ninth from the rest of the city, expecting to have a flotilla at his command. He had figured that emergency officials would pre-position dozens of boats on high ground, ready to launch. But there weren't any boats.

Over the next several hours, Bayard cobbled together a grand fleet of five vessels of varying sizes and seaworthiness. One belonged to his cousin. They began pulling people out of their houses in the Ninth Ward, an area with a normal population of 20,000, one by one.

For the next 14 days, Bayard and his cops would work virtually around the clock. Bayard was proud of their staying power. When the city offered cops a free trip to Las Vegas after one week of work, every one of Bayard's 50 officers turned down the R R to stay on the job. The duty was desperate at times. There was the frightened call from a cop at a local hospital telling Bayard that the generator --was 15 minutes from running out of fuel--dooming 15 to 20 patients on life support. A wild search through back alleys for spare gas cans saved the day, barely. There was a helicopter trip over the city that left Bayard badly shaken; the water, as it coursed into the Lower Ninth, was so deep that white caps formed on the waves. When Bayard's chopper put down beside the Superdome, he noticed exceedingly long lines snaking from the bathrooms. "There ain't no water," he recalls thinking. "Where's it all going to go?" The emergency planners had apparently forgotten to ask that question. There was not a portable toilet in sight.

Bayard was worried about growing violence in the city. There were reports of people shooting at helicopters and hijacking rescue boats. Edgy policemen were starting to pull their weapons on each other. At the Elysian Fields Avenue on-ramp to Interstate 10, Bayard was approached by a young man looking for trouble. "You know," said the man, "I been sitting up here all this time, but I bet you if I was out here fighting and clowning, you'd have all kinds of police to pick us up." The man pushed a little further. "That's what we ought to do," he said, "we ought to start fighting."

Bayard looked at him. "I'm going to tell you right now," he said, "if you get everybody up and hollering, the first one who is going to catch a bullet is you. You're going to make me blow your f---ing head off."

Bayard looked at the man's friends. "And if anybody else jumps up, I got 14 more rounds, so that will be 14 of you motherf-----s dead before you get me."

Someone in the crowd of older people piped up, "You better leave that police alone."

The young men drifted off.

Uptown, Charles Davis was listening to the radio reports of looting by armed gangs. Much of the chatter, Davis would later realize, was hype and urban myth. But he could see out his own window that looting was rampant. The first looter he saw was a white guy with a shopping cart who shouted to him, "You've got --to get to Wal-Mart because it's wide open." There was a steady procession of looters coming and going from the Wal-Mart a dozen blocks away.

Soon a more menacing presence appeared: convoys of cars with stereos blasting and occupants who seemed bent on no good. Davis armed himself with a .25-caliber Beretta pistol, a .32 Colt automatic and a shotgun. (He declined an Army friend's suggestion that he sleep in the center hall of his house, so he could shoot "fore and aft," and line the ground with broken glass so he could hear an intruder's approach.) If he spied suspicious characters as he worked on his roof, he would yell, "Hey, you don't belong here! Get out of here!" When he ventured out, he wore a gun on his hip. He finally relaxed a little on the Friday after the storm when the police showed up--not the New Orleans PD, but some cops from Southfield, Mich., guns at the ready. "They were expecting to get fire," Davis says.

It wasn't until that Friday that the U.S. military arrived in force to help Captain Bayard's rescue operation. A Special Forces captain asked Bayard where he kept the maps. Bayard said he didn't have any maps. He had been keeping a running list in his head of neighborhoods that had been covered by his men. The captain asked Bayard which areas had been covered by other rescue units, like the state Wildlife and Fisheries people. Bayard said he had no idea--the police radio system had failed Tuesday, making communications virtually impossible. "There's no coordination," he said. Bayard could tell that the captain was appalled, but was too circumspect to do anything more than shake his head.

Late on Wednesday, Aug. 31, rescuers finally arrived for Lisa Moore and Larry Morgan. A Coast Guard helicopter lowered a basket over their torn, sunbaked rooftop, and the pilot signaled "five" with his fingers. Lisa gently transferred her four youngest into the basket and tried to climb in with them. The pilot gestured her away. Larry quickly grabbed their 13-year-old son, O'Neil, the quiet, responsible one in the family, and helped him into the basket, telling him to watch out for his brothers and sisters until the rest of the family could catch up.

As the helicopter took off, boats arrived below. The rest of the family--Lisa and her two teenage daughters, Ranlisha and Juleisha, and son Little Larry, 14--clambered into one boat, and Larry, Lisa's mother and the other children into another boat. The flotilla made its way through the sea of devastation that had once been the Lower Ninth. Ranlisha later described what she saw floating by: "dead bodies, dead babies, people falling with epileptic seizures, dogs, cars, houses, tree branches."

In the chaos, the family lost track of each other. Larry and his group wound up at the Superdome. "I was just walking around, asking everyone, everyone, 'Have you seen my kids?' " The 'Dome was the first ring of hell, as Larry later described it. "I saw four babies die of dehydration right in front of me. There were two dead older ladies. I saw a man cut another man's throat." He says he witnessed a National Guardsman get shot in the leg trying to apprehend the knife-wielding man.

Lisa and her group ended up at the Convention Center, about a mile away. She says she paced the feces-smeared floor all night. Somewhere nearby, she says, she could hear a girl crying as she was being raped. Her own children were too traumatized to eat. Mostly, she agonized about her youngest children, who seemed to have vanished into the sky. Weeks later, the thought that they had been dropped off by the helicopter in the middle of nowhere brought her to tears. "How could they have left my babies like that?" she says angrily. "Why would they do that to my children?"

The president of the New Orleans City Council felt powerless. On Tuesday, Oliver Thomas had fled the rising tide to Baton Rouge, but every day he rode down I-10 to see what he could do, which was not much. On Thursday's trip, Thomas's black SUV sped past some 75 touring buses idling in a casino parking lot 20 minutes outside the city. Thomas was traveling with a couple of state legislators from the Lower Ninth, who started yelling. "Why the hell are they there?" one demanded. "Damn," said Thomas, "they're saying the buses can't get in the city, we're driving in and out, and all these buses are just sitting there? Why aren't the buses taking the same route we're taking?"

The lawmakers exited off i-10 in front of the Convention Center. An unruly crowd was swirling around any car that appeared, in the hope of catching a ride with an unwary driver, who in all likelihood would lose his car if he stopped. The men inside Thomas's SUV were silent at first. There was no sign of police or military. "Get off this street!" Thomas commanded the driver. "Just get off this street, just get off this street!" The driver jerked the car onto a side street, where they were confronted with the sight of an attractive middle-class woman dropping her jeans and squatting to empty her bowels. "Oh, my God," said the driver. "I can't believe what I'm seeing," said Thomas.

Private relief organizations finally brought Lisa and Larry back together again. The children taken off the roof by helicopter--13-year-old O'Neil and the four little ones--were dropped off on a levee and told to walk the five blocks to a sports field at St. Claude Avenue. They were only five blocks from their mother, but they didn't know that, and somehow wound up on a bus for Houma, La., 50 miles away. So began a nine-day odyssey that remains a bit of a blur. There was foster care with a "Miss --Vickie" and then a "Miss Amy"; along the way, O'Neil collected a large duffel bag filled with clothes, toys, diapers, even some CDs. An astonishingly composed eighth grader, O'Neil took care of his 2-year-old sister, who recovered from her dehydration but clung to her brother, and their siblings.

Meanwhile, Lisa and her brood and Larry had been transported to Texas--Lisa to Austin, Larry to the Astrodome in Houston. On Tuesday, Sept. 6, they were reunited in Austin. Lisa had put the names of her children into a database kept by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one of the many charitable organizations that helped in Katrina's wake. In Baton Rouge, a social worker who had been calling around trying to find the children's parents heard of the National Center's database, and within five minutes she had a match. The National Center works with a group of retired law-enforcement officials called Team Adam (named after the murdered son of "America's Most Wanted's" John Walsh), which in the weeks after the storm called on a network of 6,000 volunteer pilots called Angel Flight America to reunite children and parents. On a night in mid-September, Lisa and Larry's five missing kids, accompanied by a NEWSWEEK reporter, were flown from Baton Rouge in two small planes to Austin. There were hugs and whoops of joy as members of the family collapsed into each other's arms, but Lisa seemed dazed. She had been unable to eat, sleep or cry. She was furious that her children had been left alone after the initial rescue. "How could they have done that, seeing those children were all by themselves?" she told the reporter. "That's the thing that really p---es me off."

A four-bedroom apartment was found for the family on the outskirts of Austin. "It was like a prison," says Larry. The landlord didn't want their children playing in the yard, even though he had no problem with Hispanic kids playing there, according to Lisa and Larry. "The people there were just plain nasty," says Lisa. A new apartment was found and paid for by the city of Austin. But Larry was frustrated and bored, and Lisa was anxious and depressed. Their kids seemed to settle in at school, but the older girls were shocked by the number of unwed mothers in the student body. "The Hispanics," says Larry, as if no other explanation is needed. Larry missed marching in the second line and says he couldn't get a roofing job without speaking Spanish.

The kids were still shaken. O'Neil was even quieter than usual. Asked if he wanted to go back to New Orleans, he shook his head no. Prodded by his sister, he admitted what he dreams. "I keep hearing that wind," he said. One of Lisa's teenage daughters is afraid to leave the house. Lisa worries the whole family needs therapy, but she doesn't know where to find it.

On Nov. 8 the couple accepted an invitation, extended by Mayor Nagin on television, to "come on home." Larry, Lisa and her cousin Virginia made the eight-hour drive from Austin to see for themselves how the cleanup was going. The Lower Ninth was the only district that still looked like a war zone. Houses were shattered, trees uprooted. Everything looked gray or brown, caked with dried-out canal sludge. Sealed off by National Guard troops, the Lower Ninth could be visited only by buses leaving from checkpoints for somewhat ghoulishly named "look-and-leave tours."

Larry, Lisa and Virginia were stunned by the topsy-turvy moonscape of their former neighborhood. There were houses on top of trucks; refrigerators on top of cars; roofs in the middle of the street; upside-down cars impaled by tree branches and broken telephone poles. "Ain't no one coming back here," said Virginia. In the back seat, Lisa sat silent and wide-eyed.

Their house had slid off its foundations. Its windows were shattered. In what used to be the living room, the big-screen TV was lying face down in the muck. The furniture was covered with black mold. Flies were buzzing. Upstairs, however, in a closet, Larry found Ranlisha's new clothes, designer purse and shoe collection neatly stowed in plastic tubs high on a shelf. She had bought them with paychecks earned at Wal-Mart to run for homecoming queen.

Telephone poles were plastered with signs advertising a class-action lawsuit. Larry walked over and jotted down the toll-free number. No telling who was being sued, or for what, or by whom, but Larry wanted a piece of it. Virginia grabbed a piece of notebook paper and wrote down the number. "Someone's gonna pay," she muttered. "This city is cursed," said Lisa. "God was angry." Later that day Lisa and Virginia stocked up on red beans and headed back to Austin.

Back in Austin, Lisa seemed briefly happy to be out of New Orleans. "There's nothing to go back to," she says. On the other hand, she couldn't imagine life without Mardi Gras and Larry's second-line parades. They had heard talk that the city would be rebuilt without its low-lying but historic areas like the Lower Ninth. Renewing the city without its black folk made no sense to Larry and Lisa. "The heart of the city is jazz," says Lisa. "No one can do that better than African-Americans." An uncle talked about the time during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 when "they" blew up the levees to flood the Lower Ninth and save the business district. Someone let a barge go through the levee this time, he says. (A National Science Foundation study later found that the levee collapse was caused by soil failure, not by the drifting barge.)

New Orleans has a long and unhelpful history of urban mythology. City council president Thomas says, "I'm not a conspiracy theorist." He knew that those stories of a white plot to dynamite the levees during Hurricane Betsy were imagined. But delay after delay in restoring water, power and sewer services to the Lower Ninth had him wondering about the aftermath of Katrina.

At the first meeting of Mayor Nagin's redevelopment commission, Thomas decided to put rebuilding the Lower Ninth to a vote. He voiced a motion that stated that the commission supported the redevelopment of every neighborhood in New Orleans. The resolution passed. But in December, he was still hearing national politicians and local business people question whether it was worth rebuilding the Lower Ninth. Rather than erecting massive levees to guard against a Category 5 hurricane, these voices argued, better to let at least a part of the Lower Ninth again become the cypress swamp it once was. The city, they insisted, would still have a large black population, though not as large. (Mayor Nagin has acknowledged that some residents of the Lower Ninth may not be able to rebuild for "economic reasons"--because of the high cost of erecting above-sea-level foundations required by new FEMA rules--but he has been reluctant to flatly write off low-level areas, most of which were occupied by blacks.)

President George W. Bush himself came to New Orleans to dine with Nagin's commission in early October. Bush charmed Thomas. "I was ready not to like him," Thomas said the morning after the dinner, "because of what the Democrats said about him. But he likes people. He's not a mean dude. He's not a racist." Thomas recalls that Bush told him, "I really love this city. When I was younger, I couldn't remember how much fun I had because I was drunk all the time. But since I've been sober, I still like it."

At the dinner, a lavish but informal affair at a French Quarter hotel, Barbara Major, co-chair of the mayor's commission, did not mince words. A small black woman, she lectured the president: "My folk need to know that the federal government is going to support rebuilding a place that they can come back to. If you're going to rebuild it without black people, it's not going to be New Orleans."

"I agree," Bush said. But he warned that in order to get Congress to appropriate the money, New Orleans and the state of Louisiana had to be united on what they really needed. "There's too much infighting with the mayor and the governor and the council and the congressional delegation," the president said, according to Thomas. "You need to have one agenda and everybody buys into it and has an idea how much it's going to cost and phase that thing in. If that happens, I'll support it."

Bush concluded, "I will come back." On a Sunday in mid-December, Thomas sat in Celebration Church with the First Lady, Laura Bush, and enlisted her help on extending temporary housing for evacuees. "I got a sense that Laura and her husband really do care about us," says Thomas. In mid-December the White House announced that the Feds would double the amount already promised to fix the city's levees, to $3.1 billion.

Congressional leaders have been waiting for Louisiana and New Orleans to come together on a single--and affordable--plan to rebuild the city. Louisiana's long and well-deserved reputation for corruption has made lawmakers wary that federal funds would be wasted. Ironically, both Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin are self-styled reformers--not old-style machine pols. Their problem may be too much emphasis on openness and consensus. Nonetheless, behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed at producing a workable master plan have been making some progress, and the new year could bring renewed hope for breaking through the political logjam.

In some ways, life in the Big Easy was returning to normal. On an afternoon in mid-November, Capt. Tim Bayard was running a sting operation to catch prostitutes. In the absence of tourists, the contractors and construction workers filling the hotels were keeping the hookers busy. One of Bayard's vice-squad officers had posed as a john to hook up with an escort service, and Bayard and several of his men burst into the hotel room where the sting was going down. A nude woman, very pale with long brown hair, was sitting on the bed. She looked up coldly at the cops. "It's against the law to give a back rub?" she asked. "It takes all of you to arrest somebody? Don't y'all have something better to do?"

Not as far as Bayard was concerned. As two cops walked the alleged hooker to the door, Bayard turned to a sergeant and said, "That's good, Skinny. This is what we need to be doing."

Charles Davis was already looking forward to Mardi Gras. "You can only take so much away from a New Orleanian," he says. "One thing you can't take away is Mardi Gras. It's part of our social fabric." Davis lovingly previewed the ritual of revelry: on the Friday before Fat Tuesday he and his krewe--some 500 strong--will gather for lunch and ribald jokes. Then they will spill out into the French Quarter with their newly christened "king" for a parade. At 6 p.m., in masks and satin costumes, they will process down St. Charles Avenue atop two dozen floats. Lieutenants on horseback will lead the way, followed by the king, waving his jewel-studded scepter, and his court. Farther back, his followers will toss Mardi Gras beads and favors--stuffed animals for the kids, panties for the ladies--to the crowd. "It's a wonderful response," says Davis. "It's like you're a rock star for three hours." The parties will stretch to Ash Wednesday morning and the season of Lent.

Lisa and Larry may, or may not, be back for Mardi Gras. Larry has been living in New Orleans making as much as $100 an hour as a roofer, working seven days a week. Lisa dreams that he will make enough for a down payment for a house, maybe in Hammond, north of New Orleans, where her grandmother lived. It would be good for the kids to live in the country, she thinks. Lisa's moods swing from hope to dejection and anger. She misses her husband. "I need for us to be a family again," she says. "I've got to get it together. I think I'm going to lose my mind." She still has trouble sleeping. In her dreams, she is in the water, with a child on her back, unable to reach the shore.