How New Orleans Coped With Gustav

Three years ago, in preparation for Hurricane Katrina, Bob Rue, owner of The Sarouk Shop, an Oriental rug emporium on New Orleans's grand St. Charles Avenue, boarded up his windows with plywood and painted on a warning: "Don't Even Try. I am Sleeping Inside with a Big Dog, an Ugly Woman, Two Shotguns and a Claw Hammer." It worked. Almost every business lining the Avenue, from Smoothie King to the Please-U Restaurant, was trashed and looted-except for those within viewing distance of Rue's sign.

The sign and its addenda ("Still Here. Woman Left Friday, Cooking a Pot of Dog Gumbo, Still Got Claw Hammer") was so emblematic of the city's post-Katrina troubles as well as the resilience and highly necessary sense of humor of its residents that it is now part of the Louisiana State Museum's permanent collection. So when Gustav reared his ugly head, Rue was forced to paint another: "Don't Try. Sleeping Inside with a .357, a Pit Bull, and Six Big Snakes." Except that this time his graffiti served largely to entertain. To date only two episodes of looting have been reported, and all seven perpetrators were apprehended on the scene by cops out in full force.

Part of the reason for the far more orderly aftermath may well have been Mayor Ray Nagin's admonition that "Looters will have a special trip." In remarks widely broadcast, he added, "You will not get a pass. Anyone caught looting in New Orleans will go directly to the Big House in the general population. You will go to Angola prison and God bless you if you go there." (The quote was apparently broadcast far outside of Louisiana as well-there were so many searches for "Angola" that it reached the top of Google Trends.)

As colorful as the mayor's language continues to be, the more likely reason for the fact that order held is that the response of the government at every level has been so superior to the tragically bungled reaction to Katrina that it feels as though we're living on a different planet. In Katrina's immediate aftermath, even some cops joined the post-Katrina looters (at a Cadillac dealership and a WalMart) and the rest were largely without leadership or even gas. This time the police force acted like one. Another huge difference was the fact that Governor Bobby Jindal came home from Minneapolis, skipping his prime-time convention slot to get the National Guard in place in New Orleans a full three days before Gustav made landfall. After Katrina, former Governor Kathleen Blanco did not manage to call out the bulk of the troops until almost a week into the nightmare-unbelievably, she'd been overheard by a CNN producer admitting to an aide that she had not known it was her job to do so. By the time the Guard arrived, looters were so well organized they were using two-way radios to notify each other of the locations of particularly lucrative stashes. Rue reported that he was kept awake most nights by the sounds of gunfire; at one point he himself pulled a .38 on a would-be looter who was about to haul away his neighbor's vintage Porsche on a flatbed. This go-round the Porsche again came under siege, but only by a Sycamore limb that dented its roof.

Then there was the fact that folks without cars (80,000 households pre-Katrina) or a place to go were offered transportation out to shelters via buses and Amtrak. Just prior to Katrina, Amtrak had called the mayor's office to volunteer a train, but Nagin never returned the call. Unutilized school buses were left in their lots and later flooded. This time, Jindal himself turned up at the combined bus/train station as 18,000 people started boarding buses as early as Saturday. The plan had been to avoid the hellish scenario that unfolded in Katrina's "shelters of last resort," the Superdome and the Convention Center, and it worked. The restored Superdome never lost power and will host Sunday night's game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While much that needed fixing got fixed, the good news is that the qualities that endear New Orleans to many-our more colorful characters, neighborly spirit, intrepid chefs and bars that never close-have not changed in the least. Johnny White's, the Bourbon Street dive that became famous for being the bar that never closed during Katrina, became the bar that never closed during Gustav. Though many participants heeded the warning to leave town, Southern Decadence, an annual gay festival that last year drew 120,000 to the city, went on as planned, with the parade led by Grand Marshals Paloma and Tittie Toulouse snaking down Bourbon Street less than 24 hours before landfall. More than 10,000 people stayed in town, and despite the lack of electricity, held makeshift porch parties, grilling the contents of their refrigerators and freezers, making runs to Johnny's or to Molly's at the Market, another French Quarter bar that was a popular Katrina hangout, for cold beer and cocktails. By Tuesday, Iron-chef contender and James Beard award-winner John Besh had opened his bistro Luke. Dan Stein had opened his Magazine Street deli (motto: "If you want a Po-Boy, go somewhere else"). And both were slammed with crowds that spilled onto the sidewalk.

When my husband and I returned Wednesday morning to our house in the Garden District, our power was still out, but four blocks away, at the famed restaurant Commander's Palace, chef Tory McPhail was heating up turtle soup, braised short ribs, and andouille sausage grits on grills set up out front, handing them out to first responders and a few hungry neighbors. That night we watched Sarah Palin address the Republican Convention on a wide-screen TV in a bar on Magazine Street (the thirty or so folks inside all gave her a thumb's up), drank martinis (without olives), and became the first in our neighborhood to get power the next morning, though it has gone out again a few times since.

Indeed, the power-or continuing lack thereof in many neighborhoods-has been the largest post-Gustav glitch, followed closely by Nagin's insistence on not letting citizens back into the city until Thursday. Many people had evacuated to places like Baton Rouge and Lafayette and Alexandria, all of which were walloped by the storm, and preferred to come home and be without electricity, rather than endure the same fate on someone else's borrowed couch in cities where the food is not nearly as good. When Nagin urged citizens to leave, he employed his usual inflammatory rhetoric, predicting that Gustav would be "the mother of all storms" and "the storm of the century," and telling folks to "get your butts moving out of New Orleans now." The fear is that by barring the citizens' return he will discourage them from doing just that the next time a possible mother of all storms is headed our way. Motorists turned away at checkpoints were furious-especially after cell-phone calls to friends inside, who were enjoying the post-Gustav holiday. Worse was the predicament of folks who had run out of money for motels and food and had just enough gas to get back inside and had no choice but to wait in parking lots near the checkpoints.

Councilwoman Stacy Head, who frequently tussles with the mayor, delivered him a peace offering of barbecue and urged him to change his mind on Tuesday to no avail. "I don't want us to be Big Brother," she said. "If people want to fuss, let them fuss at Entergy." By Wednesday afternoon the checkpoints were all but abandoned and as people poured in, Entergy was indeed the target of their ire. While Katrina's top villain-FEMA--was operating relatively smoothly, already opening up centers where people could get paid back for their motel evacuation bills, Entergy had become public enemy number one, with the governor hollering the loudest. Dr. Brobson Lutz, who sat out the storm in his French Quarter house, and who keeps chickens in a chicken house close to downtown, said, "The amazing thing to me about this is that a plywood chicken house is fine, yet thirteen out of the fourteen Entergy transmission lines went down. Somebody isn't building something right."

While the levees held far more successfully than the power lines, Gustav served as a reminder that the Corps of Engineers still has a long way to go. One of the most threatened levees this time, the wall protecting the Upper Ninth Ward from the Industrial Canal, is still unfinished on one side, and it remains unclear how it would have fared if the surge had been higher, or the pounding had lasted longer. Further, Gustav highlighted the crucial need for wetlands restoration, as they serve as much-needed buffers to these powerful storms. James Carville, who with his wife Mary Matalin recently moved to New Orleans, and who serves on a board called called Gustav a "teachable moment." His fellow board member John Barry, author of the bestseller "Rising Tide," agrees and points out that "the problem on the industrial canal [which is a man-made navigation channel to benefit shipping; the gulf pours directly into it] is a perfect example of how serving interstate and international commerce from which the entire nation benefits, has made New Orleans more vulnerable to storms. Hence, protecting it is a national responsibility."

Until that protection arrives-in the form of restored wetlands and fully strengthened levees-New Orleanians continue to be jittery, but hopefully still ready to evacuate, especially as two other storms in the Gulf, Ike and Josephine, could well head our way. So far Ike appears to be following the same track as Betsy, the powerful Category 3 storm that killed 58 here in 1965. Bob Rue sat out Betsy on an upper floor of his dorm when he was a student at Tulane. When I visited him in his shop Friday, he had still not unbundled his rugs, just in case. "It happens," he says, referring to repeat episodes, even back-to-back ones. "I've been through more than 30 hurricanes and tropical storms since I've been here," he tells me not without a touch of pride. In the meantime, he has added an addendum to his plywood: "Bowl of Dog Gumbo $1; Fried Snake $3. We buy dogs and snakes."