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Commentary: Why do we stay in New Orleans?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 3, 2008 - Less than half an hour after Gustav's worst winds had passed, our street corner filled up like a stage populated by a director. We had stepped out, past fallen branches and random debris, to meet our good friend Jazz, who lives a couple of blocks down the street. She'd called to announce "I need some fire!" The electricity had gone with the first gusts five hours before and her stove required a jumpstart. Jazz had stayed so she could take care of her elderly uncle Leroy, ailing with diabetes and epilepsy and generally unable to fend for himself.

As we talked, three shirtless middle-aged men approached on the side street. We knew them by sight only, though we'd discussed the possibility of getting a neighborhood watch together to keep an eye on crime and communicate during just this sort of emergency. Now the men were working their way up the block, picking up this bit of debris, wiring that neighbor's broken gate shut, and generally tidying up.

"You OK, baby?" Jazz asked the one who seemed to be the leader. "How you doin'?" They'd stayed, hoping to find work in the cleanup phase. The leader pointed to several lengths of aluminum siding that had blown off the house on the corner. "That's why you have to be careful about who you hire," he said, before they moved on.

Isabelle saw us chatting and strode toward us. She'd spent most of the storm sitting and drinking with a couple of friends on the porch of her house on the corner. We'd had many long, rambling chats with her in the past: An attractive Frenchwoman of a certain age, she was aggressively voluble and rarely sober. She greeted us with hugs and cheek kisses.

"You OK, baby?" Jazz asked. "How you doin? How come you didn't leave?" Replied Isabelle: "I stayed for Katrina, and I wasn't going to leave for thees pissant storm." Looking around, she snorted: "It is nothing." After a long, heavily accented stream-of-consciousness monologue, she returned to her porch.

Next came Michael, a pale young man with long, curly blond hair, also shirtless -- another person we'd seen around but never really talked to. Jazz issued her standard greeting. He told us that he owned a shop in the French Quarter that stocked bronze statuary, fountains, some jewelry, and --- he said -- Remington paintings. He stayed through the storm because he wanted to be sure his business would be safe in the aftermath.

Here we were, 10 of the estimated 10,000 who stayed in New Orleans. Each of the others had some sort of reason for staying, ranging from concern to defiance. But what was mine? I'd actually been thinking about that off and on since the e-mail from cousin David in Minneapolis. I'd told him we were staying, and he replied: "Well, Charlie, we all trust and hope your choice is correct. As we watch CNN etc, we pray for your safety. God be with you. I hope we have a longer conversation after this passes."

"That's condescending," I thought. But while I hadn't been watching CNN et al. I could guess the storyline, starting with Mayor Maladroit's "mother of all storms" outburst: Those fools in New Orleans are in trouble again. I wrote David back, politely explaining that the TV newspeople tend to paint with broad brushes and ignore specific realities on the ground; and that many of us study the storm tracks, computer models and meteorological updates in great detail before making judgments based on our particular circumstances and vulnerabilities. New Orleans is not one risk profile but many; the high ground near the river in the Irish Channel is a world less risky than the Lower Ninth Ward. In any case, this storm looked increasingly likely to hit well west of the city.

I realized later that it wasn't much of an answer. I also realized I was less annoyed with David, who meant well, than with myself. His implicit question was not how I decided to stay but why, and I hadn't answered it to my own satisfaction. I'd thought through the execution, but the idea itself came from the gut.

Was I in fact crazy and irresponsible? The question has come up before in the larger context of choosing to live in New Orleans in the first place. When I told a friend back north that we were moving here, she said, "So you're running away to join the circus?" Right, that's it exactly.

Sensible people don't run away to join the circus, but passionate people do. If you don't share that passion, it can look like lunacy. For example, a few years ago I interviewed with a major corporation. Making small talk, the pr executive who was escorting me through the sleek headquarters in suburban Atlanta asked me where I lived. When I told him New Orleans, he actually stopped and stared. "Why would you want to live there?" he asked.

I tried to explain -- the culture, with its rich chiaroscuro of joy and sorrow; the food; the people and their sense of community; the architecture; the beauty of the gulf skies and live oaks; the streetcars. He had no idea what I was talking about. I'm not saying that's why I didn't get the job, but it was plain that I had lost credibility before the interview even began.

But New Orleans dementia couldn't be the answer, either. According to the news reports, something like a quarter of a million sensible people left the city, part of a magnificently coordinated evacuation of the entire Louisiana coastal area. Perhaps 10,000 stayed behind in New Orleans.

The question still lingers: How to explain us?

Charles Burck is a writer and editor, formerly with Fortune magazine, living in New Orleans. Since Katrina, he also become a civic activist. 

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