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Commentary: Why do we stay in New Orleans? Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 3, 2008 - According to news reports we heard while battened down in our home for Hurricane Gustav, some 10,000 of us had stayed behind -- less than 5 percent of the city's population. Hmmm, don't the Hell's Angels call themselves the 5 percenters? Do we stay because we're closet outlaws?

I don't think so. Choosing to stay seems to be a predisposition, subject to reality checking that varies in degree, according to circumstance and the character of the individual. For example, we had planned to stay for Katrina, but changed our minds at 1 a.m. on the Sunday before it hit; television reports made it clear that this was going to be bad. After we returned, we decided that in the future we'd stick it out for anything up to Category 2, or maybe -- depending on circumstances -- Category 3.

For Gustav we started preparing for either alternative four days before the estimated landfall. We made motel reservations in Alabama, and at the same time stocked up on water and made sure the generator was working. We made our decision at the last possible moment, after the 4 p.m. Sunday updates made a persuasive case that we'd be safe.

Of course, that doesn't get to the "why" of it. I've listened to many people explain why they don't evacuate, read the stories of others -- and the obituaries of some who made the wrong call. They seem to fall into five rough, very rough categories. They overlap to some degree, and diligent taxonomists surely could pinpoint more.

The Easies. Many of New Orleans' residents tend to take the easy way out of a problem: ignore it, sidestep it, persuade themselves either that it will solve itself or that it's not really a problem. That's not quite as irrational as it sounds in the Big Easy, a culture with a lot of patience and a high tolerance for living on the margin: Life will provide, and it won't necessarily cost too much. To this cohort -- before August 29,2005 -- hurricanes came and went, New Orleans was still standing, so what would be the point of going to all that effort? Katrina pretty much wiped that attitude away in regard to hurricanes. But Easy is still a way of life, and Easies who live on high ground get to practice the old tradition.

I saw one in the local supermarket the afternoon before the storm. He was standing right behind me in the checkout line, a thin elderly man with a genially bemused face. His purchases, piled on the belt, included a case of bottled water, two cases of Budweiser and 20 cans of tuna fish. "These are not government-recommended emergency rations," he said to no one in particular.

"We'll drink to that." It's no accident that the last businesses to close in New Orleans before a hurricane, and the first to reopen after, are bars. Our first meal after returning from Katrina was hamburgers at the Avenue Pub on St. Charles Ave., so I stopped by early Tuesday morning. Sure enough, Polly had flung her doors open Monday afternoon, even as winds were still gusting and Mayor Ray Nagin was threatening to jail curfew-breakers.

Moving on in search of a place to plug in my laptop -- power had been out since the first breezes -- I wound up at Buffa's Lounge on Esplanade, just across from the French Quarter, where I got into the spirit of things by ordering a bloody Mary with my breakfast. In both places the customer mix included a bunch of first responders getting off their shifts, but most patrons were everyday citizens doing what they like to do best, socializing and drinking.

During the storm we'd looked out the front at one point and observed three neighbors sitting on the porch across the street corner, shouting over the wind to each other as they sipped their beers. Like the rest of their peers here, they don't need an extraordinary event to start imbibing, but they relish the drama that such an event brings to the job.

Protectors of the castle. Looters rampaged through the city during Katrina, and many people expected a replay with Gustav. Yes, we were assured that the police would be here in full force this time, along with some 1,500 National Guard troops and MPs. But history has taught us that it's not always the best idea to trust the official word. The most skeptical and cynical loaded their pistols and shotguns and hunkered down. Even among those of us who stayed for other reasons, this was a secondary or tertiary consideration. (Still, I own a shotgun now, something I never would have considered in the past.)

In any event, the police and Guard were indeed on the job, and the city was stunningly calm. Maybe next time there won't be as many protectors.

Caretakers. They're here from a sense of duty. Some, like our friend Jazz, stay to help family or friends who can't care for themselves and can't or won't evacuate. Others have a wider caretaking horizon. Ed McGinnis, the president of our Irish Channel Neighborhood Association, grew up with one. His mother, a nurse, wrestled the Red Cross to the ground during Hurricane Betsy in the 1960s, when the agency tried to stop her from her "unauthorized" efforts to aid the dazed and injured; and she died of a heart attack while tending to people during Katrina. Ed wanted to make sure his house was OK. But more important, he stayed to keep an eye on the neighborhood and help people stay in touch with each other. And though his employer hadn't asked him to stay, he wanted to be available if needed at the plant. As it turned out, he was.

Finally, there are those I call keepers of the flame. Their loyalty is to the idea of the city -- its soul, you might say. At its most extravagant, this group embodies the truly lunatic New Orleanian, the romantic whose passion for the city runs to such anthropomorphic extremes that leaving her behind in times of danger is like abandoning a spouse or child.

There's a bit of this loyalty in many of us who stay primarily -- or ostensibly -- for other reasons. I finally figured out that this is my crowd. I've lived here only six years. But New Orleans felt like home even when I was still a serial tourist, and the feeling has only grown as I immersed myself more deeply in its culture, its community, and its passions. I haven't felt so connected to a place since I was a kid.

The tipping point was Katrina, or more precisely its aftermath. Before, centuries of essentially feudal misrule had made "civic activism" an oxymoron. Politics was a spectator sport, entertaining and amusing for its extravagant shamelessness. After Katrina, it wasn't funny anymore. Now an ever-growing crowd of citizens is involved in everything from cleaning streets to participating in community-based planning and attacking the old political machines. Groups of people are working to hold City Hall accountable and build support for citizen initiatives. We've kicked out some bad politicians and have our sights on more. We got major reform legislation passed in the state legislature, including the creation of professional levee boards and an overhaul of the city's corrupt property assessment system.

Karen Gadbois, one of our great activists, describes this phenomenon eloquently: "We are the people we've been waiting for." I've been only a small player in this movement, but it's changed my relation to the city: I ran away to join the circus and ended up working for the revolution. And it's given me, like so many others, a bigger stake in the dream. New Orleans' future is still uncertain, but we are deeply invested in protecting and nurturing it.

It sort of makes you want to hang around when the chips are down.

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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