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New Orleans: Windswept, wet and messy

NEW ORLEANS — As the liquid sawblade known as Hurricane Gustav spun through here Monday, a man stood outside drinking whiskey and Diet Coke for breakfast, an older couple went running with their golden retriever, and a French Quarter restaurant stayed open to serve eggs Benedict with alligator sausage. Most people had left, and those who stayed were saying I told you so before night fell. Hurricane: yes. Mother of all storms: no, despite the mayoral warnings. Here are three dispatches from Monday in the Crescent City.

Jamal Thalji Times Staff Writer

Noon: Debris is everywhere. Some trees and shrubs have been uprooted, and some have been snapped in half by the storm. The streets are green with fallen leaves. Trash cans, newspaper boxes, busted street lights, signs, roof shingles and garbage litter rain-slick streets. The only sounds are metal clanging on metal, wind that sounds like an 18-wheeler on the interstate and the occasional loud hum of generators kicking in.

But this is not just any hurricane landing. This is New Orleans. The media were already out in force for the Katrina anniversary. Gustav has only increased those numbers. They, the first-responders and a few hearty natives are the only souls in sight.

It's easy to tell who's who. Members of the media drive massive SUVs. The police are in white Ford Crown Victorias and Expeditions, lights flashing. National Guardsmen are in Humvees. Natives are on foot.

Satellite trucks, camera crews and news anchors practicing their lines are up and down Canal Street, the vehicles hugging the tall downtown buildings.

The hurricane's power can be best seen from the top of the North Claiborne Avenue Drawbridge. The Industrial Canal below is overflowing with water. Powerful westerly winds are pushing the rain-swollen canal waters against the flood wall. Waves crash again and again against the edge of the concrete wall for miles in each direction. The wind carries misted water high into the air.

The waterway links the Mississippi River to the south and Lake Pontchartrain on the north, and divides the 9th Ward on the west from the Lower 9th Ward on the east.

The media have gathered at the top of the bridge. Geraldo Rivera has been sighted.

The winds at their fiercest can be felt at the top of the drawbridge, blowing rented SUVs back and forth. Camera crews dart back and forth across the slippery metal grate beneath their feet.

Police and National Guardsmen drive back and forth, blaring warnings to the media that go unheeded.

Rebecca Catalanello, Times Staff Writer

1:30 p.m.: As I sit in my car I have an internal tug-of-war: personal safety (my mother's voice) and curiosity (my job). This storm is still going — officials say at least another 12 hours of rain and wind. I decide to brave it. "I'm going for a drive,'' I message my four fellow staffers. They all left a long time ago.

I am the weak link, I think.

I go as far as the Gentilly Woods neighborhood, just to check on my family members' homes and survey the damage along the way. A downed live oak blocks St. Charles Avenue. Tree branches and debris are everywhere. When I climb the interstate ramp, my stomach drops. No one's up here. Why am I?

I go back to the apartment and just stay in the car to write. My editor says people want to know how the city looks. So, here's how it looks:

It's windy again. Rain is swirling. Pink insulation is flying out of the window of the business on the corner and is flying down the road toward me. Blue tarps left over from Katrina are shredded atop roofs, while winds tear them further. A chair from someone's house is overturned in the middle of our street. But it's going to be a challenge to decipher Katrina damage from Gustav, I think. This is a half-fixed city.

On the radio, Mayor Ray Nagin tells reporters the same thing I've been saying to myself this morning: "So far, so good.'' He says they're still monitoring the Industrial Canal, where water is splashing over the western wall toward the 9th Ward and Gentilly Woods, making one road impassable. There were three vessels loose there, too, corralled by the Coast Guard.

But the levees are holding, Nagin says. The levees are holding.

Michael Lewis, New York Times

2:56 p.m.: I watch the storm for a stretch from the front porch and it is, at moments, pleasantly menacing. The wind is sufficiently violent to hold your attention, but not so violent to cause you to dive into the cellar. It's movie wind more than hurricane wind, and when an older fellow and his wife trot past with their golden retriever, it doesn't seem like the worst idea in the world.

There's no other soul in sight, and won't be for many hours, but that is less because it is unwise to go wandering around in a hurricane than because there's hardly anyone here. At the height of the storm, a photographer and I dash out and go for a long walk — or, in her case, a hobble. Small trees sway and occasionally snap; every few minutes a big oak drops a small branch, like a gratuity. But if you stay out from under big trees, and power lines, you feel perfectly safe.

This report contains information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post, and was compiled by staff writer Thomas Lake.

New Orleans: Windswept, wet and messy 09/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 9:54am]

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