THE DIARY: Mosquitoes, alligators, murders, heat, oh yes and hurricanes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
New Orleans

A FEW months ago the city government printed up bumper stickers designed to make the residents feel better about where they live: ", Proud to Call it Home". They should have known better. No one could possibly take it seriously. Within weeks, a far more popular and accurate knock-off hit the streets: ", Proud to Call it Hell".

Calling home means living in a place that has more murders than days of the year and such high humidity that it is often impossible to distinguish the air from the water. The mosquitoes are so bad there is a 24-member Mosquito Control Board in charge of them, and last year people spent $38m trying to control the flying Formosan termites who are literally eating up the city.

There is also an infestation of spine-covered buckmoth caterpillars which eat the foliage off the trees with such gusto that it is possible to hear them chewing it all, and whose spines are toxic even when they're dead, so that their bodies are like landmines in the streets. Living here is not unlike living back in the Old Testament.

This summer was the hottest in 90 years. On the first day of June it was 98 degrees Fahrenheit. In July an electrical transformer blew up on Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was without electricity for two days. In August it rained so hard there was a flood. So it was inevitable last week that Hurricane Georges appeared to be heading right at us.

As the world now knows, at the last minute the storm moved a few miles east and hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast instead, but we aren't out of danger yet. For one thing, 10,000 alligators are coming our way. Until a week ago, Pascagoula, Mississippi, which is about an hour and a half down the road from here, was the home of the world's largest alligator farm. Georges gave the gators their freedom, and so far none have been caught. At this point, frogs in my kneading bowl would be the good news.

LIVING in the land of pestilence and plagues gives everyone an excuse to drink heavily. I was not actually here for the Georges scare but I wish I had been. My lifelong friend McGee called me in New York about every 20 minutes to tell me what a great time she was having and that she could not believe I wasn't in town. "Girl, you are really missing it." She had holed up in her third floor apartment with a 28-year-old Australian sailor, a gallon of Bourbon, and a case of Cokes. My landlady bought a case of wine and a quart of gin. Terranova's grocery store opened up for a few hours so that people could stock up on supplies, and the first thing they ran out of was vermouth.

Every place in town ultimately closed except the Red Door bar, whose customers drank their whisky wearing hardhats, and the Richelieu Hotel, which is conveniently located across the street from McGee.

The staff didn't show up so McGee and assorted other regulars helped out, serving bacon and eggs and brandy milk punches all day. Had I been there I would have made everyone pitchers of hurricanes, an excellent native concoction made of dark rum, light rum, lime, orange, and pineapple juice, and mango syrup.

Most people in their right mind, of course, left town. The last hurricane that actually hit , Betsy, in 1965, killed more than a hundred people. But, as my landlady pointed out, her house was built in 1836 and it is still standing. I think she was disappointed that she didn't get to crack open the gin. "It was only a two-bottle-of-wine hurricane," she told me glumly.

A wine shop was in fact the first commercial establishment in the city and it is no wonder. A year after Bienville established as the capital of Louisiana in 1718, a hurricane wiped out the handful of palmetto huts that had been erected after they cleared what remains essentially a swamp. An engineer named Le Blond de la Tour told Bienville to move to a place that was not, for example, five inches below sea level, between the world's widest river and a pretty big lake, but he refused. Two years later four city blocks had been built when another hurricane came and knocked them out. Finally, they figured out that things might last longer if they were made out of bricks, which is why, despite, many subsequent hurricanes, we are stuck here today.

McGEE and my landlady may be crazy, but they are not nearly as nuts as the thousands of people who piled inside the Superdome, the enormous enclosed stadium where the Saints football team play when they are home, and which served as the city's official shelter during the storm. It wasn't much of a shelter since you had to bring your own bedding and they ran out of food and water. People stood in line with their lawnchairs and coolers and boomboxes, thinking they might actually have some fun, until they got inside and discovered even fresher hell than usual. As you might expect in a city with our crime rate, there were all kinds of thefts and fights, and at one point a full-blown riot broke out.

Also, once you got in, you couldn't get out. National Guardsmen stood at every exit with rifles blocking the many people who decided they would rather take their chances with Georges than stay inside an airless dome with a large segment of the city's criminal population. After two days, on Sunday, when it became clear that we were not having a hurricane after all, everybody got to go home. It had barely rained. Still, half the city's electricity was out for two more days, and schools, banks and city offices remained closed until Wednesday. There is a reason why we have another bumper sticker that is also extremely popular in these parts: "Louisiana, Third World and Proud of It".