Siege mentality keeps spirits up as curfew turns city into a ghost town

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The Independent Online
NEW ORLEANS breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as the city awoke to find Hurricane Georges had missed it and was instead bombarding the Gulf Coast in the neighbouring state of Mississippi.

The catchphrase that everyone was using was "we are not dropping our guard". In Britain, people would have talked about "not tempting fate", but in the bayous of New Orleans, with their voodoo traditions, perhaps they did not want to offend whatever spirits had saved the city from the worst.

The police and local authorities were taking no chances. More than a million people from the city and surrounding Louisiana basin are still in the shelters and the curfew, imposed at 6pm on Sunday, had still not been lifted by late yesterday. No one was too bothered as the wind was gusting at 50mph through the empty streets of the French Quarter, driving the heavy rain into horizontal sheets.

The roads were deserted except for the hobos wrapped in makeshift plastic raincoats, picking up empty cans and garbage for the recycling money, and the patrol cars enforcing the curfew. One police chief said that anyone caught sightseeing in a flooded area was breaking the law and would face a jail sentence.

Tens of thousands flocked to the city's nine shelters, including the Louisiana Superdome and the sprawling Ernest Morial Convention Center. The city had room to shelter 100,000 of its 450,000 people.

In the French Quarter, most of the bars on Bourbon Street were closed and covered with plywood. At least three establishments stayed open beyond the curfew, however, offering drinks that included the aptly named "Hurricane" rum punch to a handful of stragglers.

At Daiquiri's Delite Shop, Jill Zibkow, a lawyer from New York, drowned her sorrows with a Martian - a 2ft-tall daiquiri in a green alien-shaped glass. She had arrived in New Orleans on Friday night for her 30th birthday. "Gee-OR-ges," she said as she sat at the bar. "We're just learning how to say it now. You have to have a couple of these Martians to say it properly."

Stranded in their homes, hotels and shelters, people formed a communion through the airwaves. Locals phoned the radio stations from parishes across the area to tell the presenter when they lost power, when they lost television and how strong they thought the wind was.

"Hey, I haven't had any power for two hours," said one caller. Andre, the presenter, much to the caller's disappointment, replied: "Is that all? Some folks have been outed for two days." Yesterday in New Orleans, there was a oneupmanship in suffering.

As the stories began to pour in, a picture of the devastation took shape. New Orleans may have been let off relatively lightly, but the suburbs near the swollen Mississippi river have suffered flooding and the floating homes and restaurants have been badly damaged.

Some stories were heart-warming. At the Superdome in downtown New Orleans, a pregnant woman who was two weeks overdue gave birth alongside 10,000 other people who had taken shelter there. Elsewhere, residents took pity on tourists stranded in their city. One Good Samaritan said: "We have been out looking for people to give what assistance we can. My brother- in-law is standing by with a truck to pick them up so we can look after them. They can stay with us."

There were tragedies, too. One 86-year-old woman died on one of the evacuation buses while she was waiting for a shelter to find her a bed. Another man died after a fire broke out in his New Orleans home. The candles that he had bought to make up for the lost power started a fire and although he managed to wake up his housemate, who did escape, he was not so lucky.

In a poignant detail, it emerged that there was no back-up battery for his fire alarm, and that the weatherboarding on his home had impeded his escape.

But everyone knows it is the residents of Biloxi, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, who have taken the brunt of Georges with reports of winds of up to 170mph. The one major complaint from residents was against the local power company, Entergy, which was variously accused of turning the power off for homes which were under an evacuation order even though the residents were still there, and for not repairing quickly enough those homes that had lost power because of the storm.

The one person to come out of this well is Nash Robert, the veteran hurricane expert with the local television station. Throughout the hurricane warning, Mr Nash clung to his belief the hurricane would miss the city of New Orleans.

One radio presenter told his audience: "Why do we bother having a national hurricane service when we have Nash Roberts. With all their trillions of dollars of equipment and their models, they still didn't get it right. But when Nash Roberts said at 11.32am on Sunday that the hurricane would hit Biloxi, I told my friends - the hurricane is going to hit Biloxi."