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Threatened with eviction at gunpoint, the Big Easy holdouts are now hailed as heroes

London Telegraph | September 19 2005
By Toby Harnden

Just days since they were being urged, sometimes at gunpoint, to leave their homes, the hardy band of residents who sat tight in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are now being encouraged to stay put and help to restart the city.

In a remarkable U-turn, the authorities - who had previously reviled, goaded and even threatened force against the few hundred remaining "holdouts" - are hailing them as examples of the indomitable spirit needed to rebuild the "Big Easy".

The United States Army has begun helping them to stay, rather than persuading them to get out. "They are people who have spent most of their lives right here and they can't imagine anything else," said Major Keith Ensley, a US National Guard officer.

"Now the mayor has indicated they can stay, we're offering them a little more help - water and food as needed. They've been real co-operative."

A marked change of mood has swept the city and its officials since President George W Bush promised last week to rebuild New Orleans with federal funds. The mayor, Ray Nagin. is urging businesses to return to the city he recently declared a no-go zone.

With the flood waters receding faster than anyone thought possible, the holdouts will now be joined over the next week by up to 180,000 of those who fled or were rescued from the hurricane, and are now being enticed back.

With hundreds of decomposing corpses - thanks to the reopening of the port and airport - finally removed, laboratory tests have found sewage and oil left behind by the filthy water, but no contagious diseases. The worst predictions about the city's demise have been set aside.

President Bush's contrite pledge appears to have guaranteed the future of New Orleans in some form. Now property speculators have moved in, buying up flood-ravaged houses in anticipation of a possible real estate boom.

"We survived!" said a triumphant Mica Rosenberg, 72, standing among the potted plants on her wooden porch in the old Bywater district. "We went to hell and back, but the only way they were going to take me out was in a bag," she said.

She and her son Lazaro, 36, a dealer in a casino, had stayed in their home without water or electricity, existing on stores of tinned food and bottled water. "The helicopters swooped down low to try and blow us out. The police got real ugly, telling us to grab our stuff and go.

"But yesterday, the National Guard came around with a box of apples and said they were full of admiration for the way we stood our ground. One sergeant told me we had showed others what was possible for the city and its future."

Now, she said, there was a chance to start afresh in New Orleans without "the hoodlums and dopes and robbers that infested this place like fleas on a dead cat".

Clyde Casey, 43, an artist who stayed behind, said: "It felt like the Gestapo was coming in. The government tried to punish us for being prepared when they hadn't been."

When Mr Bush first arrived to see the devastation, much of the small area of the city that remained above water was sealed off. "The police jumped on me and told me to get out of town," said Mr Casey.

"One put a Magnum against my head while another punched me and stamped on my glasses. I felt the presence of an almighty egotistical force that was really scaring the bejeebees out of people who had the legal right to be here. Today, I'm just one of the people here ready to rebuild."

Even in the worst hit parts of New Orleans and the outlying bayous and fishing villages of Louisiana, people were returning to the remnants of their homes last week and vowing to start again.

Darrell Domingue, 44, was using a chainsaw to clear branches and loading a few salvaged possessions from his home near Pointe de la Hache, which had been filled with more than 15 feet of water.

A neighbouring mobile home had slammed against one side of the house, his carport had disappeared and a huge bale of hay had smashed through the back.

As Mr Domingue surveyed the property he pointed out toys from his 10-year-old daughter's bedroom spilling out of a hole in the roof - dolls, an upside down Minnie Mouse and a contorted Gonzo from the Muppets.

A 35ft tidal surge had hit the house when it swept over the levee about 20 yards away. His parents' home, in which he had survived Hurricane Betsy as a boy of four, was swept half a mile up the road.

His father-in-law's metal coffin, in which he had been buried a month before the storm, was washed from its vault at the St Thomas the Apostle graveyard, which had been under several feet of water. Mr Domingue shook his head. "I don't know how to tell my wife he isn't there any more.

"I haven't shed a tear yet and neither has she. I couldn't imagine this was possible, but what can you do about it? You rebuild and you move on."

At what was once the fishing village of Ycloskey, tales of miraculous escapes have entered local lore. Nephus "Fats" Wilson, a Pointe de la Hache oysterman, rode out the storm in a boat called Tide and emerged from the woods four days later with a full bottle of whisky in his hands.

Back in New Orleans, volunteers dispensed vegetarian food and power bars to Mrs Rosenberg and her son.

"We're just trying to cheer people up and lend a hand," said Randall Amster, 39. "There's no place in the world like this. The energy here, the full-on, crazy, in-the-moment vibe never left. That is what will bring people back.

 

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911:  The Road to Tyranny