French Quarter Struggles With Crisis: residents defy evacuation, begin rebuilding their co
"I've got no time for talking.
I've got to keep on walking.
N. O. is my home"
-Walkin' To New Orleans
New Orleans, September 9, 2005 - The destruction laid upon New Orleans
and the surrounding region has been devastating. Many sections of the
city continue to be submerged in toxic waters. Countless streets are
impassable due to debris and flooding. The military has begun
house-to-house searches hoping to find survivors, but are mostly
otherwise. It is estimated that thousands are dead. Corpses dwell in
putrid floodwaters, and in the ruined homes in which they once lived.
Electricity is still out.
New Orleans resident Mike Powls, 46, sits and has a drink in Molly's,
one of the two bars open in the French Quarter. When asked about the
time immediately following the hurricane, Mike says, "the first week
after Katrina, for all practical purposes, capital property relations
disappeared in New Orleans."
The breakdown in the established order was compounded by a four to six
day lull between Katrina and the arrival of federal aid. For some
communities, especially the low lying ones, this spelled absolute
disaster. For neighborhoods that were fortunate enough to escape
flooding, there was still the desperate need to find drinking water and
In the French Quarter, which had no water damage, people acted fast.
Within 48 hours, residents formed ad hoc community centers and created
new organizations to try and address their acute needs.
Today it is estimated by neighborhood leaders that 200-300 people
in the quarter. Like other parts of the region, living conditions are
bad, but they are getting by in part because of the unity demonstrated
by these residents.
Two community centers have risen out of this storm. Both are old wooden
pubs. One is Molly's at The Market on Decatur Street; the other is
Johnny White's on Bourbon Street. The former is open every day from
11am-6pm, and serves as a place for people to get together to exchange
knowledge and resources. The latter does this too, but has evolved into
a kind of shelter/supply depot/first aid station.
"We are the community center. It started out as just a bar and then
people started bringing food here. People started bringing clothes and
water. Suddenly, it became a soup kitchen and a homeless center," said
Johnny White's bartender Joe Bellamy, a former Para-rescuer in the Air
Many of the supplies are donated by residents. It is common, when a
person decides to evacuate, for them to drop off their useful
to one of these centers. In the last few days, they have also been
receiving goods from the National Guard and Army. Even so, much of what
comes in has been "looted". However, few take issue with people
acquiring basic necessities through whatever means available to them.
Ride Hamilton, 29, a network analyst and artist, who himself has
acquired a large assortment of basic necessities, had this to say: "you
go down to places... that [has] already been broken into, I've never
broken into a place, but you go in after the people and usually if they
open up... police take supplies they want first, then they guard it as
other people go in and that's where I get all of my things".
On a typical day, the tavern provides services for dozens of residents,
and until recently was one of the only places where people could
first aid, administered by Bellamy, Hamilton, and other volunteers.
Hamilton's efforts include stitching up an ear with a sewing needle and
"It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, no matter race, religion,
matter what your personal beliefs are, you come in and need some food-
you're getting it. You need some water- you're getting it," said
Beyond these two community centers, new people's organizations have
coalesced around a grassroots recovery effort. One, commonly known as
The Red Shirts came together as a band of ten people who set out to
clean the streets of the French Quarter and administer first aid to any
in need. This group continues to hit the streets, wearing their
trademark red, and impressing many with their self-imposed twelve-hour
shifts. To date, their most impressive achievements were the cleaning
the wrecked Jackson Square, and the removal of a fallen brick wall.
Thai Watford, a member of the group, stated, "we found a brick wall
was completely collapsed into the street. It was impassable except
by a hummer... brick by brick we picked up that wall and stacked them
against this building on the sidewalk."
The Red Shirts aren't the only new organization in town. Restore the
French Quarter (RFQ) came together shortly after the levies broke. RFQ,
which includes forty volunteers, has cleared their share of down trees
and rubbage. One of their fist acts was to make Esplanade, a major
street marking the border of the neighborhood, passable by vehicle.
Beyond cleaning, the group has built a public stockpile of necessary
items. These include food, water, tools, clothes, etc. the goods and
organization are located in a makeshift headquarters on the corner of
Esplanade and Decatur. HQ is a nine thousand square foot three story
building owned by actor Harry Anderson of Night Court fame. It is
equipped with generators, a fully stocked bar, and a large gas grill.
RFQ has gone the extra step of stenciling white "RFQ Volunteer"
t-shirts, printing professional looking ID badges, and writing and
producing a mission statement.
Standing in the HQ courtyard, RFQ member "Steve", who works in
construction, declared that the groups' initial action was shortly
the disaster struck. Their first priority was to help distribute guns
and ammunition to area residents to use in self-defense. Since then
have turned their attention to fixing roads and keeping people fed.
RFQ was in the process of gathering resources to repair a number of
roofs that were damaged by Katrina's winds, when a rumor stopped them
their tracks. Yesterday, word got around that either the local or
federal government was close to enforcing the mandatory evacuation.
rumor gained validity earlier in the day, when a number of Louisiana
State Troopers entered Johnny White's and initially demanded that
patrons leave with them to be evacuated. After some heated words, the
Troopers were convinced to call their superiors for confirmation. As
things went, the Troopers left with no one in tow. Even so, the story
and fear of a looming forced removal spread like wildfire across the
"All of us are hunkering down and hiding in our residences. Is that
stupid or what? There are hundreds, even thousands, of people right
that would be active volunteers. We know this city like the back of our
hands. We are not driving around like Mississippi cops that don't know
this place. We know what we're doing, where everything is, and how to
get resources. We can get this place back up and running. They [the
government] need to leave the French Quarter alone, and let us do
said Steve of RFQ.
Karen Watt, 61, a small bar owner and RFQ member added, "we are
survivors who live here. We can take care of ourselves".
Many have expressed fear of the shelters in Houston, as well as a
desire to stay put. David Richardson, 56, a carriage driver in the
French Quarter who I met up with at Molly's said, "this is my home, I
want to stay with it. This is my city. I love this city. I love the
French Quarter. I want to be here to put it all back together."
Have RFQ been scared into non-action? The answer is no. Tomorrow, RFQ
planning a show of community solidarity by organizing residents in a
massive cleanup starting near Jackson Square (the middle of the
quarter). It is hoped that this display will convince officials that
residents, far from being a liability, are a clear asset.
While The Red Shirts and RFQ are the most visible organizations, a
number of other groups have also coalesced around the basic needs of
survival. RFQ says that they have become aware of a new formation in
nearby Marigny neighborhood. This organization, like RFQ, hopes to
start reclaiming their streets from Katrina's ghost in the coming days.
As dusk approached, David Richardson leaned up against a post on
street and summed up this Quarters spirit of self-reliance; "This is
what I call the 'Committee of 75'. Nobody is giving orders. There are
enough people that know what needs to be done and we talk it over."
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