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As Hurricane Gustav rolls in, the party rolls on

Image: Butch Trivette and Nate Mitchel in New Orleans
Butch Trivette smokes while sharing the porch with Nate Mitchell as the last bits of Hurricane Gustav blow down Burgundy Street in the Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans, La. Trivette and Mitchell chose to stay home and ride out the storm rather than evacuating. Jim Seida /

The small but raucous Hurricane Gustav party unfolding on a front stoop in the city’s Bywater neighborhood Monday afternoon was a slice of the city itself – funky, diverse and blues-infused. It also was a celebration tinged with the sense of fate that comes with living in America’s most star-crossed city.

With rock and blues blaring from a car stereo and beer flowing freely, the half-dozen neighbors whooping it up around the stoop of Terry Bahling’s pink house said they were surprised that their decision to ignore Mayor Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order had turned out so well.

The earthen levee protecting them from the rising floodwaters in the Industrial Canal — visible just a few blocks away — was holding up fine, and the storm appeared to be easing. They were without electricity, but they had ample supplies of food and liquor, the latter supplied by a neighborhood tavern that stayed open surreptitiously during the storm.

Their evacuated neighbors, meanwhile, were hundreds of miles away, packed into motels or bunking with relatives.

Could have turned out differently
But they acknowledged that the decision to stay could just as easily have ended with them swimming for their lives.

“I thought it would be pretty bad, but I couldn’t leave my friends,” said Butch Trivette, a 60-year-old blues musician. “I decided I’d rather die than leave my friends.”

J.D. Furlong is a bartender in the Upper Ninth Ward. Jim Seida

Renee Gilmore, a 38-year-old waitress and third generation resident of the city, also said her decision was made easier by the sense of community in the working-class neighborhood in the upper Ninth Ward.

“I consider myself more of a New Orleanian than I do an American,” she said.

Nate Mitchell, a chef at the Pelican Club restaurant, said he’s remained at home for every hurricane that has menaced the city during his 39 years. And for every storm since he attained drinking age, there has been a party.

“We try to have a good time, knowing we’re either going to sink or swim,” he said.

It would be easy to dismiss such words as the result of too much Miller Hi-Life, but conversations with other partygoers made it clear that the decision to stay was not made lightly.

Only three years ago, Hurricane Katrina sent four feet of water pouring into Bywater, a disaster that triggered further tragedy when a wave of lawlessness descended.

“It was like a little Mogadishu,” said J.D. Furlong, 38, referring to the notoriously crime-ridden capital of Somalia. Furlong said he stood guard with an assault rifle over the tavern for seven days as looters ran rampant through the neighborhood. He finally decided to get out, “figuring either I’d be killed or I’d kill somebody.”

Fortunately, lessons were learned from Katrina and applied for Gustav, and the neighbors said they were feeling good that the looting would not be repeated, thanks to the regular police and National Guard patrols sweeping through the neighborhood.

“They did it right this time,” Wendy Guerrera, a 39-year-old movie set painter, said between dance moves.

Instead of rampaging criminals, the neighbors said their main concern after Gustav is how long it will take for electricity to be restored, for neighborhood stores to reopen and for their jobs to return.

“I have some money, but I can’t cash a check anywhere and nobody can work for a while,” said Trivette, the blues musician. “I don’t expect that the clubs will reopen for weeks.”

But he said he was confident that he and his neighbors would get through the coming tight times with a little help from their friends.

“We’re like a tribe” he said as a rousing blues number blasted from the car speakers. “We’ll be OK.”