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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Cold beer and hope in New Orleans

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, New Orleans

Throughout the horrors of the past couple of weeks in New Orleans, a number of bars in the French Quarter were determined to stay open and give their regulars a slice of normality.

A patron sits in One Eyed Jack's bar, one of at least two bars in the French Quarter open in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
One Eyed Jack's was another bar determined to remain open

Slumped at the bar, bourbon and Coke in a plastic pint glass, he could have been any drinker.

But my new friend was one of the famous four who hung on to the shutters and fought the storm as Hurricane Katrina tried to close Johnny White's bar for the first time in 17 years.

Why are they still here? Because they have got a job to do.

You cannot really make it out by candlelight, but the torch beam reveals the quest that keeps them all going: a small, cardboard sign behind the bar which simply reads "We never close". So far so good.

They had a hurricane party on the night of the storm and have been working in shifts, around the clock, since then.

Johnny White's has always been an institution on the corner of Bourbon Street and Orleans Street in the French Quarter and, despite it all, they somehow manage to keep cold beer on ice.

Run by alcoholics for alcoholics was how it was described to me, and that is not far off the mark.

"What is the toilet etiquette?" I asked the barmaid, wondering if I should just go out into the street.

"Here is the restroom key," she said, handing me a torch, "and watch the body on the stairs."

Hellish sights

The body's name was Squirrel. He was banished to the landing for getting lippy when the cops dropped by, and he was just sleeping it off.

A dead body is covered with a tarp and marked with an X beneath an overpass
The human cost of the hurricane and flood is clear to see
But he was a much more pleasant sight than the bodies we had seen earlier in the day, while we were driving the streets of New Orleans East on a motor boat.

There was the man sprawled across the roof of a submerged car. Captain Bill, the river patrol officer, thought he had got to safety but then died of a heart attack in the storm.

Then another, floating next to a house around the tips of some metal railings that were just peeping out above the water.

Thankfully, I did not see the two homeless guys who had chained themselves to a lamp post in the storm and had been killed by flying debris.

The streets were hellish. Hollywood would have paid millions to create this if it had been making a disaster movie.

The Super dome stadium was stripped of its roof. Trees had been picked up and thrown into the road. Metal signs had been ripped from buildings and tossed along alleyways. Power lines lay prostrate in the flood water. And the smell... the smell of sewage, of gas, of rotting things.

The poor, black neighbourhoods took the worst of it, as we have heard so much about.

Ghost town

How many people will they find who died in their attics as the water level rose in just 30 minutes?

A flooded house
Many people lost everything in the flood that followed Katrina
People who could not find their way to their roofs when the lights went out and Lake Pontchatrain flooded in.

People given the choice of drowning in their living rooms or braving the full force of a hurricane on top of their houses.

And there are those who still refuse to leave, confident they can live a new life on the water, determined to protect their possessions, deluded by the scale of the disaster, persuading themselves the water levels will soon drop and everything will be normal again.

It is normality that people are after. And being open 24 hours a day is normal in Johnny White's bar.

The floodwaters left the French Quarter alone. The original city, the high point, the home of New Orleans bohemia, art, and jazz; its life and soul, its sin.

Two cops burst into the bar, the torch points at the hard liquor. "You got any Grandad bourbon," one asks.

"Grandad and Coke, and go easy on the Coke."

They are from New Orleans. It is their city. It is now their ghost town.

Tear gas

A man in a candlelit bar in New Orleans
The bars have offered a refuge from the oppressive city streets
Some of their colleagues have taken their own lives rather than shoot the looters stealing to survive, or take on the gangs roaming the streets of chaos.

Others have handed their badges in, appalled at how their own people were left living rough without food and water for days, how they were abandoned by their government, living in their own waste, some dying of dehydration in the heat.

They are as fed up of the gun-toting officers sent from out-of-town to restore order who you would have thought would have more to do than tear gas the regulars at Johnny Whites - the only bar still open in the narrow, dark, oppressive streets - because they are spilling out of the bar and drinking on the pavement.

So how long will the doors, with their smashed out windows stay open? How long will they cling on to the promise scrawled on cardboard behind the bar?

Everyone has been told to leave, the city will never be normal again. But for now in this small corner of New Orleans where there is cold beer there is hope.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 September, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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