NEW ORLEANS | “I’ve got milk,” Hillary Guttman exclaimed triumphantly, her voice bellowing out above the din of generators running power to her Uptown bakery Wednesday afternoon.
No small thing, fresh food and supplies. City residents, many still without power, have begun the slow task of returning after evacuating in advance of Hurricane Gustav.
Miss Guttman, who like many had survived Katrina and fled this storm, wanted to do something for her worn-out city and those who had just returned with few provisions. She returned from refuge in Florida Tuesday night, pulled down the storm boards protecting her windows and painted “Laurel Street Bakery OPEN” on a makeshift sign so folks in her neighborhood would know where to find something fresh.
“It’s what I do. I feed people,” she said, running ovens and refrigerators by generator as locals, firefighters and news crews lined up for fresh cinnamon scones, lemon-blueberry bread and hot quiche - which was selling by the pie, not just the slice.
“People here like their comforts, hot coffee, good food, all of their regular breakfast spots,” she said as friends pitched in to help her wait on hungry customers.
A sign over at Mr. Chubby’s Cheesesteaks said it all for many, even as the city strained to reopen: “Never surrender. God Bless Nola. We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” “Nola” is shorthand for New Orleans, La.
With food and drink near and dear to the culture of Big Easy residents, the many cooped up without air conditioning ventured out in search of libation and neighborly comfort after surviving what officials termed a second devastating hurricane.
On Bourbon Street, bartender Dawn Kesserling opened at 10 a.m. to serve orange juice, bloody marys, and company to “my French Quarter rats” at Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House, a staple in the Quarter since 1807.
“We wanted to give people a place to come,” she said. “We wanted to say, ‘We’re all here, and everything’s OK.’”
With city police and National Guard troops patrolling the city and with members of the Guardian Angels, wearing red helmets - not the usual berets - on bikes to help keep order, the city remained under curfew as power crews worked on downed lines and cleanup squads removed tree limbs and debris. Workers used bulldozers to scrape up the detritus in front of stately Southern mansions in the Garden District, where branches from massive live oaks were heaped in the street.
President Bush visited hard-hit Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, flying over flooded areas as he sought to shore up his administration’s rapid response to Gustav. He was briefed by FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, who said federal response had gone well during the storm, the coordination smooth with state and local agencies. Mr. Paulison urged residents to take care as they returned.
“We would caution people not to move back in until their parish president says it’s safe to move back in,” he said. “Most of the areas don’t have electricity. Some of them don’t have water, and there’s no infrastructure in place - no grocery stores, gas stations - those type of things.”
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin left a midnight curfew in place for weary residents, many drained from days of camping, sleeping in cars or in cramped shelters since Saturday. Power remained out for an estimated 80,000, however. City officials braced for traffic: They expected interstates and bridges to be clogged by frustrated residents heading home, many still angry after being turned back on Tuesday.
Those who had already made their way in were pleased that there was so little damage.
“We’re very excited,” said hairdresser Charles Cheramie, as he greeted friends near his home in the French Quarter. “We feel lucky and fortunate that we can be back within a couple of days.”
“It’s a real close neighborhood,” said his pal Tiffany Osner, a pastry chef, who had left with him and two other friends for a hotel room in Jackson, Miss.
As the Republican National Convention got back on track, New Orleans residents said they frowned upon presidential candidates using the storm for political gain.
“I don’t think either candidate has a real grasp on how upset everyone is here and how inappropriate we think using the storm for political campaigning is,” said Paul Gregory, an Uptown resident, who added that politics was far from the minds of city residents, even as news coverage of the Republicans continued from their St. Paul, Minn., convention.
The usually festive Jackson Square, near the riverfront, remained quiet, devoid of street performers, fortune tellers and tourists. Stately Saint Louis Cathedral, however, was open for visitors to light candles and say prayers.
On Decatur Street, Café du Monde was closed, but Sidney’s, a longtime wine, grocery and convenience store, was open. Owner Clyde Pampo said he was unfazed by Gustav, even after surviving Katrina. “My dad started this business in 1962. He was open 365 days a year. You think with a hurricane we are going to stop? No.”
Shopkeeper Angela Hafeel, who runs N’Awlins Hot Stuff, was also determined to reopen quickly after riding the storm out in her home in nearby Metairie. By noon, business was steady. “I think they were dying to get some smokes,” she said of the robust cigarette sales.
Lewis Gregory, a New Orleans native who washes cars in the Quarter, advertised his services, telling passersby: “I’m back in business.”
As blues music blared from bars into the nearly deserted street, Mr. Gregory proclaimed himself a storm stalwart. “It’s nothin’ new to me, these hurricanes. If I had to swim out, I would. Everything’s gonna be back by the weekend.”