Look for bicycles. And if you see any bicycles, slash their tires.
"Gangs are using bicycles to get around," said Lt. Tom King of the New Jersey State Police.
City's darkest hours
Sunday, September 18, 2005
By MIKE KELLY
NEW ORLEANS - Nighttime in this wounded city.
As moonlight paints long shadows and stray dogs roam at will, a man sits down at a piano in a house on the edge of a park.
"Tell it like it is," he sings as he plunks the keys on a recent evening, his voice echoing through a grove of stately oaks.
Before Katrina, this sort of thing might not have struck anyone as odd in a city with a near-religious calling to embrace the strange side of life when the sun goes down. Before Katrina, and before most residents left in a near-biblical mass evacuation, the sound of a nighttime piano was hardly unusual. Now, with only about 10,000 of the city's nearly half-million residents remaining, piano music is weird enough for police to take notice.
There are many ways to measure changes in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina's winds and floods. But perhaps most telling is how eerily quiet it has become at night - so quiet that even an innocent piano tune might launch a criminal investigation.
"Humanity is gone, and this is what's left," said Bergen County Sheriff Leo McGuire, who led patrols here as part of a 200-officer deployment by New Jersey cops, before returning home Thursday.
"It's desolate," added Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale, who swung through neighborhoods in a boat and an SUV as part of a plan to relieve pressure on the beleaguered New Orleans police.
McGuire and Speziale were commenting on New Orleans' physical landscape. But they could just as easily have been describing the city's mental outlook for its cherished nightlife.
Imagine a bouncing, foot-tapping, jazzy city, a place with a long history of making room for odd characters who patrol the night. From pirates and rum runners to all manner of Mardi Gras royalty and jazz trumpeters, New Orleans seemed to have them all - in loud, *****-tonk bunches.
Now try to imagine a city where almost everyone has left for someplace else, perhaps permanently.
"I wonder what will happen," said Webb Offutt, 55, a retired software manager who grew up in New Orleans and returned one afternoon last week to his home in the Garden District.
Offutt was lucky. His home suffered only minor damage from fallen tree limbs.
"I was depressed," he said. "Then I drove around the city."
But he did not stay overnight. He just didn't want to feel so alone in his neighborhood. Anyway, New Orleans police, their ranks riddled by resignations and officers too exhausted to come to work, told the New Jersey police officials on duty here that they would respond only to 911 emergency calls and have suspended regular nighttime patrols.
"Nobody's here," Offutt said.
But even when some form of life returns, Offutt wonders how vibrant it will be.
"People with children are gone," he said. "So are many people who lost everything. For those who still have homes, we'll stick around, but it won't be the same."
Even three weeks after Katrina struck, you can still drive for blocks at night past pitch-black homes, bars and restaurants. The only noise is the sound of your tires rolling over broken tree limbs, windows, roof shingles or aluminum siding peeled away by Katrina's punishing winds and still waiting for someone to pick it up.
You pass abandoned buses, their doors still open.
You see a small boat in a front yard. You see a minivan flipped over in a driveway, a 10-foot-wide trampoline tossed against a fence like a Frisbee. In many neighborhoods, rich and poor, doors and windows are open or broken - from Katrina or from looters. But in other neighborhoods, rich and poor, many homes are just fine. Curtains hang silently behind windows. A car sits in the driveway. A basketball rests by the backyard shrubs.
What's striking everywhere is the absence of people. Block after block is simply empty of human life. The experience of traveling through such a world at night is akin to watching films ocean explorers made of the sunken cruise ship Titanic. Everything seems suspended in a murky half-light. Things aren't alive. But they're not dead either.
As you drive, your eye catches something moving. You stop and shine a flashlight, wondering whether you might find a hardy resident who rode out the hurricane. Instead, you are greeted by the fearful eyes of dogs so hungry that their ribs show through their hair. Indeed, dogs have become the most formidable denizens of New Orleans' nights, police say. Around midnight one evening last week, gunfire erupted on a street where the posh Garden District rubs up against a poorer neighborhood.
Police from New Jersey who happened to be in the area thought it might be residents shooting at looters or perhaps even street gangs trying to muscle in on new territory. It turned out to be National Guard soldiers shooting at dogs that threatened them.
If authorities are worried about any change in the nightlife, it's that street gangs may try to move into the newly vacant neighborhoods.
On a recent moonless night, when the rains fell for the first time since Katrina, New Jersey police patrolling the darkened streets on the northwestern side of the city received some odd instructions.
Look for bicycles. And if you see any bicycles, slash their tires.
"Gangs are using bicycles to get around," said Lt. Tom King of the New Jersey State
At a command post in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in the nearby town of Hanahan, state police have started keeping a book of photographs taken of what they think may be gang graffiti. So-called "tagging" by gangs is a way of marking territory and a warning to rivals to keep out.
The concern prompted state police Maj. John Hunt in a recent briefing to pass on an unexpected request to officers from Bergen, Passaic and other New Jersey counties who volunteered to come to New Orleans to assist in the hurricane cleanup. "Anybody with gang background?" Hunt asked.
"We're trying to identify some tagging," he added. "We're aware of some tagging. We believe some of the gangs may have come back."
Later that night, SWAT team officers from Essex and Hudson counties who are equipped with night-vision goggles were dispatched on foot to patrol streets with soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard. As they waited to step off, officers found themselves trying to pay attention to the sounds of the city - or the lack of them.
"We listen for noise," Belleville Detective John McAloon said.
His colleague, Montclair Officer Tom Westerlund, nodded. Both officers were veterans of nighttime police work. But few experiences had prepared them for New Orleans.
"It's different in a sense that no one is here," Westerlund said. "When you see something, you know it's someone who is not supposed to be here."
The night before, officers caught three crack addicts and discovered a home filled with TVs and other items thought to have been looted. Hours earlier, soldiers nabbed three men posing as New Orleans police officers.
"We figured they might be looters," said Lt. Stephen Krise, who commands the National Guard unit that accompanies New Jersey police on patrols.
On this night, police and soldiers found only a gun, left behind perhaps by a gang member or perhaps by a desperate resident trying to ward off looters and then dropping the gun to flee the rising floods.
On the next night, though, officers ran into something they never expected - two volunteer ambulance drivers from Houston and another from New Orleans, breaking into a drugstore. King, who happened to see the three as he patrolled in his SUV with officers from Brick Township, turned the suspects over to New Orleans authorities.
"They were definitely robbing the store," King said.
While small, the incident offers some insight into the desperation here.
But it also raises this question: Would such desperation blossom if New Orleans were not so empty of people? It's a question many in New Orleans are asking in one way or another now. For the city nicknamed the Big Easy, the answers may not come easily, though.
As he checked the damage to his own home, Webb Offutt thought of his future in the city he loved. Then, he thought of his city's history.
"The city has to make some decisions," he said.
"I don't know if we've ever done that before."
Copyright © 2005 North Jersey Media Group Inc.