Caviar and Camaraderie Found a Place Inside the New Orleans Convention Center

The cultural spirit of New Orleans was experienced by some Hurricane Katrina survivors, who managed to dine on gourmet provisions and create a sense of community while waiting for help to reach the city's crowded convention center.

While accounts of violence and disorderly conduct have been used widely to describe the scene in the flooded Gulf Coast city, a far calmer and more neighborly environment is being described by two of the hurricane victims who sought shelter at the convention center days after the storm tore through their city.

Brian Corey, 22, had been living in New Orleans and working as a waiter in the French Quarter at the time of the storm. He had planned to wait out the hurricane from his apartment. Corey and his roommate, Jeff Rusnack, were fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood that was spared major floodwaters. However, given the dire security situation that surrounded them, they felt it was unwise to remain at home.

So they packed a few personal items, including their computer hard drives, and began walking. But they were turned back when they found the bridges closed. So they headed elsewhere. "We realized that there are lots of people at the convention center, and we realized if it's going to be a major evacuation -- it's going to be there and probably soon," said the 31-year-old Rusnack. "We were wrong about that."

"I started taking photographs the day that we left the house … By the time we got to the convention center we realized that there was no press, there was no media," said Corey who is now in St. Louis. "We just wanted to make sure that the more humanitarian side of what was going on was shown … People were actually banding together and helping each other out."

He found himself joining an emerging society within the convention center that included a barter system for personal goods. Batteries and cigarettes were swapped and an information network began to form.

'Surreal' Scene at the Convention Center

Several days after Katrina hit, tens of thousands of New Orleans residents were awaiting help at the Superdome and the convention center. When Rusnack and Corey arrived, they found a disorderly situation.

"I immediately asked, 'Who's here from the mayor's office, who's here from the governor's office, who's here that's in charge?' " said Rusnack.

Watching police cars and a National Guard vehicle drive by without offering assistance, they realized they would have to fend for themselves. Rusnack acted as an information leader for his section of the hall, using a pay phone to get details from friends in other cities about what was happening along the Gulf Coast.

"A lot of people didn't understand. They just didn't know why help wasn't coming," said Corey. "We were trying to be calm … just trying to dispel true and false rumors that were not really good for people's hope."

Despite the confusion, they found some surprisingly normal aspects of New Orleans living carried on.

Rusnack noticed small ethnic neighborhoods cropping up. In one area, a group of Asian people were cooking stir-fry and teaching their children martial arts to pass the time until they were evacuated.

They found other "neighbors," barbecuing and sweeping their areas to keep tidy. Corey and Rusnack began photographing what they were seeing with the intention of posting images on the Web, and found welcome subjects.

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