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

"It helped keep morale up. It was making people happy that … their story was going to get shown at least in part by being online," said Corey.

Rusnack has lived in New Orleans for nine years, working in restaurants and more recently in an accounting firm for jazz musicians. He said it was "surreal" to see some gourmet items like caviar and Cristal champagne looted from nearby hotels and used for survival. He recognized the conditions were certainly difficult for many in the convention center, but he was also noticing hints of his beloved hometown's cultural offerings.

"I realized there were these $500 bottles of wine laying on the curb empty," said Rusnack. "Three bottles went to go marinate three flats of chicken."

Convention Center Currency

In the absence of food or water from the government, those living in the convention center had to find their own supplies.

Corey noticed one group locate a refrigerator that still held cold ice cream, which was then distributed to the elderly and the youngest who were suffering the most in the heat. When it came to other personal items, a makeshift currency was devised.

When Rusnack and Corey left their apartment initially, they carried as much water as they could manage, along with batteries and cameras. They soon realized these items would be in demand, and Rusnack worked to establish a barter system economy in their section of the convention center to trade for goods with both their neighbors and the "suppliers."

"A lot of the gangs were turning around and taking care of their people and making sure everyone had food. Everybody doing my job knew that certain gangs had formed," said Rusnack. "To them, we were pawnbrokers, they showed up with stuff and we told them what it was worth and told them what the people needed."

With limited electricity, batteries became one of the more valuable commodities, Rusnack said. A pack of batteries was worth four packs of cigarettes, and a razor was the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes.

A Nomadic Trip Back to Civilization

The authorities reached the convention center Sept. 2. Corey and Rusnack had to wait until the following day to be taken to the airport where they were to fly to Austin, Texas, aboard a Blackhawk helicopter.

Their experience changed dramatically once in Texas. They were provided with food and shelter, and say they have been met with incredible generosity when they tell people they are from New Orleans.

The shift was so dramatic, for some it may prompt a lifestyle change. During their first night in Austin, Rusnack said he entered the men's bathroom at the shelter and found an emotional group of men on the floor crying. He says they appeared to have come from difficult circumstances in New Orleans.

"All these guys with teardrop tattoos and gang tattoos and they're laying on the floor bawling," said Rusnack. He said the men cried as they described the goodwill they were met with in Texas, and said the men were pledging to make a fresh start and begin a clean life away from New Orleans.

Rusnack and Corey stayed just one night at the shelter. The two were soon taken in by acquaintances in Austin and went straight to a sushi restaurant for a nice, cold meal.

"It was really good. It was nice to be back in civilization after going through all that," said Corey. "It just seemed like we've really indulged … being in air conditioning and to have the leisure of going to the store to buy something."

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