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.

"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."

But they didn't rest long. They're now in St. Louis preparing prints of their photos to be sold on eBay with proceeds going to hurricane relief, and are starting work on a book to detail their experiences and offer "a sense of what was lost."

Having lived through several other storms in New Orleans, Rusnack said he and his neighbors would traditionally pull together and share a pot of jambalaya when the weather cleared up. He says he thinks that attitude helped them get through this recent ordeal.

"After a hurricane, people are used to picking up the pieces, taking care of our own and making sure our neighbors were OK," said Rusnack. "Somehow it kept everybody behaved and it just fit with the New Orleans characters."