By Ed Walsh
NEW ORLEANS – CW Stambaugh thought he dodged a bullet.
The Owner of the popular Starlight by the Park bar on the outskirts of New Orleans’ French Quarter decided to defy Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 28. He held an impromptu “Hurricane Party” in the bar and kept it open all night throughout the storm. His bar quickly became a makeshift shelter for tourists and locals alike who had nowhere else to go.
“We used the bar as a shelter and the quality of the gay population, local and tourist, was fantastic. We all pulled together and fed and took care of each other,” Stambaugh said.
His bar sits on a slight hill, he explained, away from the more flood-prone areas of the French Quarter. By default, it became a gay-friendly shelter of last resort. His bar, and the Moulin Rouge bar about a mile away in the Marigny neighborhood, were the only gay bars to stay open during the hurricane, he said.
Stambaugh explained that somewhat of a party atmosphere prevailed through the passing of the eye of the hurricane. A group of more than two-dozen gathered in his bar, watched movies and were kept up to date by TV news. Shortly after the eye passed, his bar lost electricity. They were able to keep up with the news only on a portable radio.
After the storm passed on Monday, Aug. 29, Stambaugh and others toured the area. He said that none of the other gay businesses he surveyed showed any signs of damage. Stambaugh noted that the French Quarter was spared flooding that plagued much of the city.
Stambaugh’s initial optimism turned to worry and concern when he spoke with this reporter last on Tuesday night, Aug. 30.
“This is a strange time. When the hurricane came through, we thought we were through the worst of it,” Stambaugh said. “The levee system had breached in two major locations, the largest was the size of a football field. They were dropping 3,000 pound sandbags trying to close it up. It’s too early to tell if we’re lucky that we live in the French Quarter. It’s the oldest and highest area in the city. We’re still dry but the way it looks it may go soon.”
“We still have no idea when we are getting electricity,” the bar owner added. “They are saying maybe in two to three weeks but we also heard two to three days.”
Stambaugh said on Tuesday night that he just received word that martial law was declared and he would have to shut down his bar. He said his house was dry and that he hoped he could stay there. He had an ax, he added, in case it flooded and he had to escape his house through the attic. Others, he said, would stay with friends nearby. Stambaugh said that he has been unable to contact the Moulin Rouge bar on Tuesday and he did not know whether they had stayed open.
The entire city of New Orleans was officially ordered evacuated Tuesday, the day after the hurricane hit. City officials estimated that 80 percent of the city was flooded. Many residents had to be rescued from roofs and attics.
Fortunately, Stambaugh said, he knew of no one in New Orleans’ tight-knit gay and gay-friendly community that had been killed or injured in the hurricane.
But the storm’s devastating economic impact to New Orleans will undoubtedly be felt long after the emergency is over. For gay-friendly businesses in New Orleans, the hurricane could not have come at a worse time.
The city’s annual gay Mardi Gras event, Southern Decadence, was scheduled to run throughout the Labor Day weekend. Southern Decadence was officially canceled on Tuesday, Aug. 30. According to New Orleans’ gay magazine, Ambush, 125,000 people were expected to attend the event’s five day series of parties which is highlighted by a parade through the French Quarter. Southern Decadence has drawn larger and larger crowds since its beginning in 1972.
Ambush estimated the event’s economic impact on the city last year was $100 million. Many make hotel reservations a year in advance to ensure accommodations. In an e-mail to party-goers, organizers promised refunds to those who had already bought tickets.
The owner of the New Orleans’ Creole Inn, Douglas Haller, evacuated his five-unit bed and breakfast on Sunday, Aug. 28, the day before the hurricane hit. He said that he is hopeful that his business, which is also his home, is not destroyed. He said that he was reassured to see TV pictures of looting at a grocery store near his inn. He figured that if it was dry enough for looters to be there that the neighborhood likely survived without major flooding.
Haller’s inn is in the Marigny district, adjacent to the French Quarter and second-oldest neighborhood in the city. The French Quarter is the oldest. Haller explained that the oldest neighborhoods were first settled because they were the least flood prone part of the city.
Haller said that he has had some contact with other gay business owners but no one is certain of whether their property is damaged.
“I don’t think anyone knows the extent of physical damage unless they remained there,” he said. “And if they remained there, they should get the hell out.”
In an e-mail to this reporter on Wednesday, Aug. 31, Jess Beaty, the owner of Five Continents Bed and Breakfast in New Orleans wrote: “The economic impact on me is devastating…I will probably go under as a result. I was booked solid for Decadence.
“I started my B & B just two years ago and was just getting a good guest base and occupancy level. As a start up I invested my life savings in the house, repairs, linens, etc. in order to operate. At this point I have to assume that whatever the storm didn’t destroy, the floodwaters did or that the looters will have cleaned me out. At 53 years old, starting over is not in the books. Not sure what I will do.
“I have spoken with at least three other gay B & B owners who are in the same boat. (No pun intended.)
“Keep us in your prayers.”
Beaty evacuated to Florida and is living with family.
This reporter received a hastily-written e-mail from Stambaugh on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 31. The email from Stambaugh, as written, read: “i hope this gets to you. this will be my last message out. marshal law has been decleared. they fixed the major levee we heard but the waters are still rising. we shall see. the gas is being cujt off at any moment. we cooked as much food as we cood but there saying now 30 days before electricy will be restored. the bar is closed. we brought people to our home and were making the best here. waterr was shut off last night. the gas to’s tonight. we still have a phone but i cannot get local service.
“if you hear from molon rouge, regina adams is the southern grand marshall and were ready to if nothing else parade for her reain. (ha) there’s a strong community still here but were trying to get people out. they announced that boats are are coming.v they will not say what time there loading. were staying to make suer thar ouhers get ourt. i hope4 this geetis to you.b keep the family!!! our love to all. this will be my last message. the battery in ther laptop is going out and the room is dark. forgive the mis-spelling. WE
ARE FINE HERE!!! so far. take care and wish us the best!!”
At press time, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that hundreds and “most likely thousands” were dead in his city. City officials reiterated the mayor’s order to evacuate and warned that those who do not are in grave danger. It should be noted that although it was widely reported that martial law has been declared in New Orleans, the Louisiana Attorney General said that no such term exists in state law. The hurricane areas, he said, are in a state of emergency, giving local authorities the right to suspend civil liberties to keep order.