NEW ORLEANS – Three years ago, corpses lay rotting in the streets outside the Morial Convention Center. It was a scene so chaotic and depraved, even the police dared not venture inside.
During Hurricane Gustav, New Orleans police and the National Guard used the iconic building as a barracks and staging area.
It is difficult for anyone who wasn't here in 2005 to fathom the difference between the post-Katrina and post-Gustav New Orleans.
After Katrina breached the levees and flooded 85 percent of the city, explosions and gunfire pierced the sultry night air. Looters rampaged on Canal Street with impunity, sometimes working right alongside men and women in blue. Dazed survivors pushed shopping carts filled with belongings and crying babies down interstate overpasses that were devoid of traffic, except the human kind.
Some say the Big Easy lost its soul after Katrina. This time, the city didn't even completely lose power.
As the storm was coming ashore Monday morning, patrons lined up for lattes and chai teas at the Starbucks in the lobby of the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Despite a citywide curfew, Johnny White's sports bar — which brags that it doesn't even have doors — continued its streak of never closing for a hurricane.
Benton Love and three friends drove over from Austin, Texas, and arrived at the bar Monday morning, just ahead of Gustav.
"I'd say we're about six drinks deep," the 30-year-old University of Texas marketing major said at 7:20 a.m. "We'll probably switch to water about 10 o'clock, sober up and see if we can help out."
Throughout the Quarter, the ratio of reporters to residents was easily 3-to-1, and likely greater.
At the Superdome, the scene of such misery three years ago, there was an incongruous sense of tranquility.
When Staff Sgt. Patrick Abair was told he would be stationed at the massive concrete mushroom during Gustav, his heart sank. His Louisiana National Guard unit was inside the building during Katrina, and memories of swooning old women and babies in swollen, days-old diapers came flooding back.
"It's something that you'll never see in your life again," Abair said. "No swamp, no trash heap, NOTHING could compare to what that smell was."
But as he stood post by the ticket windows Monday with his M-16, all was calm and clean. Until a reporter came up, he hadn't seen a soul.
In 2005, the floodwalls along the Industrial Canal collapsed, inundating the mostly black, mostly poor Lower Ninth Ward. Waves whipped up by Gustav lapped over the walls in places, but the rebuilt barriers held.
In the Treme neighborhood across Interstate 10 from the Quarter, Jesse Johns peered outside from behind the bars of his front door. The highway was deserted, and he was glad.
"The last time, you saw hundreds of people huddled up on the onramps on I-10, waiting for somebody to come pick them up," the 60-year-old man said as a battery-operated radio droned on inside the shotgun house. "It was just a trying thing. You just can't comprehend how a city this size could just go underwater. It's something people hadn't seen before, except on TV and in the movies."
Bill Campbell watched his city's descent into madness on a television set in Florida after Katrina. It left his emotions in chaos.
"There was a sense of shame," said the 54-year-old retired convenience store manager, who waited out Gustav in his French Quarter condo. "But you had to feel something for people that were just left on their own basically. Just completely on their own."
For him and others, the decision by city officials to get people out early — and of the people to heed the warning — was a kind of redemption.
Outside the Superdome, Abair stood watch as Gustav's last bands passed through. He said this storm left him with a much happier image — of watching people stream into Union Station around the corner, climb calmly onto buses and leave the city.
"This time, the people listened," he said with a smile. "That was a good thing."