Monday Morning Coming Down: Southern Decadence in New Orleans

I've been losing track of the days since Hurricane Isaac landed, though August 29 should be a memorable date. By Thursday I hadn't yet seen footage of the damage with cable out. By Friday presidential candidate Mitt Romney asked whether Isaac's flooding came from the sky, the rivers or the ocean. He may need to stick to questions on the rivers and the lakes that he's used to. This city's been jaded about political visits since President George W. Bush lit up Jackson Square after Katrina, reassured displaced New Orleanians that all would be well, and then turned off the generators and left.

Our region is once again a political football in an election year. When that passes over, it will again be difficult to draw the country's attention to a clusterfuck decades in the making. Saltwater intrusion from oil company canals are helping kill our protective wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers has bolstered New Orleans levee system since the Katrina levee failure but those outside the area of protection are now more vulnerable than ever. We're a port city in an oil state, unabandonable no matter how many "Don't rebuild" comments come around this time through.

With the news trickling in, it felt wrong to head to air-conditioned French Quarter bars for a Saints preseason game Thursday night, but it's something do when the cable is out and the curfew is lifted. National Guardsmen are out in force, 1,200 are serving in 12-hour shifts distributing MRE's to the areas of the city and suburbs still off the grid. Massive sections of our city are still in the dark, and there's a grapevine of neighborhood safety updates. Our house has become an impromptu cell phone recharging station and a crash pad. Carol Gniady, who's helping get Delgado College rolling in time for classes, tells the story of her friend who was mugged while walking near the river with six dollars in his pocket. He fought off his assailant, robbed him back and left with $106 and a lump on the head. People are pushing back.

Tourists are back in force for Southern Decadence, billed as A Celebration of Gay Life, Music & Culture in New Orleans since 1972. Decadence weekend is a huge economic driver in the city, giving an Isaac-weary service industry a guaranteed boost. The Decadence main stage is rocking Bourbon Street as an emcee tosses Hangover Recovery Shots to the crowd. Bashers march by with banners and megaphones. "GOD IS GOING TO KILL YOU WITH AIDS. GOD SENT HURRICANE ISAAC." New Orleans is a blue city in a red state, and this one of the weekends where it all collides. It's hard to imagine this much hate with the city barely dried off from another soaking.

"I have a story from the haters," says Verti Marte deliveryman Curtis. "I was delivering in the neighborhood, and I always try not to engage, but they started surrounding me with their signs. One screamed in my face: "God hates fags!" So I told him, "Sir -- I'm straight as can be. I just finished f*cking your mother last night!" It's a weekend of pushing back. Nine of the megaphone gay bashers were arrested this weekend thanks to a new Bourbon Street ordinance banning aggressive solicitation from dusk to dawn. Also one of them tried to punch a cop.

By Sunday morning texts are rolling in from Plaquemines Parish, which took the brunt of Isaac and is still the only parish 100 percent out of power. A couple was found drowned in their kitchen. Cows were standing on porches as the water rose. Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana Founder Joanie Hughes has been texting me from Plaquemines when she can: "I bought ice, food and water for about 14 households that I deliver food boxes to through the year. The elderly, the needy, the sick ... no one was checking on them. One lady was eating rotten food! There's a lot more but I have no wifi and can't see to type on the phone. xo."

This darkness is in contrast of the grid in New Orleans lighting up and Decadence rolling. A stage for the annual drag show is set up out front of The Golden Lantern and 12 hours of disco tunes are cued up. "You guys want breakfast? Bloody Mary's!" the DJ offers. After a week like this it's too early for a cocktail, but barely. We walk by with my mother-in-law who's staying over until her power is turned back on. Divas are getting dressed for their numbers. "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger" ends up being the most performed song of the day.

Photos by Jeff Beninato

Southern Decadence