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Strapped for cash, some in New Orleans stay and hope

  • Story Highlights
  • Several New Orleans residents say they can't afford to leave
  • French Quarter busboy: "I guess I'm gonna stay and work"
  • As thousands evacuated New Orleans, a few tourists stuck around for a drink
  • Business owner who left during Katrina says, "I can't leave it again"
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By Ashley Fantz
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- On a cigarette break from washing dishes in the French Quarter, Michael Kennedy swung open the door of Café Maspero, and the briny smell of raw shrimp followed him outside.

"You gotta make as much money as you can, because when we shut down -- and we're gonna shut down -- that's it for a long while," the 26-year-old said, exhaling, a dribble of sweat rolling into his mouth.

"The thing is," he continued, "most people don't have cars to leave, don't have money for gas. Pay for a hotel for that long? I mean, you have to do whatever you have to do, and I guess I'm gonna stay and work."

Though Maspero wasn't doing half the business it usually does, customers were still coming in for $2 clam buckets. A few packs of tourists, identifiable by their slightly off-kilter walk and gigantic hot pink test tubes of booze, ambled down St. Louis Street, peeking into bars and asking, "You still open?"

Most were, up until the hour that Mayor Ray Nagin told the public to run for their lives.

"It's the storm of the century," he said.

But Kennedy can't and others just won't leave. They are the few residents who did not make the tortoise crawl down Interstate 10 on Saturday. Do you plan to evacuate? Tell us

"If I left, I'll probably lose my job," said Jeremiah O'Farrell, another dishwasher who is staying put. "I really don't have anywhere to go if I could leave. I could go home, but that doesn't seem like the thing to try. Too far, I guess."

Wrestling out of his white apron, he explained that he moved from Chicago to work a construction job during efforts to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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"Our boss was into playing his trumpet down here more than he was into running a business, so that all kinda went to hell, and now I'm working here."

Sure in his choice, O'Farrell still feels a hurricane newbie's nervousness.

"Really, how bad do you think it's gonna get?" he asked. "I've never been through one, and I'm not sure what to believe. You see the national weather people, and they're telling you it's gonna be really bad."

"Aw, it's gonna turn!"

That confident pronouncement comes from Russell "I've-seen-some-hurricanes-so-don't-tell-me-nothing" Gonzalez. He's been making muffaletas at Maspero since 1985.

"I don't leave for nothing. I didn't even leave for Katrina," he said, letting that fact hang in the air for a beat for the benefit of several other young men who have gathered for a smoke.

"I mean, look at the local weather guys, they know what they're doing, not those Weather Channel people. The local people say it's gonna move north, and that's enough for me."

Before Gonzalez goes back inside, he turns and mutters, "Too expensive, anyway."

Across town in the 9th Ward, a neighborhood decimated by Katrina, Sidney William climbs slowly out of his truck. He's 49 but moves like he's 20 years older.

"My legs hurt; my feet hurt a lot," he said. "It's not easy."

William wants desperately to leave his native New Orleans to avoid Gustav. He didn't leave for Katrina because he didn't have the money. He won't talk about what happened to him during that storm.

"I wish I had the money to go." Rejected for disability subsidies, he depends on his 23-year-old daughter, Gloria, to support the family.

"Lot of folks around here are gonna make do with what they have, and you won't hear a terrible amount of complaining," he said. "You can't just come in here and expect to hear people fussing about how they don't have nothing. People just be used to not having much, and so you don't even think too hard about it until someone starts asking you questions."

A neighbor, Victoria, says she has two Rottweilers who she's not willing to leave behind.

"Now, what do you think that would look like, me and my little car sitting there in traffic with two big old Rottweilers," she said, laughing.

Money is tight for her, too.

"Guess I'm just gonna wait. I just don't know. It's all stressful."

A woman who would only give her name as Bette, owner of an antiques store in the French Quarter, says outsiders can't understand. "It's hard to explain to someone who's not from here why anyone would choose to stay."

Bette has the means to leave New Orleans. She and her husband could jump in their car and take off. During Katrina, she briefly relocated to Houston, and while happy she made that choice, she couldn't stay. She had to return to her city.

Like a relationship that suffers a bad break-up and is stronger after a reunion, she worries that she hasn't got the heart to leave and then return a second time.

"When you stand out there by that river and look at that levee," she said, "you are just so blessed to live here. I am in love, and so I make my choice."

All About New OrleansHurricane KatrinaHurricane Gustav

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