NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - When Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof and one wall from his house, Jim Gibeault began to doubt the wisdom of riding out the storm.
Two weeks later, with no electricity, no water, no open stores nearby, no customers for his leather masks, and very few neighbors, that doubt has gone.
It was the right call, he says, refusing to give up now.
A wild red and gray beard flowing down over his belly to his waist, Gibeault spends the days in just a pair of shorts and parked in a grimy red-and-white armchair out on the sidewalk, his steamy apartment far too hot to stay in.
"I ain't leaving. I like this city and the city likes me," the 55-year-old said on Monday, breaking off to holler up the street at a friend, another hold-out clinging to his life after the hurricane battered New Orleans almost into submission.
Every day, police and National Guard troops try to persuade the die-hards to leave, but they insist they will stay for as long as it takes. They make a small but colorful group.
In eclectic neighborhoods around the French Quarter, smart middle-aged women sat on steps smoking marijuana. Two elderly friends, one black, one white, cycled up and down a garbage-filled street for a laugh and a little exercise.
Musicians who live off the city's vibrant jazz and blues clubs say they just want the electricity returned so they can get back to work. Others mind the store until their employers return, hoping they'll still have a job when that day comes.
Even as Katrina's death toll continued to climb and rescuers scoured flooded streets just a few blocks away for the bodies of victims and miracle survivors, the holdouts said New Orleans will recover.
IT WON'T BE THE SAME
Gibeault worries the city's poor will be unable to return to wrecked neighborhoods, but he thinks much of the city will survive and flourish once it is cleaned up and the hundreds of thousands of evacuees are able to return.
"It's not going to be the same. The homes will not be the same, the memories are not the same," he said. "But we're going to come back, smaller and better than ever before."
A resident of the Bywater neighborhood, he has resolutely resisted all attempts by authorities to persuade him to leave the city.
John Wade, a bar-cleaner who chose to stay behind as the owner and other workers fled from Katrina, says he hopes New Orleans' major drug traffickers will set up shop somewhere else in the coming months and not bother returning.
"It'll be different, but I hope it'll be better. I think it will be," he said, walking a friend's dog through the French Quarter, the city's biggest draw for tourists looking for a night of jazz, strip clubs or wild bars.
"If the French Quarter had been flattened, this city might not have come back. But the Quarter is here, the beautiful buildings are still here. We'll be okay."
"Chief" Al Morris, who leads the "North Side Skull and Bone Gang" that dresses up in skeleton costumes and makes an awful lot of noise during Mardi Gras, also says the city will recover but he warns of massive corruption and efforts to push out poor black families.
"These houses are already too expensive for a black man to live," he says of the Treme neighborhood seen by many as the real home of jazz.
"About $55 billion is gonna be coming in. Who is gonna get that? This has been a corrupt town ever since it was a town. It started with the pirates and it never stopped. This storm plays right into their hands," he said.
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