Once-Bustling Bourbon Street A Ghost Town

The bustling Bourbon Street in New Orleans is nearly empty as residents make their final preparations in advance of Hurricane Gustav. But some small-business owners are staying in town.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

We'll have more on the political forecast in a few minutes. First, to New Orleans, where the governor estimates that only 10,000 residents remain. NPR's Ari Shapiro spent the day in the city's rapidly emptying streets.

ARI SHAPIRO: If there's one place in America where you can reliably find a party any hour of any day, it's Bourbon Street, especially on a Saturday night, so it tells you something about New Orleans right now that on this Saturday night, Bourbon Street is nearly empty.

Mr. NATHAN HARTSLER(ph): (Vendor): Serving hot dogs on a Lucky Dog cart.

SHAPIRO: This is Nathan Hartsler. He has a cart shaped like a hot dog and no customers.

Mr. HARTSLER: We're about to go in now. Somebody's just driving by with four gas cans strapped to the roof of their car.

SHAPIRO: Which I take it is not the typical Saturday night Bourbon Street sight.

Mr. HARTSLER: No. Neither are the military with automatic weapons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARTSLER: It's a little unusual.

SHAPIRO: People here seem much more afraid of Gustav than they were of Katrina three years ago. Tens of thousands left the city well before mandatory evacuations began this morning. Even with all the highways going in one direction, traffic was backed up for hours.

Hundreds of buses carried people who needed help evacuating. Mayor Ray Nagin said he wants 100-percent evacuation. The city feels completely empty, totally boarded up with almost no cars on the streets, but some small-business owners are staying in town. Joel Dondas(ph) owns three New Orleans restaurants, including a sweet shop called Sucre. This morning, he stood in a warehouse where thousands of candy boxes are covered in blue tarps.

So we're in this warehouse right now, and the walls and roof, they're all made of this relatively flimsy-looking sheet metal, and it's hard for me to imagine that this would stand up to, like 75-, 100-mile-an hour winds.

Mr. JOEL DONDAS (Restaurateur, New Orleans, Louisiana): Well, if water gets on this packaging, and then I'm three months out, and I don't have packaging for the holiday season.

SHAPIRO: And you've lost $150,000 worth of material for your business.

Mr. DONDAS: Well, much more than that. I wouldn't be able to fulfill orders at Christmas. It could put you out of business.

SHAPIRO: So how do you feel right now?

Mr. DONDAS: A little scared.

SHAPIRO: Joel Dondas has 150 employees. Their fate depends on his fate. Dondas traces his New Orleans roots back to the 1800s. He was here for Katrina and for other storms, but this one feels different. He's used to being in control of his future, he says, and this time, he's not. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, New Orleans.

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