The table of giveaways at Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street loaves of cinnamon bread, trays of hot coffee and various accoutrements laid out by barista Kaci Sexton that morning had dwindled to just a few cups by midday Sunday, when Det. Anthony Edenfield and Officer Brian Shubert of the New Orleans Police Department stopped their gold Ford Taurus in front of the Marigny Triangle café.
"Nah, we got a whole hotel full," said Edenfield. "Chief Riley just told us to come tell everyone to evacuate. You all leaving?"
"Yeah, later," Sexton said, lying. Satisfied, the policemen waved and continued on to the corner of Royal Street, pausing to give the same warning to a group of cyclists.
NOPD, previously saddled with "Not Our Problem, Dude" derision from many quarters, almost overnight became No Ordinary Police Department during Hurricane Gustav. By nightfall Sunday, with the help of an evacuation plan that successfully ushered all but several thousand residents out of greater New Orleans, officers outnumbered citizens downtown. Every few minutes, blue lights flashed onto the houses and up the alleyways of Esplanade Avenue a routine that would continue throughout Gustav's landfall on Monday morning and into the darkened evenings the rest of the week. If one of the lasting and most frightening images of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath was that of a fractured police force marred by desertions and even a few cases of officers looting the memory of Gustav's response will be one of a well-oiled and well-prepared machine functioning at its best.
But, even during one of its finest hours, not all cops stand ready to accept the laurels. One NOPD veteran, who spoke with Gambit Weekly on the condition of anonymity, said that while many of Katrina's mistakes were indeed rectified, there remains much to improve.
"The biggest thing that they need to do better, No. 1, is communicate," said the officer. "The lack of communication's a killer. Just to give you an idea: Tomorrow (Sept. 5) you're starting re-entry. We're 12 hours away from deployment on a re-entry plan that's not even out. Guys don't even know what their assignments are.
"I'm working 7-to-7; you got other guys working 4-to-4; you got other guys working 3-to-3. When these assignments come out, the guys that are working 7-to-7, they might have an assignment at noon tomorrow. Well, you can't let them work till 7 in the morning and expect them to go back in at 12. So we got to cut manpower at night the anti-looting stuff so that these guys can work their assignments for tomorrow, which is the re-entry."
The officer's complaints proved prescient: In the nights that followed, as people streamed back into the city, burglaries and lootings would spike from a mere handful during the storm to more than 60 reported cases by Friday. (Even still, violent crime remained scarce.) He added that accommodations for many cops which, according to a radio interview on 99.5 WRNO-FM with NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley, was to include cots, sandwiches, MREs and plenty of water at a makeshift barracks in the New Orleans Convention Center didn't materialize on schedule, if at all. Instead, local hotels stepped up and provided food.
"The Marriott's been feeding us, the officer said.
While logistical missteps undoubtedly put a strain on many officers, they didn't let it affect their interactions with citizens. The police seemed omnipresent, but not invasive; their warnings to those who stayed behind stern, but never overly forceful. Where Ray Nagin created a stir, vacillating between mayor-who-cried-wolf hysterics and admitted hyperbole, the rank-and-file carried out their orders calmly, without undue panic.
On the afternoon of Aug. 31, moments after pulling away from Café Rose Nicaud, the gold Taurus had returned to the last clutch of people left on Frenchmen Street.
"Y'all still got that coffee?" Det. Edenfield asked.