Rhythm and blurs: Every day in NO is different

Normally a Charlottesville-based home inspector, Peter Drenan is on special assignment as a FEMA leader and a Hook stringer. This is the third in a series of dispatches from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Life as a FEMA person is a little strange. The work days are long, but there are some funky aspects to the job that nobody really knows about.

While it's true that the days all blur together, the day and weeks actually have a funny little rhythm. Because of the Mayor's "look and leave" program, only about 25 percent of the population is living at home. A good number of folks come in for the weekend– I suppose that's when they're available from whatever they're doing during the week. They come back to town to work on cleaning their houses, cutting tree limbs, salvaging what they can before leaving again on Sunday.

It's a lot like being in Charlottesville when the students come back after the summer break. The roads are suddenly crowded, the restaurants full, and the stores mobbed. But after the weekend, everybody goes away and we pretty much have the place to ourselves again.

The "look and leave" policy creates a weekly rhythm in the debris world, too. We're stymied by the weekend traffic, so we damp down our efforts and catch up on past-due reports. Come Monday morning, after everybody has spent the weekend gutting and cleaning their houses and businesses, the piles of debris, damaged house sections, and private garbage overwhelms the narrow city streets again.

It takes us several days to work through the city– even with regular routes– and we've gotten through all the streets by Wednesday or Thursday. Friday is our most productive day of debris clearing since the streets are once again passable. And then all the folks come back for cleaning and demolition, and we start all over again.

All sorts of folks are here– the entire alphabet soup of governmental agencies– EPA,GAO, FBI, IRS, and on and on. There's more government business going on, so security is heightened: every gun-toting agency is represented, even government agencies that you wouldn't think of as being law enforcement– postal service, forestry department, park services, federal protective services, and a host of regular police and sheriff's departments, Army reserve and National Guard units from across the country.

We get our food at a little place called the "Feed Zone"– a hand-painted cardboard sign calls it the "French Quarter Café." Meals are free, and they're surprisingly good. It ain't New Orleans cuisine, but it's way better than fast food.

We have a medical tent, laundry facilities, bag lunches, ice and drinks. All free. Twice a day crowds of federal workers and support teams bunch together to share bread. Way too many guns and too much testosterone permeate any given meal in the "Feed Zone." Heaven forbid that a local police car should turn on a siren– half the people in the room whip their heads around, reach for their sidearms, and instinctively go into a protective crouch.

I'm living in a nice 4-Diamond hotel called the Omni Royal Orleans– sister hotel to our very own Omni at home. This is a beautiful place right in the heart of the French Quarter. Actually, "living" isn't really the right word. Most days run from 5am till about 8pm– and I run hard the whole time. Six days out of seven I get back to the hotel and just manage to make it to the other side of the room before falling asleep.

My fourth-floor room has a balcony overlooking Royal Street with wrought-iron chairs and a café table that make for a delightful respite. I would love to be able to spend a few days with my wife in this room– it would be almost perfect. But for now it's simply a place to take a quick nap and change clothes.

On Sundays I steal a little time for myself. I go out for a morning run atop of the levees along the Mississippi River where I can watch the sun rise over the water as I trot along. At the end of my run, over by Jackson Park at the Café Du Monde, I get a large black cup of their famous chicory coffee and a bag of beignets. I've been suspicious of beignets for some time now. I'm sure they have about half the nutritional value of funnel cakes, but the bakers make up for it by dunking them in a bag of powdered sugar.

For years I was convinced that no native New Orleaneans actually eat beignets– there's simply no practical way to eat them without getting covered in white powder. I believed that was the way the locals marked the tourists– they just looked for folks dusted with white powder.

Anyway, I take my chicory coffee and beignets to my little perch above the small streets of the Quarter and steal an hour for myself, sipping, eating, and reading the Sunday paper. This is my biggest treat of the week, a little time for me, a quiet morning and a stretch of solace.

This is my respite: it reminds me of being home on a Sunday morning in Charlottesville.