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The Lights Come Back To The French Quarter

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Jimmy Fernandez, bartender at American Sports Saloon in the French Quarter.

Antoni Tsatsoulis was sitting in the American Sports Saloon on Decatur Street in the French Quarter around 8 p.m. Wednesday night when he saw a fleet of more than 30 electrical vehicles, from Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas, roll down the street. About an hour later, the lights in the bar suddenly flickered on and the place erupted in cheers.

“It wasn’t quite like winning the Super Bowl, but it was a playoff touchdown,” said Tsatsoulis, owner of the Gazebo Café located just a few blocks down the street. “We were so f------ happy.”

The French Quarter was the first community in New Orleans to have its power completely restored after the lashing winds and rain of Hurricane Ida plunged the entire city into darkness Sunday night. But the historic neighborhood did not automatically spring back to life

Only two bars on Bourbon Street had reopened as of early Thursday afternoon. Most businesses in the French Quarter remained shuttered, and Tsatsoulis doesn’t expect that to change any time soon. Without tourists, who make up the bulk of their customer base, and employees, many of whom remain scattered across the country or are dealing with their own hardships at home, it may not make sense to immediately open their doors, he said.

So far, only three of Tsatsoulis’ 20 employees were able to return to work.

Still, there are some owners with the ability to open and bring some life back to the city’s biggest tourist attraction.

At the MRB Bar & Kitchen on St. Philip Street, owner Joel Moody was throwing his staff a small party as they prepared for the bar to re-open Friday. They will even have live music in the afternoon, he said.

“It’s not like I’m going to make a lot of money in the next few weeks. We’re just going to be open because it’s nice to be open,” Moody said. “For people who are sitting in the dark somewhere, they hear the French Quarter has power, they might come down here and get some relief. I want to sit in a bar with a TV on and some air-conditioning and a cold beer.”

While Moody was preparing to open, the American Sports Saloon at the corner of Decatur and Gov. Nicholls streets has been up and running since Monday, opening every day at 7:30 a.m. and closing at about 2 a.m. Bartender Jimmy Fernandez, 51, said they opened to keep the property safe from potential looters. Early Monday morning, just after the worst of the storm passed, he could see groups of people shining flashlights in the windows of nearby stores. That night someone ransacked a head shop across the street.

But there were also a lot of people who needed a place to get a cold beer and warm food, courtesy of a generator, and a sense of community during a difficult time. And they were more than happy to fill that void, Fernandez said.

Several blocks from the bar, 50-year-old street musician King David sat on the sidewalk with no one to play for, and no one to provide the tips for which he depends on to live. He said there are about 40 homeless people living in the area, and they have all depended on the businesses that have stayed open, like the American Sports Saloon and the Quartermaster Deli on Bourbon Street.

“Thank God for them, I tell you that much,” David said. “This place would have been crazy if we couldn’t get a drink.”

Keeping the bar open hasn’t been easy with a three-person staff, Fernandez said, but their neighbors stepped in to help. Brian Cain, 37, lives three doors down and has been pitching in from the moment the doors open to when they close long after midnight, Fernandez said.

“All these people live up and down these streets, you see them all the time and you might say good morning and you might not,” Fernandez said. “I’ve met more people from this surrounding area in the last three days than the last three years. It’s funny how tragic events can bring people together.”

On Tuesday, for example, Doris Metropolitan restaurant was giving away meat from its cooler before it spoiled. A friend of Fernandez brought over several racks of ribeye which they grilled and handed out for free. The next day a cook at G.W. Fins brought pork chops, shrimp, and salty malty ice cream pies.

Another day, Zhang Bistro across the street donated several pounds of pork fried rice, chicken, and noodles.

“We eat better during this hurricane than we eat when it’s normal times,” said Fernandez, who estimates they fed several hundred people over the two days.

He does not, however, take it for granted given how many people throughout New Orleans and southeast Louisiana continue to struggle with enormous, life-threatening challenges. And he knows there remain tough times ahead for everyone, both economically and emotionally.

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