Gregory Scott steers a commandeered pleasure boat through the flotsam of New Orleans's flooded 17th Ward, occasionally scraping bottom - actually, the roofs of submerged cars.
The area of modest two-story and shotgun-style homes seems empty of life - and officials believe that hundreds who tried to ride out hurricane Katrina here may have perished in their attics. But Mr. Scott, who makes his presence known by blasting a hand-held horn as he maneuvers the boat forward, knows there's life - even laundry - in some quarters.
"There's people all through here," says mate Timothy Waters.
A mucky brown soup flows through what used to be the 17th Ward's neighborhood of Holly Grove, the only spot Scott has ever called home. Under almost 10 feet of water, the Beautiful People club is gone. Scott's own house, with a broken window where he climbed out just ahead of rising waters, is part of a scene so macabre that even New Orleansian vampire-novelist Anne Rice might struggle to imagine it.
Yet while thousands finally got out over the Labor Day weekend, Scott and Waters are holding on - just two of many who are fierce in their determination to stay, keeping their feet planted in the muck of this Cajun Atlantis.
Such decisions perturb emergency-response officials, who warn that public-health risks posed by the fetid floodwater may worsen, and that two months of flood conditions may await residents who insist upon staying put. A stubborn resistance to leaving, they add, will only waste time and resources of an already-overtaxed search-and-rescue operation. The mission remains dangerous, as a nonfatal crash of a civilian rescue helicopter late Sunday illustrated.
Dennis Nunez, a Louisiana wildlife officer, has seen hundreds of people living deep in the neighborhoods. Some told rescue workers to move on, to save others first. In one mostly Vietnamese neighborhood, people were feeling comfortable enough to have gone fishing, and were drying fresh fish on their porches. "They won't come out," says Mr. Nunez.
As response to Katrina enters its second week, 17,000 National Guardsmen patrolled the Big Easy by foot, helicopter, and boat, and the atmosphere shifted from one of panic and scattered violence to one of a soggy siege. Here on the Jefferson Parish line, a few miles from where the 17th Street Canal was breached last Tuesday, the water line has fallen hardly at all as of Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday, many hangers-on gave up. Rescuers pulled one woman, barely conscious, from her home, mattress and all. The job of the day: Extricating a frightened, 400-pound man. Another woman came ashore with three cat carriers, each one containing three cats.
But the conflict between the stranded and the rescuers is playing itself out in ways that, at times, seem bizarre. Rescue helicopters have even come under sniper fire, police say, as some resist relocation.
"It's hard on the rescuers, to risk their lives and have somebody say, 'I don't want to be saved.' It boggles your mind," says Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, in Baton Rouge, La.
Rescue volunteer Jef Talbert, who has arrived from Texas in a friend's flat-bottom boat (which he's promised to return without bullet holes), says it's an odd feeling to be loading every gun he owns before he heads out to rescue people.
Scott, Waters, and six other men are locals who are aiding with the rescue, camping on a plot of high ground. They've rescued hundreds since last Tuesday, asking only food and water in return. They're using whatever equipment is at hand - whether an 18-wheel truck (which they stalled out in deep water) or a waterski boat with a 130 horsepower Yamaha four-stroke on the back.
As they shove aside downed wires and look for submerged cars and street signs that can damage the propeller on "their" boat, Scott and Waters shout at one house and toot the horn. Two men emerge onto the porch.
"Day 7," yells Anthony Belt, refusing his rescuers, indicating he's got food. He also has a flat-bottom sloop in case he really has to get out.
As the number of those in need, or want, of being rescued diminishes, rescuers are shifting priorities: If they see someone has stockpiled supplies, they've stopped handing out more food.
"If they're not coming out, we're not going to force them," says Lieutenant Colonel Schneider. "But we can't keep coming back to resupply."
If some survivors are struggling, increasingly aware that they are surrounded by a huge septic tank, others seem to be doing fine. Rescuers report seeing large Vietnamese families cooking fish and "looking very comfortable," some even keeping fish in makeshift pools, then hanging them out to dry.
Indeed, the stayers-on may be clinging to a belief that, beyond the muck, is hope. For some, a desire to protect their property is the driving factor in their decisions to stay, and others simply have nowhere else to go and are clinging to their patch of the globe. After surviving for a week in hellish conditions, many say perhaps things will only get better, suggests Mike Lindell, a psychologist at Louisiana State University. "We're in uncharted territory for human behavior."
Two women who had walked through chest-high water from the Superdome to their homes to get fresh clothes were glad to jump in Scott's boat, but then started to bicker with each other. Scott wanted none of it. Voice rising, he sounded off, saying the women should lay aside petty differences as they pass through waters of death. As the boat neared a staging area where rescue workers bring their human cargo, one woman, Tina Collins, turned around and said, quietly, "thank you."
Back on the levee, Scott, a tailor and French Quarter doorman, says he's found a new calling that lets him stay close to home, bringing his neighbors to safety when they're ready. Despite the rough conditions, he has no wish to leave.
"They say a rat has many holes, but I've got only one," he says. "And I plan on going down in it."