NEW ORLEANS -- The
pale concrete walls of Louis Armstrong Airport blend with gray
November skies as Toni, a cab starter, steps from her small booth
near the curb where she has been thumbing through pages of the
Are you in need of
a taxicab today, sir? she asks, warm smile, easy Southern manner.
There are no taxis in sight.
She speaks softly
into a small hand-held radio and catches a crackling reply. Several
minutes pass before a weathered minivan with almost no taxi
insignia and a dead meter on the dash eases to the curb.
A businessman in a
dark winter suit, a carry-on and laptop in tow, ambles up behind
Toni and she asks him the same question. He nods the
Two customers in 10
minutes, she says. My, we are setting some kind of record
She holds her hand
to her mouth as if mocking an open secret and says softly, Things
been a little slow here lately.
Indeed, in a town
that traditionally moves at its own languid pace, this historic
area and one-of-a-kind culture seems to have lost its timing. Its
natural rhythms have been disrupted.
Even in the French
Quarter, the veritable heart of southern Louisianas economic engine
-- its tourism industry -- the pulse of the trade remains
This is the message
a visitor gathers when walking the streets and talking with shop
owners, hotel and restaurant operators, state officials, workers
behind counters, artists, musicians and fortune tellers.
It is also the
message that played itself out at the Louisiana Recovery and
Rebuilding Conference, which drew hundreds of federal and local
officials, architects and urban planners earlier this month for
three days of discussions about rebuilding the region. It was one
of a half-dozen or more conferences and committee groups that have
met since the storm.
of a plan
This one, at the
Marriott Hotel on Canal Street, just off the Quarter, had drawn
Gov. Kathleen Blanco; Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu; Richard Moe, head of
the National Historic Trust; and members of Louisianas
Their words at once
described both growing frustration over the slow progress of
recovery and expressions of hope and optimism for a yet-to-be
developed omnibus plan that will unify the city and state and
restore vitality to a region that continues to suffer millions of
dollars in losses daily.
are waiting to hear, says Landrieu, is where the money will come
from to rebuild the city, how lost tax dollars will be replaced to
market tourism to the world and to provide for housing so that the
people of New Orleans -- the artists, musicians, chefs and others
who embody the culture the world comes to see -- can return. Today
they are scattered to the winds in a forced diaspora that is
crippling attempts to kick-start the tourism industry.
We very badly need
a plan, Landrieu says, for the short term and for the long term.
And to get there, first we need to speak with one voice.
As the cab driver
pulls from the curb at the airport, he barely gives a backward
glance. Though traffic in the ground transportation lanes is
usually heavy, they are practically deserted at 11 a.m. on a
The traffic on I-10
is also light. There is a general overcast, a sprinkle of rain here
and there, the sun pushing through the clouds in places to make for
a mild autumn morning, a day that could seem typical of the
But there is
nothing typical about the city now. Through the cab windows, the
aftermath of flood and wind is still evident on the ride into
sheeting sprouts from roofs as far as the eye can see on both sides
of the interstate. Beyond that, across whole areas of the parishes
where the levees gave way, bulldozers wait on paperwork to turn
neighborhoods into real estate.
Tens of thousands
of homes and apartments, where legions of tourism workers once
lived and thrived, now sit abandoned in ruins.
Even with the
ever-quickening cleanup, detritus of the mass exodus of New Orleans
has combined with debris from receding flood waters to leave the
highway medians littered with trash.
still sit in temporary storage beneath interstate overpasses,
covered in mud, windows shattered, doors wrenched off, waiting to
be reclaimed by absent owners.
Where the highway
passes Metairie Cemetery, acres of white mausoleums in crowded rows
show the pale brown stain of a high water mark. Some have been
scrubbed clean again, and they stand out white against the muddy
grass between the graves.
In the narrow
streets of the French Quarter, which survived without flooding and
suffered damage only from wind and rain, cars and pickups of
construction workers and insurance adjusters from out of state are
crammed against the curbs.
isolated places in the Quarter, tearout from water-damaged
third-floor walk-ups spills onto the sidewalks. A few lamp posts
remain down, festooned with yellow police tape. Here and there
glass and trash are swept into small heaps to be carted
Still, most of the
Quarter looks much as it did before the storm. The real damage
there doesnt show up in property assessments. It is calculated in
the economic toll that continues to be taken daily among merchants
and those who make the business of tourism their work.
Bookstore on Decatur Street, not far from Jackson Square, Brent
Legault sits writing in a journal on a glass-topped book case. A
single customer browses through rare first editions in the
well-known used book shop. She is the only patron so far this
There just isnt
much business, Legault says. Maybe a little on the weekends, but
almost nothing through the week. There arent any tourists. Some
people come in from the suburbs. Thats about it, mostly.
Legault, who made
the French Quarter his home 11 years ago, was out of town when the
storm hit. He says no one worried about looting in a used book
store, but since his return he has heard tales of jewelry shop
owners nearby who manned their doors with shotguns.
His apartment on
the fourth floor of the bookstore suffered water damage when a
20-foot section of roof tore loose in the wind. Hundreds of books
among the 2,000 in his personal collection were
But that was
nothing compared to what Mr. Beckham lost, he says of the stores
owner. We had books stored in an area where it did flood. He lost
thousands of copies.
Legault says he
plans to sit tight until May, but when the next hurricane season
starts, he may look for a new city in which to live.
I dont know if this
place is going to survive or not, he says. You talk to people on
the street and suggest that and they shout you down. No one wants
to look at the reality in front of them. This could all happen
especially the Quarter, is the kind of place that grows on a
person, he admitted. And he may change his mind.
Its sort of a sorry
and hopeless kind of place, but you fall in love with it, he says.
But do you love it enough though to stay no matter what? Some
The one bright spot
Legault sees at the moment is the absence of meter maids, who once
prowled the streets ruthlessly, writing tickets, he says. Now you
can pretty much park anywhere you want.
But while people
find reasons like that to laugh and to commiserate, as time drags
on and little changes, tourism languishes and a clear toll is
There are people
who are selling out now, closing their businesses, moving away,
Legault says. They cant hold out until things change. Its taking
Down the street
from Beckhams, Arthur Walker has moved a red and yellow umbrella
and a small table onto the sidewalk at the edge of Jackson Square,
a gathering place for artists and musicians who perform for the
caricaturist, pulls a red folding chair to a table and banters with
passersby. He wears a commercial artists license on his shirt
pocket. But he suffered a torn rotator cuff in the conflagrations
after the storm and can no longer draw.
So he has taken up
palm reading and fortune telling, which he advertises on smaller
signs, half-hidden behind his art work. He keeps an eye out for
what he calls the art police, who in better times patrolled the
square for such violations.
You can see for
yourself, I am about the only one here today, he says, nodding
toward two musicians who have just set up their instruments across
the street, outside the famed French coffeehouse Cafe Du
A local landmark,
Cafe Du Monde reopened 18 days after the hurricane, a move that
residents say helped restore confidence that normalcy would
During the high
season, you have to get here at 4 a.m. to get a place on the
sidewalk around the square. Its that busy, Walker says. Look at it
now, though. Most people say it just isnt worth it to come down
here to make a few cents. Or maybe they have moved away. It is hard
Walker offers a
free palm reading, and explains how he does his analysis. His
patron will win the lottery, he suggests after examining multiple
triangles on his subjects open palm.
But he offers no
glimpse into the future of tourism in the struggling
Nothing will happen
here unless they first rebuild the levees, he says. That is not a
prediction, that is just what everyone says. If they dont do that,
I think we can all give it up.