After the storm: New Orleans wonders what comes next

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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 Times-Picayune. 

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 affirmative.

Two customers in 10 minutes, she says. My, we are setting some kind of record today!

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 erratic.

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.

In search 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 congressional delegation.

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.

What Louisianans 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 Thursday.

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 city.

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 town.

Blue plastic 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.

Abandoned cars 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.

In some 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 away.

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.

There arent any tourists

In Beckhams 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 day.

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 destroyed.

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 again.

New Orleans, 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 people do.

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 exacted.

There are people who are selling out now, closing their businesses, moving away, Legault says. They cant hold out until things change. Its taking too long.

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 public.

Walker, a 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 Monde.

A local landmark, Cafe Du Monde reopened 18 days after the hurricane, a move that residents say helped restore confidence that normalcy would eventually return.

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 to say.

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 city.

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.

Continued...

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