was determined to make his way back home. He climbed aboard the
free bus from Baton Rouge to New Orleans just after sunup and by 8
a.m. he was pulling his bulky, blue-green suitcase through a
late-January rain, now a tourist in his own hometown.
After walking the
10 blocks from the bus drop to Mothers restaurant on Poydras
Street, the wheels on his luggage clattering noisily on the
sidewalk, he parked his suitcase next to an empty table and got
what he had come for. Marvin, Mothers day manager, handed him an
Mothers, a proud
preparer of Louisiana-style baked ham, red beans and other
specialties, had just added two hours to its daily schedule. Now it
was struggling on a Tuesday morning to keep up with breakfast
patrons: staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
construction workers, business people and a few out-of-towners on
the look-around tour.
Hookfin filled in
the form and signed it. He seemed disappointed when Marvin told him
to come back at 2 p.m. Outside, leaning his suitcase against the
restaurants brick wall, he waited. Hope I got it, he said. I need
the work. Ive got a wife and baby at home.
Like tens of
thousands of other New Orleans natives who lost everything in the
flooding that followed Katrina, Hookfin is doing his best to return
home, plying the streets, stopping at restaurants, hotels and other
businesses to inquire about jobs as they staff up for Mardi
plentiful. Some 10,000 positions could be filled immediately, said
Louisiana Restaurant Association executive Tom
But the paradox
faced by Hookfin and others struggling to return to New Orleans is
that there is practically no place to live.
If I get this
job, Hookfin said, I will have to commute every day from Baton
Rouge. While that means adding another two to three hours to his
workday, he pointed out, at least there is a free bus now to come
and go on, so I wont have to pay. Im one of the lucky ones, I
guess, because I am close enough to commute. A lot of folks
As you move
through the streets of this citys near-normal Central Business
District and through the French Quarter, which suffered only wind
damage, you see more restaurants operating than before Christmas.
But in the evenings, especially weeknights, closings come
are everywhere. Bonuses are being offered, even at fast-food
A vast number of
New Orleans waiters, waitresses, busboys, hotel housekeepers,
clerks, bartenders, cooks and parking valets remain among the Big
Easy Diaspora. From Houston to Atlanta and across Louisiana and
Texas, those trying to return find premium rents for apartments in
areas adjacent to the city. The prices are beyond the means of
minimum- and moderate-wage service workers.
For those making
mortgage payments on houses that no longer are livable, the options
are limited. And while thousands of trailers have been delivered to
homeowners trying to rebuild, tens of thousands more are
problems, tourism officials in New Orleans insist the city is ready
for the arrival of festivalgoers at this years scaled-down,
eight-day Mardi Gras season. In truth, they have to be. Visitors
have already booked more than 95% of available rooms for the second
of the two Mardi Gras weekends, and flights are quickly filling up.
Southwest Airlines announced it will be adding five flights to its
New Orleans service beginning in March, boosting to 18 the number
of daily flights from the city.
Just two weeks
before Fat Tuesday, the raucous conclusion to Mardi Gras, no one is
really sure how large the crowds will be this year or how many
visitors will actually brave the still-ragged areas around the city
to reach the heart of its celebration.
insist that the citys decision to go ahead with a scaled-back Mardi
Gras this year is fraught with potential problems. Among them is
David Belfield, former king of the Zulu Mardi Gras krewe, who filed
an unsuccessful request for a court injunction to stop his krewe
There are not
enough hospitals open, not enough medical clinics, and any sort of
stress on the traffic system causes problems, Belfield said,
standing outside the citys municipal courthouse in late January. He
recalled how something as mundane as a graduation ceremony at a
local hotel on a recent Sunday afternoon had produced gridlock
through the downtown area -- an incident he said was a potential
harbinger of things to come.
Whats it going to
be like if thousands of people are trying to get into the city, he
wondered. What if there is a major medical problem -- how are they
going to handle that? Putting all the other issues aside -- the
people who died -- just handling the crowds is going to be
owners, hotel operators and tourism officials say that while they
struggle to find enough staff and often ask employees with housing
to work double shifts, they plan to keep services at a level
consistent with what visitors normally expect in the city. That
means self-imposed limits. For example, some hotels that have rooms
to sell refuse to accept bookings because they lack sufficient
officials say they are fully cognizant of potential problems, but
they play down the likelihood of widespread traffic gridlock or
shortages of emergency medical or security services. Moreover, they
say it is crucial that Mardi Gras take place on
We need to be in
the spotlight, said Larry Lovell, assistant to the CEO at the New
Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp. We have done this before. We
have been the standard bearer in hospitality, so we have the
expertise to do it. Our hospitality industry is second to none, so
were confident it will be very successful.
meanwhile, success means counter work at Mothers or whatever else
he might be offered. Its a comedown for a man who had been a
manager of two different franchise restaurant operations and
recently had opened his own business.
But his business
was washed away by Katrina.
I am willing to
take anything for work at this time, Hookfin said. I want to come
back. I was born and raised here. But who knows how long it will be
before there is housing? We just wait and look and listen. Its all
coming back, but we dont know when.
back to business in a hurry
A walk down
Poydras Street from Mothers to St. Charles Avenue, the principal
parade route for Mardi Gras, takes a visitor to the
InterContinental New Orleans, which commands the corner. Just
beyond the valet parking, among storefronts where reviewing stands
now crowd the sidewalk, Fredericks on the Avenue is racing the
Fred Rost was on
his cell phone outside the popular deli that he and partner Richard
Lewis have operated for six years. Fredericks had been closed since
looters tore the place apart in the wake of the storm. Now, he was
on the phone with one of his absent workers, all of whom had been
scattered across the country by the hurricane. He described the
settlement, which had just arrived, the lengthy wait for insurance
to be processed and how the pair had been struggling to get back to
Wed better be
open by Mardi Gras, Rost said into the phone. If we arent open,
theres gonna be a for sale sign in the window.
Rost stood in
front of his plate-glass window, recounting his odyssey through the
maze of reopening. He pointed to a hand-lettered sign taped to the
window, excoriating his insurance carrier with a brusque insult.
The sign was more visible than the restaurants name -- which still
needed reframing in the window. Inside, workers were still
replacing stoves, counters and tables as the deli made a mad dash
toward city certification.
The money just
got here, he said. Weve been waiting five months, and now were
trying to get open before the big party. I think we are going to do
it. I think well be ready. I hope to hell we are ready. Right,
From atop a
ladder, Lewis, who was repairing an electrical fixture, nodded his
Like many of
those who prepare the citys world-famous cuisine (Fredericks prides
itself on its version of the po boy sandwich) Rost and Lewis are
struggling to overcome staffing issues. They have offered help in
finding returning workers a place to live as a way of encouraging
them to take back their jobs.
full-time employees are living out of state, Lewis said. Weve got
them in Atlanta and Houston and want them back. One of them is here
trying to find a place to live. But where is the housing? We dont
want to give their jobs away.
Rost fingered a
new menu he said he wrote up on his drive into work that morning
while listening to a local radio discussion of the flap over New
Orleans Mayor Ray Nagins recent chocolate city comments during a
Martin Luther King Day speech.
See, Im giving
away a free side of chocolate pudding with every order, he joked,
as if to prove he had not lost his sense of humor.
challenges -- mortgage payments, rent, a lack of revenue -- are no
joking matter for Rost, Lewis and the hundreds of other
restaurateurs in the city, all of whom are counting on an economic
shot in the arm from Mardi Gras crowds.
Rost and Lewis
are longtime members of Endymion, one of the major krewes parading
in the abbreviated 150th annual Mardi Gras celebration. And they
have faith. Whatever controversy or issues arise during Mardi Gras,
they insist that the city will handle it.
Weve got to bring
business back to town, Rost said. And weve got to bring business in
the door. Its going to be a badly needed boost, both economically
and for the spirit of the city.
We parade right
past this place, Rost said, shooting a hopeful grin toward Lewis,
still on the aluminum ladder. Maybe we will have to get down off
the float and drag a few people inside, huh Richard!
was a weary smile.
At the other end
of Poydras Street, at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, Kim
Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Convention and
Visitors Bureau, had been keeping her finger on the pulse of the
citys gradual tourism recovery. On the eve of Mardi Gras, she said
she saw positive signs emerging from many places.
Were just about
sold out for the second weekend, she said of the citys available
hotel inventory. You can feel the momentum within the city.
Definitely, theres a momentum.
As recently as
two weeks ago, long stretches of Canal Street just outside the
downtown area were still without stoplights. Just off the slowly
moving main thoroughfares, empty neighborhoods to the northeast
faded into the dusk, debris piled in the streets, the pavement
washed out in places, giving the recovered part of New Orleans --
the Central Business District and the French Quarter -- the feel of
an oasis in a wasteland.
neighborhoods, which in late January were still without power,
police cars were patrolling in pairs. Barricades still greeted
drivers in neighborhoods farther from downtown that residents say
were left toxic by contamination from receding waters and
herself an evacuee who makes a daily drive into the city from
temporary quarters in Metairie -- about a 30-minute commute in
normal traffic -- said that the situation had dramatically improved
during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras: Temporary four-way-stop
intersections gave way to restored traffic signals.
It really is
getting much better, very quickly, she said.
She pointed to
other signs that businesspeople who were pressing forward with the
event, as well as the visitors who were coming to support Mardi
Gras, shared a confidence in the citys ability to hold its
pre-Lenten carnival without traffic gridlock, safety and health
issues or long lines for services.
By last count,
Saturday night was the most popular for bookings, Priez said.
People want to have the long weekend. But there are some rooms
where we are going to see last-minute availability, probably for
Monday and then Tuesday.
For months, the
city has touted the goal of having 27,000 hotel rooms available by
Mardi Gras. But availability for visitors is only about half of
that because 50% of available rooms are still occupied by relief
and construction workers and by residents trying to sort out their
But while selling
out rooms might be a given with such reduced inventory, Lovell
still saw it as a hopeful sign.
The last couple
of years Mardi Gras has been running at 95% to 98% of our capacity,
Lovell said. So if someone wanted to book a room the week before
Mardi Gras, they could, and would find a room somewhere. We think
they can do that now. As hotels continue to come back on line, we
think we will have the capacity to handle the crowd that wants to
How many will
come? Lovell and others freely admit that is unclear. Not every
booking of a room during Mardi Gras can be tied to the event, and
officials have no clear gauge as to the response.
Its true, we dont
know, Lovell said. We always commission research after the fact,
but we have not been doing that kind of research since the storm.
We do know we have not been a tourist destination lately, so this
is our kickoff point.
Orleans is facing a challenge from upstate in Shreveport-Bossier
City, which escaped the ravages of Katrina. Convention and tourism
officials there say they expect some 400,000 people to show up for
their Mardi Gras.
We are expecting
record crowds with the prediction of great party weather ... and
additional marketing, said Brandy Evans of the CVB
Gras, plans are well under way for the annual New Orleans Jazz and
Heritage Festival on the weekends of April 28 to 30 and May 5 to 7
at its traditional home, the Fair Grounds Race Course.
Fats Domino, who
was rescued from his flooded Lower Ninth Ward home following
Katrina, has agreed to perform.
That Fats Domino
will be playing is great, said Priez, because so many people saw
him [on network newscasts] being air-lifted out of his house, and
there was confusion later on over whether he was OK. So to have him
here for the festival is just great news all around.
flights, a good sign
in general at Mardi Gras may not be what they have been in the
past, there are additional signs that visitors are eager to
Terry Trippler of
CheapSeats.com said he sees increases in flights into New Orleans
as a post-hurricane barometer of how well the gathering tourism
recovery is going.
The airlines know
when the demand is there, and as the demand grows they will add
more flights, he said. But they will not add them until they see
Flights into and
out of the city that were half-empty for months after the storm
have been filling of late. Priez said flights have grown from a low
of 19 per day after Louis Armstrong Airport reopened in September
to 74 flights a day now.
That will go up
to 78 flights a day, they tell us, during Mardi Gras, Priez
flights numbered 160 a day.
While New Orleans
lawyer David Belfield and others like him still worry publicly
about the citys readiness -- and the appropriateness of a party
this year -- Belfield admits he has essentially lost his bid to
stop Mardi Gras from happening.
He doesnt see
himself as a Grinch.
What makes sense
to me is for the krewes of Mardi Gras to take the money they would
have spent on the party and put it into helping the neighborhoods
and the neighbors who have been hurt, Belfield said. If they all
just adopted one neighborhood, think of the good they could
He also worries
that New Orleans police and firefighters, -many of whom have been
living on cruise ships now scheduled to depart the day after Fat
Tuesday, will be under more stress because of Mardi Gras, and that
will lead to trouble.
Belfields lawsuit -- he has sought unsuccessfully so far to have
Zulus participation in the parade stopped over procedural issues --
is still alive but in limbo, unlikely to interrupt anything
Priez said that
while many understand Belfields concerns and sympathize with some
of his issues, the logistics of Mardi Gras have been thoroughly
thought out by organizers and have been addressed.
medical care has been an issue we locals have been concerned about,
Priez said. We will have one hospital open in the city and two open
in the suburbs.
Priez said that arrangements have been made to set up a hospital,
actually, a 60-bed emergency triage center, in the convention
So I think [the
concern about medical care] has been addressed, she
aspects of serving the public are being dealt with, too, she
Right now, the
hospitality community has been pretty good about not trying to
overextend themselves, Priez said. We have received more and more
trailers. People are getting apartments, so places to live are
coming on line.
service-worker situation wont be 100% cured by Mardi Gras, but I
dont think visitors will experience a dramatic difference in
waiting times from a normal Mardi Gras. I really dont think they
will see much difference at all.
Like most others
in the travel business in New Orleans, Priez is keeping her fingers
crossed for the financial success of Mardi Gras and hoping that
success will counter some of the devastating images people saw
during the citys desperate days.
We are getting
there, she said. And we are ready for Mardi Gras. The king cakes
reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].