The Big Easy: Despite everything, it's time to party

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Donald Hookfin 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 employment application.

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 Gras.

Jobs are plentiful. Some 10,000 positions could be filled immediately, said Louisiana Restaurant Association executive Tom Weatherly.

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 arent.

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 early.

Employment signs are everywhere. Bonuses are being offered, even at fast-food joints.

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 needed.

Despite such 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.

Some critics 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 from parading.

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 trouble.

Restaurant 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 staff.

Local tourism 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 schedule.

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.

For Hookfin, 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.

Getting 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 clock.

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 business.

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, Richard?

From atop a ladder, Lewis, who was repairing an electrical fixture, nodded his head.

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.

Our regular 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.

But the 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!

Lewis response was a weary smile.

Positive signs

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.

In adjacent 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 mold.

But Priez, 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 lives.

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 come here.

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.

Meanwhile, New 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 staff.

Beyond Mardi 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.

More flights, a good sign

While attractions in general at Mardi Gras may not be what they have been in the past, there are additional signs that visitors are eager to return.

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 the demand.

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 said. 

Before Katrina, 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 do.

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.

Meanwhile, 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 now.

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.

Believe me, 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.

In addition, Priez said that arrangements have been made to set up a hospital, actually, a 60-bed emergency triage center, in the convention center.

So I think [the concern about medical care] has been addressed, she said.

More mundane aspects of serving the public are being dealt with, too, she said.

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.

The 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 are everywhere.

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

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