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Hurricane Katrina

Returning to normal in a city far from it

Businesses in New Orleans reopen with few supplies, workers and clients, determined to avoid bankruptcy.

Published October 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - The French Quarter smells like the spoils of Mardi Gras - a blend of decaying onions, rotting oysters, urine and sweat.

After every Mardi Gras, trash carpets the cobbled downtown streets for days until midnight Ash Wednesday, when horse-mounted police push the crowds home so sanitation workers can scrub the charm back into the French Quarter in time for morning services at St. Louis Cathedral.

Now, every day is Ash Wednesday.

Workers pressure wash the streets and pitch damp drywall, soggy carpets and pieces of slate roof atop trash piles that rise as high as second-story balconies.

Mayor Ray Nagin reopened a third of the city over the weekend in a plan criticized by the federal government as too ambitious and by locals as not soon enough.

But it could take years before tourism, the economic lifeblood of this city, revs up again. Airlines have fewer routes and smaller ones like Frontier Airlines dropped New Orleans altogether.

And the fate of tourist draws like Jazz Fest, Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras remains a mystery.

"When will we ever get back to where we were? I don't have a crystal ball, I can't tell you when we'll have 38,000 hotel rooms filled again," said Kim Priez, vice president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The hurricane destroyed at least 140,000 homes and businesses. Most schools in Orleans Parish are destroyed, though a few on the West Bank are scheduled to reopen in a few weeks. Power and sewage systems operate in a third of the city. The water is only safe to drink on the West Bank.

Hurricane Katrina's wind and water spared many of the areas that tourists know and love - shopping districts in the French Quarter, the Warehouse and Garden districts, but life isn't easy, even there. Thousands of business owners are scratching their heads at problems never imagined.

How can they reopen when their customers and workers are scattered across the country? When both public and private schools remain shuttered? When there's no drinkable water and the sewage system is touch and go?

FEMA plans to open the first mobile home park for evacuees with 580 units north of Baton Rouge on Monday. But more than 47,000 people remain in shelters statewide a month after the storm.

Many evacuees and government services like the courts have relocated to Baton Rouge. Soaring gas prices make for a costly commute.

Companies that lost a month of business face bills for food that rotted or supplies ruined by rain, floodwaters and looters.

The top worry is a lack of workers.

At the Riverview Room, which hosts private parties atop the Jax Brewery with sweeping views of the Crescent City, owner Bruce Trascher says most of his employees are homeless, former residents of the 9th Ward.

Trascher said he'd love to open by November or December. But even if employees returned or he found new ones, he hasn't figured out how to pay them.

"The short-term future is questionable," Trascher said.

"My cook for the past 17 years is cooking for the Red Cross in Houston. My employees lost everything. And where will they stay if they come back?"

Still, he's convinced his business and New Orleans will recover in the long run.

Some hotels have managed to survive by making the seamless jump to the catastrophe industry.

Many are rushing to repair and reopen as quickly as possible to house emergency and construction workers, as well as thousands of displaced residents.

Several hotels are booked solid for the next few months and have had few problems filling rooms abandoned by tourists. Major chains, like the Hampton Inn, have housed their own employees.

Oct. 15 marks the reopening of the historic Monteleone Hotel, which sports a Carousel Bar, in which an old-fashioned amusement park carousel, complete with horses, spins around bartenders.

"Everything is ready and raring to go, we just need the city's okay," said Dave Stewart, the hotel's director of operations.

Several bar and shop owners on a sewage-tainted Magazine Street in the Garden District said they'll miss the tourists, but they're more concerned about the locals.

"I'm worried about my soccer moms and wondering who I'm going to get to buy my merchandise," said Allison Rubenstein, who owns the clothing boutique Ah-ha, which survived a broken awning but lost racks of trendy flip-flops and silk blouses from looting after the storm.

Down the street Frank Massumi, who owns Balcony Bar and Cafe, was more doubtful.

"I really don't know what we're going to do," said Massumi, who has owned the restaurant and bar for 11 years. Hurricane winds ruined his second-story kitchen, but Massumi wants to open the bar this week.

"The plan is to start little by little, but right now it's difficult to find any employees willing to come in and help us."

A lack of basic services complicates life in New Orleans.

In the surrounding suburbs, where residents have had water and electricity for nearly three weeks, going to the grocery store can take an hour instead of a few minutes because so few are open and the lines are long. A phone call can take five or six tries. Most gas stations still demand cash and close at sunset.

A Domino's pizza in nearby Bellechase, one of a handful of fast-food restaurants open in Plaquemines Parish, had a limited menu: cheese or pepperoni. The opening days of Krispy Kreme in Metairie nearly caused car wrecks as dozens of drivers crammed into a crowded parking lot.

"Everything is difficult. You get into work early and you leave late and you wonder, "What did we accomplish all day?"' said Ray Hingle, who co-owns Mule'-Durel, a small office supply store that depends on French Quarter restaurants like Arnaud's and Marriott hotels as well as the fledgling school districts to pay its bills.

Every day Hingle and his wife, Sylvia, teeter back and forth, wondering whether they're going to make it or close down and lay off the few remaining employees.

He begged his supply driver, who had never missed a day of work before the hurricane, to give up a new job in Baton Rouge to return to his old job. Hingle even offered the worker a place in his own home, crowded with in-laws.

"For the first time in my life I've thought about the b-word," said Hingle, whose business used to gross just under $2-million a year but now confronts the possibility of bankruptcy.

"I always thought if you worked hard and paid your bills, you'd never have to think about it," Hingle said.

As for Mardi Gras, carnival season will roll, but parades will be fewer and shorter.

"Our residents are going to have a small little Mardi Gras all of our own, and they need it," Priez said.

"The smaller krewes may struggle and there might not be as many floats, but you can't really stop it."

--Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 3, 2005, 01:16:11]

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