New Orleans dawning

Martha Muzychka
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Two years since hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Big Easy continues to rebuild

It wasn't until my last morning in New Orleans that I captured a picture that summed up the state of the Big Easy. I had gotten up early, and the sun was just rising through a partly cloudy sky. Behind the puffy yet still dark grey cloud, there was a bright ribbon of gold. And that's New Orleans: while the city is still struggling with the after-effects of hurricane Katrina almost two years later, it is beginning to see glimmers of revival and rebirth.

I visited New Orleans in June, when the city hosted the annual conference of the International Association of Business Communicators. New Orleans is a city that relies on tourism and conventions, and even at this late date, I heard hotel staff and shopkeepers express pleasure that we had come to town.

It wasn't until my last morning in New Orleans that I captured a picture that summed up the state of the Big Easy. I had gotten up early, and the sun was just rising through a partly cloudy sky. Behind the puffy yet still dark grey cloud, there was a bright ribbon of gold. And that's New Orleans: while the city is still struggling with the after-effects of hurricane Katrina almost two years later, it is beginning to see glimmers of revival and rebirth.

I visited New Orleans in June, when the city hosted the annual conference of the International Association of Business Communicators. New Orleans is a city that relies on tourism and conventions, and even at this late date, I heard hotel staff and shopkeepers express pleasure that we had come to town.

Pre-Katrina, there were about 450,000 people in New Orleans; today there are about 215,000. Of the 25,000 hotel rooms available, 21,000 have reopened. The biggest challenge is finding staff. The increasingly high rents have made it impossible to find and keep employees in the service industry.

In some ways, Katrina has even started to fuel the local economy. One of the most popular tours is the Katrina Bus Tour. In fact, one driver said without the Katrina Tour, his company might not have survived the aftermath of the flooding.

I was initially reluctant to take the tour. Feeling somewhat voyeuristic and more than a little creeped out, I asked the hotel concierge why I or any other tourist should take it. "Because you need to know what it was like, and how hard it has been," he replied simply.

The tour was eye-opening, to say the least. We visited the canals that were breached by flood waters; we saw abandoned homes, empty lots and boarded-up stores, their sidewalks already grown over with weeds. We saw the infamous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers, and heard stories of waiting six months for drywall.

I saw one home that had shifted so far on its foundation that the living room furniture ended up on the front porch, including a piano that seemed to be waiting for its owner to return and strike up a tune.

Perhaps the most moving part of visiting the areas most affected by Katrina was seeing the efforts to rebuild, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward.

It's hard not to be moved while visiting the Lower Ninth Ward, considered one of the poorest areas and the hardest hit (flooded twice by both Katrina and Rita). It is also the site of an exciting rebuilding initiative called the Musician's Village, which is spearheaded by musician Wynton Marsalis and supported by Habitat for Humanity.

The Village is a kaleidoscope of new homes in bright, almost defiant colours.

If post-Katrina life in New Orleans is often seen as a dark cloud hovering on the horizon, then the Village is the bright golden ribbon that holds a promise for the future, a promise that might be kept if bureaucracy doesn't get in the way.

It's a promise you feel in areas that weren't hugely affected by the flooding, but were still devastated by the economic collapse. The French Quarter and its (in)famous Bourbon Street still bustle with tourists, and cemetery tours and carriage rides abound. Friends and colleagues recommended visiting the Café du Monde for its famous beignets and café au lait. We found the beignets as decadent as described, and covered in more icing sugar that I've seen in my kitchen at Christmas.

Katrina notwithstanding, New Orleans is still defined by its party atmosphere, its food and its music. Our taxi driver was obliging in making suggestions on where to eat. We visited three: The Red Fish Grill, the Gumbo Shop and Deanie's Seafood - and all offered excellent variety in Cajun specialities.

If you love seafood, you will find it in abundance: shrimp, crayfish, redfish and crab all made it to my plate in gumbo, jambalaya, cakes, ettoufees (a kind of stew) and pastas. We found another great restaurant by chance. It wasn't much to look at, but the Old Coffee Pot on St. Peter had great traditional food and a timeless atmosphere, not to mention offering traditional desserts such as calas, spicy sweet fried rice patties with syrup and cream.

One small caveat - the nightlife in New Orleans is wild and interesting in more ways than one. Bourbon Street is not for the faint of heart after midnight. Best to go with a crowd; smaller groups work well early in the evening just about anywhere in the French Quarter.

New Orleans is not the city it once was. It's a beautiful, tragic city working hard to get back on its feet. There wasn't enough time to do all I wanted and to see all I needed to understand where New Orleans is going. And yet, I gained an insight of where it has been, and it was illuminating.

Martha Muzychka is a writer and communications consultant living in St. John's. E-mail: socialnotes@yahoo.ca.

Organizations: Big Easy, International Association, Federal Emergency Management Agency Katrina Bus Tour Habitat for Humanity Gumbo Shop

Geographic location: New Orleans, Bourbon Street, St. John's

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