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French Quarter escaped the worst of Katrina's wrath

Posted On: Apr. 15, 2007 12:00 AM CST

French Quarter escaped the worst of Katrina's wrath

NEW ORLEANS¬óWalk down nearly any street in New Orleans' French Quarter or downtown business district and you'll have a tough time spotting evidence that Hurricane Katrina ever struck here.

The restaurants, shops and jazz clubs are open, the streets are tidier than they were before the storm; buskers and street musicians are out in force; and the horse-drawn carriages are waiting for riders as usual in front of Jackson Square.

So what is New Orleans' biggest challenge in luring visitors back to the city?

"Perception," said Dickie Brennan, managing partner of Dickie Brennan & Co. and operator of three French Quarter restaurants.

Misperceptions about the city's condition abound: that parts of it are still under water (they aren't); that crime runs unchecked (New Orleans is no less safe for visitors than any other U.S. city); that the city remains a ghost town 18 months after the storm (see for yourself, but expect a crowd).

If those attending the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. conference later this month "go to the same places visitors generally go to, I don't think they're going to see anything different," said Shawn Haygood, corporate purchaser for Commander's Palace, the venerable Garden District restaurant.

"Everything you go to New Orleans for is fine," agreed Kevin Belton, executive chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking. "I don't think anyone would notice any difference in the city now if they were here before Katrina."

Certainly, the city still faces huge hurdles in its recovery. Thousands of houses swamped by 10-foot floodwaters in the Lower Ninth Ward, to the east of downtown, and Lakeview, to the northwest, remain gutted or boarded up. The city's current population of about 225,000 is half what it was before the 2005 storm, and severe damage to half the city's housing units has made it harder for residents to find affordable places to live.

Downtown, the 26-story Dominion Tower and 1,184-room Hyatt Regency New Orleans hotels remain vacant with broken windows, awaiting a $716 million redevelopment that calls for a 20-acre performing arts park anchored by a new National Jazz Center.

From a visitor's point of view, though, the recovery so far is impressive. Several Superdomes-worth of debris--35 million cubic yards--were removed after the storm, and even an area as hard-hit as New Orleans' City Park is now a pleasant place to stroll. The Superdome itself is fully recovered, and several residents cite the New Orleans Saints' home opener last September as the point when tourism began to come back. Others point out that Mardi Gras drew an estimated 800,000 people this year, only about 20% below typical pre-Katrina levels.

Public transportation, devastated by the storm, is recovering. The famed St. Charles Streetcar line began running in December from Canal Street to Lee Circle; while repairs on the rest of the line won't be finished until later this year, a bus will take you the rest of the way down beautiful, mansion-lined St. Charles Avenue.

Meanwhile, the main attractions for anyone visiting the city--the French Quarter, the Garden District and downtown--seem barely changed (see stories, page 14.).

Great food has always been one of the city's strengths, and most of its best restaurants are up and running.

In the relatively unscathed French Quarter, Mr. Brennan's Bourbon House suffered no damage and was open five weeks after the storm, even though the city had no potable water and his staff and customers had to use five-gallon jugs of bottled water and plastic plates and utensils, he said.

While he expected mostly rescue workers at that point, people "came out of the woodwork--local New Orleanians," looking for an open restaurant, Mr. Brennan recalled.

Now, locals and tourists alike can choose among old favorites such as Antoine's or Galatoire's or relative newcomers such as Bayona or G.W. Fins. Even the heavily damaged Commander's Palace--owned by another branch of the Brennan family and closed for 13 months after the storm--is back.

One noticeable difference, though, is the number of "help wanted" and "now hiring" signs posted in restaurant and shop windows all over the city. Because many residents did not return following the hurricane, the city is experiencing a staffing shortage.

For the first time in more than 125 years, Commander's Palace has hung a large "now hiring" flag outside the restaurant.

"We got a tremendous amount of our old staff back," Mr. Haygood said. "We had others who got other jobs here in town because other restaurants opened long before we did." Because the restaurant is not fully staffed, Mr. Haygood said Commander's Palace will halt taking reservations even with empty tables. "We're not going to sacrifice service and quality. If we don't think we can fulfill that, we're not going to do it," he said.

Hotels also are having a tough time finding staff, Mr. Belton added.

"Trying to get top-line service is a little more difficult now," he said, warning that visitors shouldn't be surprised if it takes longer for hotel staff to respond to a special request.

The city's widely reported problems with post-Katrina crime, meanwhile, should not deter visitors from getting out and around, local business leaders say.

Much of the city's violent crime is drug- and gang-related, they note, and most of these crimes occur in neighborhoods not frequented by tourists, New Orleans Police Department data show.

"The perception is worse than the reality," said David Roberts, a guide with the Historic New Orleans Walking Tours.

"The nightclubs are open, the restaurants are open, the museums are open...the swamp tours and plantation tours are open. We're all here and ready for business. And the drug dealers are not in the middle of it," Mr. Roberts said.

"As long as you're not in the business of drugs or want to set up a territory or gang-related area, you're OK," agreed Mr. Belton. "Use the common sense that you have at home."

"I don't feel any less safe than I did before the storm," said Mr. Brennan, who lives less than a mile from the French Quarter with his wife and two children.

Nearly every New Orleans resident has a story about surviving Katrina or returning to the city in its aftermath. What you're not likely to hear in any of these stories, though, is bitterness. Instead, you're more likely to hear determination, optimism and gratitude toward those who are helping the city come back.

"We have so far to go, and it's such a high mountain. But when you reach another milestone, it's a hell of a good feeling," Mr. Brennan said. "I'm proud of what we've done."

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