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Advice for the Big Easy

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Advice for the Big Easy

I was lying in bed in the dead silence of a muggy Louisiana night with no electricity and a loaded handgun on the bedside table. I was hot, angry and praying I didn't have to use the gun. A warm breeze blew through the window screen.

Pines as tall as 50 feet were resting on my roof, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. At the other end of the gravel road, many of the homes were destroyed—some sliced in two by the heavy trees, others looking as if a giant had stomped them flat.

Several days earlier, evacuated near Birmingham, Alabama, I had watched on television as looters ransacked New Orleans. I got back to my home north of Lake Pontchartrain as soon as the roads were passable so that I could to survey the damage and secure my property.

About 4 a.m. on that hot night, there was a series of gunshots in the distance. I grabbed the gun and hurried to my front door. I waited, watching for any movement in the woods across the street. I checked the back. Nothing.

I laid back down, nerves jangled, trying to comprehend what had happened to this part of America.

New Orleans got a brief respite from crime after the initial surge of looting. Many of the city's worst criminals were in Texas until the floodwaters receded and Houston's mayor finally told them to go home.

The city's murder rate has soared, with nine killings kicking off 2007 in the first eight days of January. Since then, there have been a number of brutal, violent homicides as the city's per capita murder rate has climbed to among the highest in the United States Citizens of New Orleans are arming themselves in record numbers, according to reports.

Against that backdrop, risk managers, insurers, brokers and others are about to descend on the city for the annual conference of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. This year, it will be important to pack some common sense for the trip.

Don't get the idea that New Orleans is a slaughterhouse. It's not. The central business district looks much as it did before the storm with many of the restaurants reopened, Harrah's Casino taking gamblers' money and Cafe du Monde serving chicory coffee and beignets. It's still an entertaining city. But it is dangerous—more so than most places you will visit this year.

Having lived in New Orleans for many years before moving to Zurich several months ago, I can offer some advice on how to stay safe while you enjoy the city.

Rule one: Stick with the French Quarter. It's relatively safe there among the drunks, strip clubs and jazz bars. But do not venture to the far end, where the bars thin out and streets are darker. There has been a spate of crime in that area, some of it violent.

Rule two: Be extremely careful in the cemeteries. I've always advised people to see the city's artistic tombs in the safety of a group and only during the daytime. It's still good advice.

Rule three: Under no circumstances drive after you have been drinking.

Rule four: Don't take shortcuts on foot. Alleyways downtown and in the Quarter are not safe choices.

Rule five: Stay out of the blighted neighborhoods at night. If you have to take a look at the Lower Ninth Ward, where Katrina did her worst, go ahead and drive through one afternoon. Just remember that it is in poor taste to stare—especially at someone who has lost everything and just wants to rebuild their home in peace.

And, as a further bit of personal risk management, I would suggest that loud conversations that identify you as connected with the insurance industry while in the restaurants and bars where locals hang out is not a way to endear yourself to the populace.

Stay safe, have fun, and as they say in New Orleans, laissez les bon temps roulez. Just do so carefully.