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Fresh apparitions float through the Big Easy


You might not know it sitting in a crowded French Quarter restaurant or walking by a raucous bar on Bourbon Street, but New Orleans is haunted.

Plenty of tour guides will tell you so. They tend to focus, though, on the city's antique spirits, like the slave girl murdered by a grande dame of New Orleans society in the early 1800s, or the children killed in a century-old hotel fire.

There are more contemporary ghosts around, ones that haven't made it onto the itineraries of the local ghost tour operators yet, but might someday.

Most vexing for local residents, for example, is the spirit of George W. Bush. It's said that if you go to Jackson Square late at night, when a full moon casts an eerie blue light on St. Louis Cathedral in the background, you may see the faint image of Mr. Bush, facing Decatur Street and moving his lips. The few locals who have seen this apparition report hearing it speak the words, "duty to confront this poverty with bold action," and "federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs." The image then vanishes.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin last month unveiled a widely praised recovery plan developed by Dr. Edward J. Blakely, an urban planning expert who was named the city's recovery management czar in December. The plan calls for $1.1 billion in public spending, much of it aimed at 17 redevelopment zones around the city.

Locals are hoping that once rebuilding actually gets under way, the disturbing specter of Mr. Bush will disappear from Jackson Square altogether. For one thing, they say, it's scaring the horses.

The Jackson Square phenomenon, unfortunately, has been accompanied by other, related visitations, some of them more horrifying, locals report.

One of these, dubbed the Headless Arabian Horse Assn. Commissioner, is the specter of Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Two musicians returning home late one night in the Quarter encountered the ghostly figure of Mr. Brown, holding its head under one arm and asking plaintively, "Is there anything I can help you with?" and "How do you like my suit?"

One of the musicians collapsed. The other said the Brown specter looked shocked and offered to call in medevac helicopters. Then it said it had to leave for a GOP fundraiser, and walked through the wall of a nearby bank branch.

Sightings of Mr. Brown continue, but another phenomenon seems destined to be short-lived. Several witnesses earlier this year reported being approached by a pale, motherly looking woman in a business suit; they recognized it as the figure of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco only after it kept repeating, "I will not stand for re-election."

The last person to see the figure--a man on the way home from a local saloon--shouted, "We won't stand for it, either," and the apparition hasn't been seen since.

Throughout the city, meanwhile, scores of people have reported chilling encounters with various spirits that could be described as insurance phantoms.

Homeowners in neighborhoods from St. Bernard Parish to Lakeview, for instance, say they've seen spectral cars floating by their houses, driven by what appear to be Allstate Insurance Co. adjusters. As they pass, the figures have been heard to cackle, "This one's abandoned." Within days, homeowners find their coverage has been nonrenewed.

Many commercial policyholders have been plagued by the poltergeist phenomena. Several report finding property policy records levitating toward open windows; many have noted spontaneous changes to the policies themselves. Changes include disappearance of the word "flood" from policies' lists of covered perils, the addition of zeros to excess attachment points and alteration of A-rated insurers' names to "Reliance Insurance Co."

New Orleans' recovery finally seems to be gaining some momentum, though, and these strange events may soon be a thing of the past. For the city's 230,000 living souls, it couldn't happen a moment too soon.