Auld Lang Syne in the Big Easy

The Pussyfooters and other entertainers parade through New Orleans's Uptown to pay tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The Pussyfooters and other entertainers parade through New Orleans's Uptown to pay tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)

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By Anne Hull and Julia Cass
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 1, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 31 -- The waitresses at Cafe du Monde hustled out trays with warm beignets and thick chicory coffee, and Maspero's was pressing muffulettas as fast as it could. At the venerable Palm Court, the jazzmen were opening their horn cases in preparation for the $90-a-person New Year's Eve supper.

This weekend, New Orleans got what it has been missing since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city four months ago: tourists.

In a city that had been eulogized by some, the vibrancy in the French Quarter this weekend gave hope that a turnaround is possible. A giant gumbo pot was scheduled to drop at midnight to ring in the new year, with fireworks over the river.

City officials say that recapturing one of the city's main economic drivers -- tourism -- is necessary if New Orleans is to thrive again. The industry brought in $5.5 billion in 2004.

But the revival of tourism is a source of anger for residents in poor neighborhoods, for whom the French Quarter -- largely white -- is just a place on a postcard.

"Let's put Bourbon Street aside for a while," said Trenace Walker, a Katrina evacuee who returned to New Orleans to handle the affairs of her mother's death. "Let's give people the necessities they need. We need schools and grocery stores and hospitals. I'm like this: Show me. Show me you want me to come home."

Just a mile from the French Quarter, living requires a camper's spirit. The rubble is ubiquitous. Grocery stores are mostly in outlying parishes. Laundromats are wrecked because of the floods. Drugstores are hard to find.

Only one-fourth of the residents have returned, and much of the neighborhoods are unlivable. Nearly 80 percent of habitable houses have electricity, and 75 percent of those equipped for gas service have it.

Nine schools are set to open in January, but that will bring the total to only 17 of the 124 formerly operated by the Orleans Parish School System, which has been taken over by the state. The 17 schools will serve about 12,000 students -- a fifth of the normal population -- but Bill Roberti, chief restructuring officer for the schools, said others will open as demand increases. "We don't know how many children will be coming back to New Orleans," Roberti said.

Two large oil and gas companies have returned to New Orleans, and two more are expected in the new year, according to Don Hutchinson, director of economic development for the city. "From a business standpoint, it will take a year or two to get to where we were," Hutchinson said. "The area I'm concerned about are small business that can't hold on for four or five more months."

Still, many locals returned to the city during the holidays. Reunion hugs and handshakes could be seen everywhere: in the A&P that recently opened on Magazine Street, and farther up at the white-tiled glory of Casamento's, where faithful customers in khakis slurped oysters and traded evacuation tales.

At curbsides, discarded refrigerators are canvases for social commentary. "N.O.P.D. Beat Me Down," someone scrawled on an icebox, to which someone else added "But I need it 'cause I'm bad."


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