Taking the post-Katrina tour in New Orleans

“Remember, it’s August. It’s hot, there is no electricity, there is no sewerage system and there is no communication.” Our tour guide’s voice is patient but emotional, and the story is her own, as well as her city’s.

New Orleans, Barbara Robichaux explains, was thrown into chaos well before Hurricane Katrina hit on a Monday morning. There was panic as weather predictions quickly changed for the worse, as people began buying the same provisions – prescriptions to gasoline, as the abrupt exodus of vehicles clogged highways.

Now it is eight months later, and the shambles has far from vanished. For proof, there is Gray Line’s three-hour Hurricane Katrina Tour, offered twice daily. For each $35 ticket, $3 goes to hurricane recovery efforts.

Tacky? It depends. This for-profit venture carries a humanitarian message, too: Don’t forget about the devastation, and the work that still needs to be done. Customers get a letter to that effect, to send to Congress.

Shortly after passing the split at highways 10 and 610, we begin to see what has happened, but we’ll likely never understand the depth of it.

We veer into the upper income Lakeview, parallel to the breached 17th Street Canal and one of the city’s 78 neighborhoods. Houses are off of foundations, interiors gutted, windows blown out, cars abandoned.

Written on a sheet of plywood: “Goodbye, New Orleans. We’ll miss you.”

High water lines are evident. So are hastily scrawled military assessments, identifying a property by date inspected, number of animal and human bodies found. It is this way for block after block, mile after mile.

No one is living here, and only men in hard hats seem to be at work. An exception is the guy who sweeps a driveway, which seems so futile. Some piles of debris are tidy. Some are hill-sized heaps of mattresses, carpeting and rubbish.

“People ask me all the time: Why don’t you clean this up? I know it’s devastating but, believe me, it’s looking better,” says Barbara, who is a vice president for Gray Line of New Orleans.

We see the breaking point of the London Avenue Canal and head into Gentilly, the last neighborhood to have floodwaters recede.

Flyers cover posts everywhere. Have you seen this dog? Cat? Person? Need a roof? A house gutted? Shingles? Quick cash for whatever you own?

For the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., the message is mixed. Come visit, we are reassured. Most businesses have reopened. Come, please, the plea begins. We need you if our soul is to survive.

The French Quarter is largely unscathed, structurally, but hurting because relief workers are leaving and tourists – outside of Mardi Gras – haven’t returned in large numbers.

The landmark Preservation Hall is closed indefinitely. Beignets still are a lure at Café Du Monde, but the French Market vendor isn’t always open 24/7, as had been customary. The number of street performers on Jackson Square can be counted on one hand.

Hyatt Regency New Orleans, called “ground zero” for early recovery workers, won’t fill reservations until 2007. The Superdome, which sheltered 25,000 people during Katrina, will reopen for the Sept. 24 Saints-Falcons football game.

Also nearby is Magazine Street, 38 blocks of boutique shopping, funky cafés and nightlife. There are no corporate chains, not even a Starbucks, and that has been a matter of pride for these merchants.

But they also are realists. Can you wait this out another year, Linda Friedlander is asked. “No,” the owner of Objets Trouves says, bluntly. “You could come back in a couple of years and see all Gaps and Banana Republics” on this street.

So there are temptations to sell out. Although optimistic about future prosperity, Linda notes there “also is a point where the small businesses will say ‘I can’t do another loan.’”

Most Magazine Street businesses were not physically damaged by the hurricanes, so there is a lack of insurance money and grant applications to cover business losses.

Although Mardi Gras was “a great psychological boost,” economic success was short-lived, adds Linda, who sells art and home/personal accessories at her shop. Business recently was 20 percent of what it was during the same time in 2005.

There is no consensus here. Chef Adolfo Garcia, owner of Rio Mar Seafood, a nationally acclaimed tapas restaurant, notes that post-hurricane looters took food and beverages, “but that’s fine – they needed it.”

Aidan Gill wants legal authority to arm himself, to fend off looters. His high-end barbershop and men’s grooming boutique has long offered customers a Jameson whiskey or pint of Guinness with their haircut or shave. “We’re doomed,” he says, but a big sign outside of Aidan Gill For Men says “no surrender.”

Jewelry designer Mignon Faget says the fleur-de-lis, long associated with New Orleans as well as France, is becoming known as a badge of courage. “We need the publicity that life can be good here, and it has been getting better,” she says. Ten percent of her Louisiana design sales – more than $100,000, so far – have been donated to cultural recovery projects.

In the French Quarter, average workers give a heartfelt thanks to tourists for visiting. Bill Rau of Rau Antiques talks about leaving $24 million in store inventory before Katrina hit. “You do what you can do,” he explains. “Then we left – it was very quick.”

Having a police station nearby and removing all signage from the four-generation family business (the largest antique dealer in America) helped prevent looting.

Internet sales and a new Rau store in New York City buffer the decline of sales in New Orleans, he says.

Steve Latter, 22-year owner of Tujague’s, the city’s second oldest restaurant, considers himself fortunate, too. “We’re lucky to have our local crowd,” he says, sputtering a bit because of a “Katrina cough” that he can’t shake. “Retail businesses are the ones that are really hurting.”

We visit on a Monday, “Red Beans Night,” and “in another hour, this place will be jammed,” the owner predicted. “But nobody’s the same. This has changed us all.”

The rhythm and balance have changed. Insurance claims are slow to settle, because of the magnitude of the disaster, and the politics of it. Some homeowners are slow to rebuild, wary about whether levees can withstand more abuse. The next hurricane season is predicted to begin in June.

Fast food workers get $12 per hour instead of $5. Business hours are curtailed. There are few who will do the entry-level tasks. That includes picking up litter.

“I think in 10 years we’re going to have a real nice city again,” Steve predicts. “If somebody wants to make a living here, they can. They just may not be doing the same thing they did before” the hurricanes ravaged New Orleans.

“If New Orleans is washed away, the problem doesn’t stop,” says tour guide Barbara, “because someone is above us (geographically), and somebody is going to be above that.”

For updates on what’s open and happening in New Orleans, see www.neworleansonline.com. For more about the Gray Line post-Katrina tour, see www.graylineneworleans.com or call 800-535-7786.

The city’s next big events are the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 28 to May 7) and the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (May 24-28).

Our spring visit to New Orleans was offered in conjunction with a Society of American Travel Writers Free-lance Council meeting.

People in Wisconsin continue to help the New Orleans recovery effort. Example: This week Madison staff at Two Men and a Truck drove down a moving van full of medical supplies and equipment.

Donations are from Sharing Resources Worldwide, a nonprofit formed in 2002 by two registered nurses in Madison, Mary Dowling and Lisa Fernandez.

“It’s basic first aid supplies, sterilizers, defibrillators, wheelchairs – anything you’d use in an ER,” Mary says. This will help, in particular, volunteers who get hurt during clean-up projects.

The agency shipped 500 personal health kits (toothbrushes to soap) to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. It was one of 22 shipments – totaling 368 tons of donations – that were shipped somewhere in the world in 2005.

These include overstocks or outdated items that are usable but rejected by health care providers, hospitals to nursing homes, and others. All are stashed in a warehouse until shipped. To learn more or contribute, see www.sharingresourcesworldwide.org or call 608-445-8503.