Betraying the Big Easy

Did you ever go to visit a friend who had survived a serious illness? There is no question of your desire to see them, but all the way there you had an uneasy feeling because you simply didn't know what to expect. That's just how I felt last week when I went to New Orleans for the first time following Hurricane Katrina. I had been there 12 times prior because I simply love it the city. I cannot get enough of walking the French Quarter and its surrounding neighborhoods and virtually every time I've visited I've found a new side street or a new shop to explore. Ruthanne Terrero, CTC

I'm now happy to report that the French Quarter is open for business and that you should most certainly send your clients there. The restaurants, the bars, the shops and the hotels are ready to serve with an extremely enthusiastic level of energy; I stayed at The Windsor Court (along with about 100 luxury travel agents who are top producers for Orient-Express Hotels); the service at the hotel was exemplary and the rooms were pristine and spacious.

I do admit I took my walk toward the French Quarter with some trepidation. A trip up

Canal Street
revealed several boarded-up buildings; it was also chilly for New Orleans, there was none of that sultry humidity that hugs you every step of the way. I headed over to the shuttered Fairmont Hotel, whose fate has been in question since Katrina. While it was indeed fenced off, its front doors were ajar and I saw workers moving up and down the very long corridors that in the past have been so opulently decorated at Christmas. (Later that evening I heard a rumor that the hotel, which has always been a key landmark for the city, may indeed reopen.) Energized, I crossed
Canal Street
, which now boasts a long line of towering, fresh palm trees all along the streetcar track towards the Mississippi. I dropped in at The Ritz-Carlton; I have to say, I have never seen a hotel sparkle so much.

I walked down

Bourbon Street
and peeked into Galatoire's, which is once again serving adoring New Orleans' locals. All of the strip joints were open, as were the T-shirt shops and those selling voodoo memorabilia. I realized I was grinning; I was getting my New Orleans groove back. I made a right onto
Royal Street
and there was the A&P; I dashed in and bought three packages of New Orleans-blend Community Coffee to take home, which I've done on every past visit. Along Royal Street musicians were setting up; and on Decatur in front of Café du Monde a most melodious trumpet player had snagged one of the most enviable sidewalk spots in town and was being tipped generously by everyone who passed by.

The chilliness of the morning was burning off and it was beginning to get balmy, in fact, it was turning into a rather warm, Southern day. It wasn't sultry yet; we'll have to wait a few more weeks for that. But otherwise, my New Orleans was back.

The challenge now in New Orleans is a housing shortage; restaurants, hotels and shops are lacking in staff because there is simply no place for people to live. Many of those who do have a home are living in FEMA trailers. At the heart of the problem is a slowdown in the Louisiana Road Home recovery program; according to The Times-Picayune, more than 103,000 people have applied for housing grants, but fewer than 400 have had closings, thanks to endless slowdowns within the system. The good news is that last week the House Financial Services Committee in Washington was set to hold hearings to deal with the shortage of affordable housing along the GulfCoast. This, nearly one and a half years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of homes and apartments.

That this national treasure has been left to fend for itself following one of the worst catastrophes in our history is a national disgrace. I'm not sure why it's become okay for this city to suffer so; its suffering has actually become a part of the fabric of our culture. Let's hope that the new efforts in Congress have an impact, and soon.

In the meantime, you can assist on the grass roots level by signing up for Habitat for Humanity at www.habitat.org, where you can donate or actually volunteer to work on homes around the city. In the meantime, please send your clients back to New Orleans. Give them the chance to sample the Big Easy's rebirth for themselves.

Ruthanne Terrero, CTC Editorial Director rterrero@questex.com