I Like New Orleans...

New Orleans, that old voodoo queen, is more like a debutante these days. In fact, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. held a coming-out party for her at the 21 Club in Manhattan to show her off. And she arrived on the arms of some rarified Crescent City royalty: the likes of Chef Paul Prudhomme, a brilliant young trumpet player named Irvin Mayfield and a pair of Madagascar hissing cockroaches from the Audubon Zoo.

"We're a city of survivors," said Sandy Shilstone, president of NOTMC. "The places that tourists come to see are high and dry," Shilstone said, which is the tune the town's tourism officials have been singing for months.  Locals took the blue tarps FEMA supplied to "fix" their homes and turned them into laughter, like at this charity costume show at Antoine's restaurant.

"This industry has recovered quicker than any other [because] the infrastructure was already in place," says Angèle Davis, secretary of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

So amidst the gallows-humor snickers about the "Katrina Patina"—the 60.3 million cubic yards of debris the hurricane churned up—the city strutted, boogied, binged and, yes, cried its way through Mardi Gras this year. But Fat Tuesday—or any day in N'awlins when a band is playing or a drink is hoisted—is a celebration of life at both its highest and its lowest: "We choose to celebrate," clarified local historian Arthur Hardy. "We never take the easy way out."

But recently the city has been attracting a different kind of celebrant, visitors from around the world who come armed with contractor bags, skil-saws and big hearts, ready to rebuild the city. The Besthoff sculpture garden at NOMA got a bath before its opening.

According to Davis, the biggest challenge for the region's tourism machine is to overcome the assumption that you need a tetanus shot and a bulldozer to get into New Orleans. It's launched a new marketing campaign filled with famous city natives saying it's time to "fall in love all over again." "We're trying to respond with a good strong message that what makes this city unique is undamaged," Davis explains.

The second challenge is working with the government to establish housing for employees—no workers, no infrastructure; no infrastructure, no tourists. The final one is housekeeping, which is where the benevolent visitation comes in.

New Orleans is seeing a surge in tourism for goodness' sake. "People want to contribute and be part of the rebuilding process," Davis explains, especially in the meetings and group markets. Groups come to pick up trash, build houses or organize events in the areas of their interest. A birding group might come to clear nature trails, for instance. "It's a different emphasis, for sure," says Tauck product manager Stacey Harrison. Bourbon Street awaits...

Altogether Now

A group of local moms called the Katrina Krewe (www.cleanno.org) takes volunteers to work on sites around town every Wednesday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. Founder Becky Zaheri recommends interested visitors keep an eye on the group's site for updates; it will soon have links to various neighborhood associations that will be doing similar projects.

Another organization that adds volunteer work to a vacation is Mission From Minnesota (612-822-5357, [email protected]). The group's weeklong projects include demolition, trash removal, cooking or just sitting and talking with people. Check the forum on nola.com (www.nola.com/forums/volunteer) for other opportunities.

"It's hard to survive somewhere else when you have a city made for you," said Mayfield of those who haven't come home. His father died in the floods. To close his set at the 21 Club, Mayfield gave a lesson in tradition:

As a "jazz funeral" procession begins, those closest to the deceased are first in line, and the band escorting them plays a dirge. But as it winds through the streets, curious folk join in, attracted to the music, forming an impromptu parade. The farther down the line, the less somber the crowd becomes, and the brassier the music gets, from a cakewalk to a joyous stomp. This revelry born out of sorrow is dubbed "the second line."

New Orleans has a long, sad road to walk to put to rest what happened. And as visitors and volunteers, we can join in behind and become the second line.