Cleanup breathes some life into city

New Orleans business owners find more to do than anticipated

Doubts persist over residents' return

September 18, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - The heart of the city showed a pulse yesterday as shop owners and cleanup crews settled into the central business district and the narrow French Quarter to begin clearing damage from Hurricane Katrina and restoring life to the city.

But through the shattered glass, behind the wavy plywood and the moldy doors, many found more work to do than they anticipated - and evidence that the rebirth of New Orleans will likely be measured in weeks or months.

The mood was often cheerful. At Alex Patout's Restaurant, just off Bourbon Street, a chef fired up a pot of gumbo on the sidewalk, and tables with white linen awaited patrons outside. Soldiers in red berets and dark sunglasses strolled casually through the streets with their M-16s, smiling and joking with the merchants and bar owners.

But the job ahead remained sobering. Most shops and restaurants stayed shuttered, despite Mayor Ray Nagin's partial opening of the city yesterday, and most others were open only for cleaning and damage assessments, not for business. Electricity was available only in pockets, and business owners faced a landscape without traffic lights or potable water and littered with pieces of the very businesses they hope to rebuild.

Bruce Perone, food and beverage director of the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, offered some evidence of the dimensions of the cleanup and restoration effort. He swung open the door to Ballroom III to reveal a mountain of trash bags, filled with the linens from all 702 rooms, awaiting tractor-trailers to haul them off to a cleaning facility with power and fresh water.

"And that's not even all of them," Perone said. "I figure it will be five or six weeks before we're ready."

Mike Serio stood outside Serio's Delicatessen in knee-high rubber boots, counting off the reasons why he needs months to rebuild, if he can rebuild at all.

"I got mud, I got mold everywhere, I don't know where my employees are; I can't even go into my walk-in freezer because of the smell," said Serio, owner of the shop one block off Canal Street.

"I've worked my whole life in this city, and it all just got flushed down the toilet," said Serio, 54. "How am I going to rebuild this? Where is everybody? Who are we going to serve?"

Doubts about the logic of the mayor's plan to allow more than 180,000 residents to return in phases over the next two weeks continued to be voiced throughout the city, most of which is still without electricity and caked with a gray filth from the days it spent under water.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is managing the recovery efforts for the federal government, said yesterday that he considers the plan "extremely ambitious" and "extremely problematic." Besides the obvious safety issues, he pointed out that floodwaters are being held back only by a temporary levee system and that questions about pollution have not been answered.

Outside the central business district and the French Quarter, New Orleans continued to look more like a military training camp than a city. Army blockades made from wrecked city buses or shipping containers controlled traffic at major intersections and prevented the curious from driving over the bridges into eastern New Orleans, where some of the worst damage and heaviest flooding occurred.

In the city's Ninth Ward, an economically depressed area that has been one of the last sections to dry out, urban search-and-rescue teams in dark blue uniforms walked house-to-house looking for survivors or bodies. They said they expect the death toll to rise as they search regions still under water, because those areas were among the first to flood, giving residents less warning of what was happening.

But even if life hadn't entirely returned to New Orleans yesterday, hope had - at least inside the commercial areas of the city that government leaders are counting on to lead the area's economic recovery.

At the Crowne Plaza, Perone was already contemplating a revised room service menu to meet the expense-account limitations of government workers, who are likely to be among the hotel's initial customers. Other hotels in the district have started accepting guests.

Bleach buckets and power washers were putting a shine on Bourbon Street that the famously rowdy district has rarely known. And more than one woman was seen waving from the wrought-iron balconies.

At Valobra Jewelry and Antiques on Royal Street, owner Franco Valobra and his brother, Giorgio, were discussing their plans to open for business tomorrow and give away perhaps a thousand gold American flag pins to police officers, soldiers and rescue workers who have controlled the French Quarter for the past two weeks.

"Are we going to make any money? Of course not. We're going to lose money. So what?" Valobra said, standing in the shadow of the massive safe that ensured that his 8,000 pieces of jewelry survived. "But we're going to bring the city back.

"Let me tell you, this city is like a dying patient right now. And the first thing you do with a dying patient is defibrillate the heart, right? Well, this is the French Quarter - the heart of New Orleans."

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