Coming Back, Part 1 ...
NEW ORLEANS -- When Carol Stauder started giving Hurricane Katrina tours, she couldn't get through them without crying. Seeing the devastation caused by the flooding four months earlier -- friends' homes destroyed and neighborhood after neighborhood abandoned -- was too painful.
Almost three years later, most of those homes are still broken and deserted, but what saddens Stauder even more are the empty lots sprinkled among them. The houses have been razed, the debris removed, and all that's left are rectangular patches of grass or weeds.
"They're not coming back," Stauder says somberly of the families who have left for good.
The 63-year-old guide wants her city and its neighborhoods back. And she wants the 10.1 million tourists who visited the year before Katrina to return, too, because they're as much a part of the city's festive scene as the cool jazz and Cajun cuisine.
The truth is that tourism in the Big Easy -- its No. 1 industry -- is bouncing back, big time. This year's Mardi Gras Carnival season drew about 850,000 revelers, approaching the 1.1 million who partied months before Katrina. The 39th Jazz & Heritage Festival "went marvelously well," in spite of torrential rains, organizer Quint Davis says, as about 400,000 people flocked to see the Neville Brothers, Sheryl Crow, Jimmy Buffett and 570 bands perform.
When the seven-day festival wrapped up at 7 each night, all those people needed food, entertainment and lodging. About 130 restaurants have opened since Katrina, joining such icons as Antoine's, Brennan's and Arnaud's, to restore the city as a culinary destination.
Davis says he counts at least 103 clubs in the French Quarter and in clusters around the city, showing that the musicians are back. It was front-page news when favorite son Aaron Neville decided to return, and on a rainy Friday night, I couldn't get a ticket to see jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis -- father of Wynton and Branford -- play at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street.
And hotels are up to 33,498 rooms -- 87.6 percent of the pre-Katrina number.
jbv's Competitive Edge