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French Quarter faces long, tough recovery

Even though New Orleans' famed French Quarter suffered relatively little damage, the lack of tourists will make recovery a long and daunting process.
Thomas Toan Vo from Vietnam shows the sa
Thomas Toan Vo shows the safe of his jewelry store in New Orleans Sunday. The store was looted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.Omar Torres / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Even in a city flooded with fetid water and caked in filth for the past three weeks, the stench from Sal Sunseri’s business was unusually powerful.

Inside, Sal and his brother and business partner Al wore face masks this weekend as they hauled about 40,000 pounds of rotting oysters over to a waiting dump truck.

The oysters began to rot as soon as Hurricane Katrina tore at New Orleans, knocking out electricity and sending Lake Pontchartrain flood waters pouring into the historic city.

Sunseri said the immediate losses totaled $45,000, but the long-term cost to the P&J Oyster Company, a 129-year-old family business, will be much higher because Katrina ravaged many of the oyster beds in Louisiana’s bays, bayous and lakes.

“It is devastated. It might take two years to recover,” said Sunseri, whose home was also wrecked in the storm.

In the meantime, Sal and Al have little or no work for their 25 employees and don’t even know if they escaped the flood waters that swamped many of their homes.

As New Orleans slowly recovers its hundreds of dead, tries to unite families scattered across the country and looks at the massive task of rebuilding, business leaders are coming back to the famous French Quarter to get commerce going again.

Some have a good chance of a quick recovery, but others face a long haul even in an area that suffered much less damage than the rest of the city.

The recovery is easier for the bars and clubs as they can simply truck in alcohol and dancers. While it could take months for a mass return of tourists, they will find customers among the tens of thousands of soldiers, police, federal agency staffers and reconstruction workers who  have taken over the city.

Some will open as early as Monday with a few topless shows and bring in more as business picks up.

“We’ll start up again as a bar, and then we’ll have the girls coming back in,” said Jon Olmstead, general manager of a Bourbon Street strip joint. “Nothing can put us down. They’ll all come back. It’s New Orleans. There’s no place like it.”

Rick Sutton faces a much tougher recovery. He has eight art galleries in the French Quarter, specializing in French Impressionism as well as jewelry, porcelain and bronzes.

Sutton pays tens of thousands of dollars in rent every month and doesn’t expect to see tourists come back until early 2006. He is unlikely to get much trade from the security forces, rescue teams or contract workers before then.

“The rents don’t go away. We’ll just have to find a way to survive for the next few months,” he says, adding that he’ll offer big discounts in e-mails and on the Web. “I’ll make deals like they’ve never seen just to generate some cash flow.”

For a business that relies entirely on tourism, he needs a quick recovery of New Orleans’ basic infrastructure and the airlines to start bringing in vacationers.

“I can’t wait to see again that person who loves to come here to eat great food, listen to jazz and shop for antiques,” he said. “It might be a while. But as soon as people can see trumpets on the street again, they’ll come back.”

At Antoine’s Restaurant, the traditional menu features fine caviar and an array of oyster, shrimp, trout and crab dishes. Until the tourists return, owner Michael Guste says he will need to simplify things.

“We’ll have to adapt. We’ll pare down the menu, modify it,” he said, adding he hopes to see some tourists in December.

Without tourists, the French Quarter cannot recover its former glory. And without a busy French Quarter, the entire city could face serious problems as its tax base dries up.

President Bush has promised massive federal aid, but it will be a long and complicated task to level flooded neighborhoods and build new homes for many of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

Schools and hospitals need to be opened, and jobs created.

“This could become the greatest city ever,” said Sal Sunseri in his stinking French Quarter oyster processing plant. He doesn’t like to dwell on the cost to New Orleans and his family business if the recovery effort is not effective, but says simply: “This city could be in despair for many years.”