New Orleans Business Owners Assess Katrina's Toll

Business owners are returning to New Orleans to assess the damage done by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed. Jason DeRose tours a small hotel in New Orleans that had been hastily abandoned in the days before the storm.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Hurricane Rita is directly responsible for at least nine deaths on the Gulf Coast, but there are signs of new life there, too. In New Orleans, the Central Business District is beginning to get back to work after the double shutdowns from Rita and from Hurricane Katrina. Many downtown businesses had flooded basements, but now their electricity is starting to come back on. NPR's Jason DeRose reports on the early days of the city's reopening.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

The sign outside the makeshift Business Credentialing Center(ph) in the lobby of an abandoned credit union says, `Anyone wishing to do business in the city of New Orleans must have a proper Business Credentialing Center ID.' The problem is the doors are locked three hours after the center was supposed to open.

(Soundbite of voices; door being unlocked and opened)

DeROSE: Hi. I'm just wondering if either of you would be willing to talk with me about, you know, that you were told to shut down.

Ms. BRANDI BOURGEOIS(ph) (Business Credentialing Center): Come on in. We can what we can tell you. We don't know anything else.

DeROSE: OK.

Brandi Bourgeois works the non-functioning Credential's desk. She is young and incredibly stressed.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Ms. BOURGEOIS: That's the problem, we have no information.

Unidentified Woman #1: No, we don't know anything ...(unintelligible).

Ms. BOURGEOIS: We have no idea.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

DeROSE: Well, just what happened this morning. That's what I want to know.

Ms. BOURGEOIS: We were told that they were switching over. They were going to give out car decals, and then they didn't, and so we started issuing IDs again and then they came in and shut us down.

DeROSE: And who are `they'?

Ms. BOURGEOIS: The city, the city.

DeROSE: Outside the Credentialing Center, dozens of people are lined up to get their IDs, right next to an ominous sign that reads, `Caution: Falling glass.' Two of those standing in line who witnessed the center's closing are Christina Hernandez(ph) and Tammy Vasquez(ph).

Ms. CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: They were shut down, but...

Ms. TAMMY VASQUEZ: By somebody with a badge, but they have no idea who it was. Just some guy with a badge came in and told them they had to shut down and not to print another badge. Nobody seems to know what's going on.

DeROSE: The reason these credentials are so important is that you can't get through police and military checkpoints around the city unless you have one, and there are rumors among the people in line here that if you try to open a business without the credentials, you'll be shut down. Vasquez says her work and the work of everyone in this line is essential to getting New Orleans back to business.

Ms. VASQUEZ: We work for an apartment management company, and we're trying to get our apartments up and running, you know, so that way, you know, our residents can come back, you know, and other people can have housing and stuff like that, and nobody seems to know what's going on.

DeROSE: Someone who did manage to get business credentials during the brief window when the center was open is Maureen Louden(ph), the general manager of the boutique Whitney Hotel. The Whitney opened five years ago in a renovated bank. Lots of marble and brass, the old teller windows double as the bar. Louden is inspecting the damage done by the wind, rain and floodwater.

Ms. MAUREEN LOUDEN (Whitney Hotel): See, this is the old vault, and this is--I can't see it without a flashlight, but this is the vault. We've turned it into a dining room. So this is the safe door, which is starting to rust, so I'm trying to figure out what I can do to--I asked my husband if I could borrow some of his gun oil because I thought maybe that might do the trick, so...

DeROSE: The vault dining room is an eerie sight. Tables are still set with napkins and silverware; a few checks still sit on the tables. People stayed in the Whitney during Hurricane Katrina, but fled when floodwaters started to rise in the days right after.

Ms. LOUDEN: Most of the damage was in the basement, and unfortunately, everything that runs the hotel is in the basement. All the pumps that you have to have because we're below sea level, so you have to pump the water up, so you don't have toilets. You don't have running water. You can't take a shower, and we don't have power, because the whole power grid was in the basement also.

(Soundbite of box being opened)

Mr. KEN BRASSO(ph) (General Contractor): These are the dryers that we're going to put inside the rooms to dehumidify.

DeROSE: The hotel hired Ken Brasso, a general contractor, to coordinate repairs. He somehow also managed to get a business credential's ID. He's unpacking 99 boxes of dehumidifiers. Brasso says the extent of repairs throughout the city is overwhelming.

Mr. BRASSO: Yes, we are stretched thin. A lot of our work has left town and have not come back yet, so we're working, you know, seven-10s right now just trying to keep our head above water.

DeROSE: That's seven days a week, 10 hours a day, until further notice. At least general contracting is one industry buoyed by hurricanes. By just midafternoon, Brasso says his company already had jobs to repair two other hotels and an apartment complex. Jason DeRose, NPR News, New Orleans.

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