Disaster Tourists Gawk at a Ruined New Orleans

Gray Line Tours is featuring a new tour in New Orleans, but it's not a fun-filled night on Bourbon Street. The tour company is busing sightseers to parts of the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, including the spot where a key levee broke and the flooding began. Not everyone is happy about it.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Also in Congress, a Senate committee is conducting another day of hearings into Hurricane Katrina, and how officials reacted to it at all levels. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Louisian Governor Kathleen Blanco appear before the panel today. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagan was there yesterday.

MADELEINE BRAND:

And, as if New Orleans didn't already have enough to worry about, two tornadoes touched down in the area earlier today. Winds damaged the roof and knocked out electricity at Louis Armstrong International Airport, and the storms undid some repairs made in the 5 months since Katrina struck the region.

CHADWICK: Among the industries really hurt by the hurricane, tourism. Grayline Bus Tours has been guiding visitors throug New Orleans for more than 80 years. Last month, the company launch the Hurricane Katrina Bus Tour. It's been popular and contreversial. Reporter Eve Troeh went along for a ride.

EVE TROEH reporting:

Tour guide Alan Rafeal(ph) is standing at the front of a bus full of California businesspeople as they motor Carolton(ph) avenue. Before Hurricane Katrina hit, Rafael would've pointed out old mansions and parks along the grand street, which flooded after the storm. Now, he points out new sights.

Mr. ALAN RAFEAL (Tour Guide, Grayline Bus Tours): The waterline's very clearly on that building to your left. Any of the lighter colored building show the water lines a great deal. Here we have some FEMA workers in their suits with their masks on, doing mold remediation.

TROEH: Grayline Tours employed 65 people before Hurricane Katrina hit. Fewer than a dozen have returned. The remaining staff created the Katrina bus tour to keep the company afloat, but they also saw it as a community service. Gray Line's sales manager Jim Fuel(ph).

Mr. JIM FUEL (Sales Manager, Gray Line): We wanted to stress to the locals here that people are gonna come in your neighborhoods, period. They're gonna rent cars, they're gonna come by cab, however they're gonna do it; this is an easier way to do it where we can get 24 people on a mini bus. It's not so big that it's intrusive. It's a lot more sensitive to do it that way than have people tramp around in someone's front yard taking pictures of them, taking souvenirs.

TROEH: Not everyone is convinced the tours are good. City officials have banned Gray Line from going into some neighborhoods, like the lower Ninth Ward. But Fuel says the local response has been warm in areas where the buses are allowed.

Mr. FUEL: The first day of our tour, we stop at a place called Russell's Marina Grill, and there were three ladies waiting when the bus pulled up. So I said, well, let's see what this is all about. So the ladies came on, they said, we want to tell our story. And so, they got up there and very eloquently and in about 15 minutes told the story of them losing their homes and their friends and everything else, and welcoming everybody on the bus to their neighborhoods.

TROEH: Wiley Hughes came from Denison, Texas, near Dallas, to take the bus tour. He says he'll have a lot to tell when he gets home.

Mr. WILEY HUGHES (Tourist): I'll be inviting a lot of people that I work with that thought the same way I did, that it was just a small isolated area, and that's not the case. It's pretty devastational.

TROEH: Hughes mingles with other tourists as the bus stops at Russell's Marina Bar and Grill. It's an oasis of life amid miles of collapsed buildings. Locals who have come out to see the storm's damage stop here too.

Mr. PATRICK CHALLENGER (Local, New Orleans): My name is Patrick Challenger, and I live uptown. I have mixed feelings about it, but I really do think that as long as people keep coming and keep seeing how much more needs to be done, that it's important to help the recovery.

TROEH: Gray Line tour bus driver Mozella(ph) Franklin is also a local. She says she doesn't always agree with what the tour guides say.

Ms. MOZELLA FRANKLIN (Resident, New Orleans): Some of the stuff they say that went on in the Convention Center and SuperDome didn't actually happen, but I know folks that were actually in there, and they said it happened, and then I can't say anything. You know, I just have to listen and take, you know, what they're saying.

TROEH: The tour leaves the marina, and heads toward its climax, a levee breech.

Mr. RAFEAL: I want you guys to look to your left, and when we get right past here you can see where the cement wall is bent and broken. And that is one of the major breeches right there in the London Avenue Canal.

TROEH: Jim Fuel says it's natural that people want to see disaster sites.

Mr. FUEL: When you go to Pearl Harbor, people take pictures; Gettysburg, all these areas that meant something to history. And this hurricane is the defining point of the 21st century for New Orleans, and I can see why people want to take pictures. I've taken pictures myself.

TROEH: Fuel says the Katrina bus tour aims to translate fascination into political action. As the tour wraps up, everyone gets a packet of information. There's a list of charities where they can donate part of their admission fee, a map of the city's flood zones, and a form letter to send to Congress.

Unidentified Announcer: Hopefully, you'll be able to take that home and explain what went on here to the friends and family that you have at home. And, of course, write your Congressmen and tell him that we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore.

TROEH: Rafeal also passes around a petition to be sent to the White House and Federal Appropriations Committees. It demands that President Bush fulfill his promises to rebuild New Orleans. Gray Line says at least 80 percent of those who have taken the tour have signed it.

Eve Troeh, NPR News, New Orleans.

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