New Orleans Marks a Recovery Milestone

The New Orleans convention center, site of much misery during Katrina, is open for business again. The American Library Association just held the first major gathering in town since the storm. In a city where conventions are a crucial part of the local economy, the event was watched very closely.

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BLOCK: In New Orleans there's a bit of good news after the extreme flooding there last year. The Ernest N. Moriel Convention Center, which was the site of so much misery after Katrina, is back in business. The American Library Association just held the first major gathering in the city since the storm. Conventions are vital for the city's battered economy, so this first one was watched closely.

NPR's Chris Arnold paid a visit.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

I'm standing here in front of the convention center in New Orleans and this, of course, was one of the most dramatic examples of the filth and the horror that people had to live in after the storm hit. There were thousands of people stranded here with no food or water or medical care, dehydrated children and babies and old people slumped in wheelchairs. There were bodies left lying here.

As horrible as all that was though, the city has needed to clean this up and move forward. This is an incredibly important part of the local economy and now the first major conference is back in town and inside.

Ms. BARBARA RAY (Convention attendee): I haven't noticed a problem at all. It's been really nice. It's been a really good experience, we're happy to be here.

ARNOLD: Barbara Ray, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is toting two canvas bags full of books. Inside the exhibit hall here you'd never know that Katrina happened. The place has been completely made over with new carpets, paint and polished floors.

The hall is bustling with people who are chatting and browsing through hundreds of booths set up selling children's books, furniture and computer systems. But Ray says she and the other librarians are very aware of what went on in this building less than a year ago.

Mr. RAY: With death and destruction, you always like to see life and new birth and I think that's what I've felt more in this convention center. Though certainly nobody has forgotten.

ARNOLD: Ray's eyes actually well up with tears as she says this. Many of the librarians here say they feel a sense of mission to bring some business back to this struggling city and for many that means going out eating and drinking. And librarians apparently do go out at night and party, some stumbling around the French Quarter or packing into the restaurants.

The American Library Association's incoming president, Leslie Berger, is having a good and pricy dinner with a dozen people at Emeril's Restaurant in the warehouse district.

Ms. LESLIE BERGER (American Library Association): What do you really recommend on the entrée?

Unidentified Male: I say the blue, the yellowfin tuna, the lamb, the duck, pork chop.

Ms. BERGER: Everything, you're recommending everything.

ARNOLD: All the librarians at the table say they've been surprised by how together New Orleans is. They haven't had to wait long for taxis, the hotels are up and running, a lot of restaurants are open. The French Quarter seems much like its old self and shopkeepers, cab drivers and all kinds of other people have been thanking them for being here.

Still the recent media focus on some murders in some other parts of the city and the return of the National Guard did make some here nervous. Librarian Jay Johnston from Connecticut.

Mr. JAY JOHNSTON (Conference attendee): But the truth is, is that the city itself has been so hospitable and people have been so nice that any trepidations that we may have had are totally erased. We really feel very safe here. We feel as though the people really are with us.

ARNOLD: But while the touristy areas around the convention center may feel safe, many of the neighborhoods elsewhere in the city do not. Visiting conventioneers can't do much to change that, but hundreds over the past week have been taking time to volunteer all over New Orleans, rebuilding houses and libraries.

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In the city's uptown neighborhood, a visiting librarian wheels a cartload of new books up the path to the local children's library, which was damaged by the storm and is now getting an extreme makeover. Jan Watkins is volunteering here from the Chicago area.

Ms. JAN WATKINS (New Orleans volunteer): This area over here is the story time corner and it has a very colorful rug on the floor with different animals on it. It has a great big, tall story hour chair and surrounding the chair and the little steps that they sit on are wonderful, wonderful picture books.

ARNOLD: There may soon be a lot more conferences bringing tourist dollars and volunteers to this damaged city. There is a group called the AMC Institute that represents organizations that hold thousands of conferences each year around the U.S. It's urging its members to hold a convention or a meeting in New Orleans in the next five years. That could steer billions of dollars into this city's economy.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, New Orleans.

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