WWII Museum Reopens, but Tourists Remain AWOL

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Like many cultural institutions in New Orleans, the National World War II Museum was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Building damage and looting kept the museum closed for months. Now, the museum president says the facility is back and ready for business — but the tourists it relies on have not yet returned to New Orleans.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today we wrap up our coverage of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, the economy of New Orleans relied heavily on tourism. Now the cultural institutions that depend on visitors are playing a waiting game. They're open, ready for business and hoping that the city can bring the tourists back.

Writer Jim Ruland visited one of those sites and he has this report.

JIM RULAND reporting:

The National World War II Museum occupies a massive building in New Orleans warehouse district that used to be a brewery. Its glass front wall lets pedestrians view the airplanes, boats and Jeeps on display in the main gallery.

At the exhibits on the second and third floors, visitors listen to oral histories of American veterans who fought the toughest battles of World War II.

Unidentified Man #1: But it was a scene of un - as if the hand of God has just strewn all the debris in the world over it. You know, rubble and bodies, all of that was happening.

RULAND: In terms of its destructive power, Hurricane Katrina was, for many veterans, comparable to the scenes they witnessed in the war. For the museum, the storm could not have come at a worse time. Nick Mueller, president of the National World War II Museum, explains.

Mr. NICK MUELLER (President, National World War II Museum): Well, it was devastating for us. We're right in the beginning of a $300 million capital expansion to build the rest of the World War II Museum exhibits. Our attendance was growing every year, and wham, here comes Hurricane Katrina.

RULAND: And there went the visitors. Now, a year after the hurricane, visitation has declined, from about 900 daily guests to around 225. At times it feels like there are more staff members and volunteers milling around the cavernous gallery than guests.

Unidentified Man #2: ...he says Andy, Andy, he says you must be running on fuel.

RULAND: The National World War II Museum is here because of New Orleans native Andrew Higgins, who President Dwight Eisenhower called the man who won the war. Every soldier who stormed a beach during the war was brought there in a boat that Higgins built. A replica is on display in the museum's gallery. Volunteer Jim Weller(ph), an 88-year-old veteran of the Marine Corp who fought at Normandy, tells the boat story to anyone who will listen.

Mr. JIM WELLER (Museum volunteer): Okay, this boat right here is made out of wood, short grain mahogany. Made right here in New Orleans. That's what the connection is between the museum and Higgins. He made about 20,094 of all these boats right here in the city of New Orleans.

RULAND: The boat resembles a large gray shoebox with a ramp in front that allowed soldiers to run right onto the beach, three abreast. Thankfully, this and the museum's other artifacts weren't damaged in the hurricane. Located on relatively high ground, not far from the Superdome, the building survived the onslaught of wind and rain.

It was only afterward that the museum found itself under attack.

Mr. MUELLER: The looters and the vandals got in there and just smashed everything on the ground floor. Fortunately all of our prized artifacts and exhibits are on the second and third floors and we have big gates protecting those areas. But the gift shop and the coffee shop and those, they just tore the heck out of it.

RULAND: There's no sign of any damage now. Thanks to the Herculean efforts of Mueller's staff, the museum reopened just three months after Katrina. At that time they welcomed 15 to 25 guests a day. Mostly policemen, firemen and first responders who were badly in need of a morale boost.

Now the museum is struggling without its core visitors: tourists, who have yet to return to New Orleans. The slow recovery has been frustrating and there are days when Mueller doubts that government leaders have what it takes to bring the city back. But he and his staff look to history for inspiration.

Mr. MUELLER: I go to go back to World War II again, and remember in the battle of Normandy, when the soldiers hit the beaches, I mean a lot of the officers were killed in the first few minutes. It was just the ordinary guy, the GIs, one by one everybody started doing it. And that's what's happening in this city. And it's happening in our museum.

RULAND: That kind of faith in the future has brought the museum help from people in high places. Oscar winner Tom Hanks is producing a World War II film that will air in a planned state-of-the-art 4D theater in the museum. That's for the tourists. Current programs, like the History Happy Hour and Sunday Swing, when a band plays World War II-era dance music, are for the locals. They know that even a history lesson can be a good excuse for a party.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Ruland.

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