The story of New Orleans since Katrina has been called the tale of two cities. I visited the two “cities” during the American Library Association's annual convention in June and was surprised by the condition of each — both the destruction of outlying neighborhoods and the business-as-usual condition of the tourism corridor.
Strolling through the French Quarter or along the riverfront to the convention center, it was difficult to find evidence of hurricane damage. A few places here and there were closed or under repair, but otherwise, the boutiques along Royal, the bars and restaurants on Bourbon, and the souvenir stores on Decatur were open and waiting for customers.
While the physical damage in the French Quarter is hard to find, the economic impact is evident. One local antique shop owner told me she's only open three days a week now; she used to be open seven.
It was clear how much the ALA convention meant to residents. I couldn't walk down a street without seeing a placard in the window welcoming ALA. A popular T-shirt in souvenir stores featured the slogan, “Librarians Do It By the Book.”
My tour also took me to the “other” New Orleans — the one meeting attendees won't see. Driving through the Lakeview and Gentilly neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain, the degree of destruction was worse than I had imagined. I saw block after block of vacant, damaged, or destroyed homes. Many residents are waiting for this hurricane season to pass before rebuilding; others are waiting for insurance money; still others are waiting for much-in-demand contractors. But some are rebuilding. The day I was there, I saw residents cleaning out their gutted homes, hauling waterlogged debris to the front lawn. There were many “For Sale” signs. And as hard-hit as these areas are, the Ninth Ward, where most of the 1,500 Katrina-related deaths occurred, is even worse. This tale is far from over. While hotel occupancies will return to normal in a few years, locals say it will take five to 10 years to rebuild these neighborhoods.