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New Orleans easing back into business

French Quarter businesses picking up pieces, opening doors

By CNN's John King



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New Orleans (Louisiana)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The scene at Café du Monde on Tuesday was frenetic: employees polishing the counters and wiping the windows, contractors installing new equipment in the kitchen and applying one last coat of paint inside and around the landmark's outside seating area.

Early Wednesday morning, the hard work paid-off, as the cafe's trademark beignets and coffee were once again available to the public. More than seven weeks after Katrina, the reopening of Café du Monde is helping New Orleans project a "back in business" image.

"There are many jobs to be had here right now in the city of New Orleans," Café du Monde vice president Burt Benrud said. "If you come to the city of New Orleans and you don't have a job, you're not looking." (Watch: Influx of Latino workers -- 1:32)

Despite his optimism about New Orleans' economic climate, Benrud acknowledges a fair amount of uncertainty. In his case, he wonders what will happen to a 142-year-old business that operates around the clock when the city's curfew kicks in.

"(Are) the cops going to show up over here and say it is midnight -- you guys need to close? It is my hope that that situation gets resolved shortly, so we can go back to business as usual: 24 hours a day, 364 days a year." Café du Monde gives its workers Christmas Day off.

In addition to restaurants, some of the downtown art galleries are reopening. "Help wanted" signs are everywhere, underscoring what economist and University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan says is the city's most pressing post-Katrina economic and social issue: a shortage of working-class housing.

"In the short run there is a real critical problem," Ryan told CNN. "If you don't have housing you don't get the people back, and you are going to be limited in the number of businesses you will be able to open ... Right now businesses are not very encouraged, and we are hearing that message from the business community."

In fact, "back in business" is in many ways more a slogan than a fact on the ground, especially outside of the French Quarter and downtown's central business district.

There were 3,708 licensed retail food establishments in New Orleans when Katrina hit. Fewer than one-third of those, 1,193, have been certified to reopen by the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Further evidence of the devastating economic impact is found in the state's new data on unemployment claims. The state Department of Labor reports more than 281,000 unemployment filings in the past seven weeks since Katrina hit. That's more than 13 times the normal average for a seven-week period and well in excess of the 193,000 claims filed statewide in all of 2004.

At Antoine's, the French Quarter restaurant that is as much a museum to the city's Mardi Gras culture as it is an eating establishment, general manager Mike Guste tells CNN the goal is to reopen by Christmas. Katrina ravaged the restaurant, knocking open a brick wall on the fourth floor and leaving significant water damage.

"I'm really hoping it is going to be Christmas," Guste said as he led CNN on a tour of the damage. "Christmas or sometime in the middle of December."

Guste said negotiations with his insurer are proceeding reasonably well. Contractors are beginning the early stages of reconstruction, and Guste and other managers are gathering the records necessary for their claim under a "business disruption" clause in his insurance policy.

"I haven't had any definitive answer either way," he said. "I've got my CFO and CEO and some other accountants working on it. ... It's a bean-counter thing. I will leave it to them."

Because of that clause, Guste says he hopes to soon begin regular payments to many of the restaurant's employees, and he anticipates minimal turnover in the most crucial positions. Antoine's maitre' d, however, was among those killed by Katrina. Guste said he ignored pleas from family members to evacuate.

Mayor Ray Nagin has said it makes sense for the business reopenings to begin in the downtown area, and then in areas that suffered less damage from Katrina and Rita. Visits to lower-income and harder-hit neighborhoods suggest "back in business" is a distant dream at best.

On St. Claude Avenue in the predominantly black neighborhood of Bywater, banks, restaurants, fast-food establishments and corner groceries remain shuttered, many of them heavily damaged.

But count Joseph Peters among the optimists there.

Peters reopened his tire-repair shop within a week of Katrina passing, when there was still water in the streets. His business is bustling because of all the damage to cars caused by the debris-strewn streets, and Peters says cleanup crews have been showing up in recent days at a seafood restaurant across the street from his shop.

As Peters spoke to CNN on Tuesday, a man with a wheelbarrow made more than a dozen trips in and out of a small, mom-and-pop grocery store nearby, dumping debris on the median of what once was a busy thoroughfare from the working-class neighborhood to the central city.

"I don't think it is being unfair. It's just the way it works," Peters said between repairs when asked if he believed more help was going first to downtown and richer neighborhoods.

"You come back in six months you are going to see this up and running," Peters said. "Those people are going back into business. Trust me, they will be back. ... This is home."

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