In the Wake of Katrina: Big Easy's Big Struggle To Get Back to Business

The obstacles are formidable for New Orleans merchants that were spared major water and wind damage and are trying to get back to work.

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NEW ORLEANS — Yvonne La Fleur sat alone in her dimly lit namesake women's specialty store here, a fixture in the affluent Uptown neighborhood of shops, cafes and residences dating to the late 18th century.

Pen in one hand, telephone in the other, La Fleur was trying to connect with her customers, part of New Orleans' diaspora in the aftermath of the city's great trial, Hurricane Katrina.

The storm and flooding destroyed or damaged communities representing about 80 percent of the metropolitan region and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses. But La Fleur and other merchants who were spared major water and wind damage are trying to get back to work. The obstacles are formidable.

Her husband, Jimmy Walsh, and accountant, Gordon Dumont, weigh in often with the same suggestion: "'Yvonne, this is the perfect time to retire,'" she said mimicking their tone. "But I stick to my slogan — ‘if you rest, you rust.' Or maybe in this environment, you mold."

There is a desperate need for housing and workers. Municipal services are fragile, at best. There is no functioning public school system and the city has laid off almost half of its workforce of 6,000, leaving only the police, fire and emergency medical services intact. Tourists, who were the economic blood of the city, are gone. The tax base has been decimated.

And bigger and more basic issues must be resolved. Foremost is establishing a clear vision of how and where to rebuild the city and restore the system of levees, floodwalls and environmental barriers to protect New Orleans from the most severe category 5 hurricanes.

Just four of the city's seven shopping malls are back in business, and major retailers such as Macy's and Saks will stay shut for months. A curfew remains in effect and New Orleans will be vulnerable to even tropical storms for a long time. Many merchants have set up temporarily in Baton Rouge, La., and other cities, others indicate they won't return or will close.

The effort to re-create a semblance of retail life will depend on all of those factors, among others.

La Fleur does not expect any of her seven workers to return, although she has offered to house them in her home. "Some say they're afraid to come back, others want more time to think about what they're going to do," she said.
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