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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Still, La Fleur — like others — appears determined not to let these challenges derail her plan to carry on with the retail shop she started 36 years ago on Hampson Street, within view of the levee where the Mississippi River makes a hairpin turn. Her business occupies the entire 10,000-square-foot building.

"I'll keep going as long as I can," La Fleur said. "I'm into the last weeks of the year and my goal is to be able to pay the property tax [on the building she owns] with what Christmas sales pull in."

Her attitude resonates in New Orleans. There are nascent indications that the city is awakening. "Help Wanted" signs are posted on open stores as the restoration of utilities and city services offer a glimmer of normality. The National Guard, once 12,000 soldiers strong, is now barely visible with 2,000.

City officials estimate that 100,000 to 150,000 people have returned to their homes, some for only day-long visits to assess damage. Once salvageable homes are reoccupied, the most optimistic officials predict the population might grow to 250,000 within 18 months, slightly more than half of the pre-Katrina population of 462,000. Mayor C. Ray Nagin has said that New Orleans — "if rebuilt stronger and better" — might eventually be home to as many as 600,000 people.

In the shadow of current conditions, however, those days seem distant. Still, people celebrate what outsiders might consider token indicators of resurgence. The reappearance of the rickety iconic Roman Candy cart selling sticks of pastel colored taffy on St. Charles Avenue was front-page news.

Customers jam the few open restaurants and bars in the French Quarter, where the curfew has been pushed to 2 a.m. from 6 p.m., and in Uptown and the historic Garden District. To deal with the lack of kitchen and wait staff, some midpriced bistros are serving their entrees on paper plates with plastic tableware. Famed restaurants such as Antoine's, Brennan's, Arnaud's and Galatoire's may open by Jan. 1.

Most stores close by 5 p.m. The once 24-hour-a-day Café de Monde is selling its signature coffee and beignets — puffy pockets of fried dough topped with powdered sugar — from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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