Rise Above
By Greg Peters

(FORTUNE Magazine) – [Last month, I visited New Orleans for the first time since the hurricane. I live in Lafayette, about 140 miles west of there, and so missed the wrath of Katrina. My comic strip had been published in the New Orleans Gambit Weekly for the past seven years; but Gambit was now underwater, and I wanted to see for myself what was left of the city. I don't really know what I was expecting.]

But I sure wasn't expecting what I found. The destruction near the lake is almost total--homes and businesses completely demolished. And 40% of the city still has no power.

But as I drove south on Canal Street, I saw signs of defiant business life sprouting up.

People were back at work, although what they were working at and where they were living was a mystery. They seemed like ghosts. (and Perhaps they were; before the storm, 15% of New Orleans residents practiced voodoo.)

[There aren't any jobs--if I didn't own property here, I'd be gone.]

[I got a gig haunting the aquarium, but I still can't find a place to live.]

[Jobs but no housing, housing but no jobs. There should be a catchy phrase for that.]

Some types of businesses are booming, like tattoos.

[Hurricane designs are popular.]

[but without infrastructure, tax breaks, and decent schools, big businesses will stay in Texas and y'all will be stuck with novelty commerce, like me.]

In fact, Some high-end technology businesses have threatened to remain in exile unless they get more tax breaks.

[If you really wanted me to pull you out, you'd offer some sort of fiduciary incentive.]

Government contractors doing lucrative cleanup work bring in outside workers, housing many of them in trailers. The city's population--470,000 before the storm--now reaches 150,000 during the day and drops to about half that at night.

The 500 people at New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's Nov. 7 town meeting, held at the True Faith Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, were eager for good news. They didn't get any. Yet the desire to return to their city and get back to work burned brightly in these people.

[They say the levees will be back at Category 3+ strength by June of 2006. But we want Cat 5 strength. If another Katrina comes, we want to feel good about that.]

[How'd you do?]

[Oh, I lost everything. How's your mom 'n' dem?]

Commercial fisherman Pete Gerica was defiant.

[We salvaged what we could, but the Corps of Engineers came along and bulldozed it.]

[We supply the restaurants. we've helped whenever anyone asked, and now we need to rebuild our infrastructure. Now, not later.]

Private companies that rely on local workers have had trouble finding help. At one point, Burger King famously offered a $6,000 sign-on bonus for new full-time employees. [Popeyes chicken is payin’ $8 an hour!]

[Yeah, but Checkers will pay $10. My dad got minimum wage at Burger King. No more minimum wage here, man. Ever.]

Established businesses are coming back, aggressive and determined. Liberty Bank president Alden McDonald Jr. launched a line of Certificates of Deposit to raise funds to loan to his customers.

[Where you saw water up to the rooftops? That's where my customer base lived. We're helping those individuals get their lives back together, making them loans. We've asked our friends from around the country to help us replace the deposits [we lost]. Those deposits will be used to help rebuild our city.]

Not everyone is so hopeful. Mike Tidwell, author of "Bayou Farewell," an ode to life in the Mississippi Delta, spoke in Baton Rouge a few days later:

[It's time to call for the abandonment of New Orleans. To tell people to go back without a national plan ... to restore the physical integrity of this coast is an act of mass homicide.]

Few Louisiana companies have received government reconstruction contracts, and the SBA has granted fewer than 100 loans out of thousands of applications. Sarah Kracke, senior VP of Greater New Orleans Inc., says, "It's a very Darwinian environment ...

[How's business?] [eh?]

[How's business?]


... Small-business owners are reinventing themselves in order to be viable. Processes will need to be reengineered, and profound cultural transformation will need to occur."

In other words, don't count on the feds (but we knew that). Guico Machine Works owner David Guidry put it this way:

[SBA loans are like UFOs. You hear people talk about them all the time, but I don't know a soul who's seen one.]

I asked some locals what it will take to get back to business.

[Hey sweetie, how about revitalizing my downtown area?] [Eeew. Fix those levees first, big daddy.]

It was a common refrain.

[Fix the levees.]

[Well, my tattoo professional had some ideas, but I'd have to say fix the levees.]

Fix the levees? Is that it? That's the only thing that's needed to get the city back?

[There's no back, man. There's no rebuilding. This is time to build, man. This is a new day. You'd have to live here to understand. N'awlins be all right.]

That might have been the most profound thing I heard in New Orleans.

Before I left, I went to dinner at Rio Mar with two friends, both diehard New Orleaneans: the novelist Poppy Z. Brite and her husband, chef Chris DeBarr. The return of restaurants was the first thing that needed to happen for New Orleans to begin to heal. And about a quarter of the city's 3,400 restaurants have reopened. Rio Mar's garrulous chef Adolofo Garcia came out for some restaurant gossip.

[We didn't get looted too bad--people took some food, drank some liquor, but they didn't destroy anything. We were able to clean up in about five days.]

[We were in Mississippi for SIX WEEKS. We had to drive 90 minutes to BOGALUSA to get daiquiris, and we DID! My mom put me on dog tranquilizers!]

[Tony's been in here, trying to poach my sous.]

[I hadda go buy my stuff from friggin' Sam's Club, pushing a goddamn cart. But the local seafood is starting to come in now. We've had good crowds.]

[You hear about Jimmy? He's down at that hotel, serving frozen corn on a buffet.]

What will it take to revive New Orleans? Well, fix the damn levees, of course. Don't pass up the chance to build a municipal government, school system, and business climate that will attract investors. New Orleaneans will return; New Orleans works its way into the soul so deeply that they would feel forever lost and incomplete anywhere else. New Orleans will be a smaller city, maybe more humble. (Well, maybe not.) It will never be the same; it will always be the same.

[WHAAA! It'll never be the same!]

[Dude, you're so lit I could read by you.]

[And this bird, you cannot ChAAaaAAAAAAAAAAAAange ...]