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New Orleans' well-to-do begin rebuilding lives, social connections

NEW ORLEANS—From his exile in Dallas, William F. Grace Jr. is reaching out to fellow kings—kings of Carnival, among the most exclusive clubs in New Orleans.

Grace was named Rex—considered the King of Carnival, or Mardi Gras—in 2002. It's an elite honor bestowed by an elite group, and, in New Orleans, it's a very big deal.

Following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Grace wonders if his city can ever regain what it once had. For now, the 55-year-old tax attorney and other members of the Crescent City's upper class are scrambling to put their lives together—uniting to begin the rebuilding process even as they secure private-school slots for their children in exclusive schools from California to Maine.

Grace hasn't been back to the city since before the hurricane hit. His in-laws and some friends of the family, however, rode out the storm in Grace's historic home on St. Charles Avenue. They had generator power and figured to make it through Katrina's aftermath.

But last Tuesday night, he said, the only sounds his family could hear were gunfire and breaking glass.

"We had armed thugs in our yard, ready to come in our house," he said. He hired a private security firm to guard his house and evacuated the family. After almost being carjacked on their way out of the city, they reached Baton Rouge safely. From there, they were whisked away in a private plane to a separate home in Destin, Fla.

In recent days things have been quiet outside Grace's majestic, white-columned mansion. The home is fine, save for some roof damage; the closest floodwaters are about two blocks away. And from Dallas, Grace is already trying to take back the essence of a quirky, tradition-minded city that, at least for now, seems forever lost.

"The business leaders are spread out from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Martha's Vineyard," Grace said this week from his hotel in Dallas, The Mansion on Turtle Creek. "We started working the phones—I talked to the kings of Carnival. One is in the same hotel with me. We are going to do whatever we can to rebirth New Orleans. It's a place we love very much."

For days immediately after the hurricane, business leaders and other elite in the city were concerned about saving their families, protecting their property and helping their employees. Grace himself is still trying to locate 12 of the 150 people who work in his law firm. Now they are working toward getting the city running again, trying to get tourism and other industries in position to thrive when the time is right.

Grace was born and raised in New Orleans. He got his undergraduate and law degrees from Tulane University, right up St. Charles Avenue from his home. He's been on the mayor's Mardi Gras Advisory Committee, among other civic boards.

Grace is devastated to see the city in ruins. He knows it will never be the same again. But he is fully confident it can come back—maybe even better than before.

"It's like a jazz funeral," he said. "You start off real slow, and by the end, you're partying."

For now, the elite of the city are scrambling to maintain some semblance of their New Orleans lives.

From the West Coast to the tip of New England, some of the nation's most exclusive—and expensive—private schools are getting inquires from fleeing New Orleans residents desperately looking for slots for their children.

"Schools in Maine are getting calls, Washington, D.C., schools are getting a lot of calls," said Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for National Association of Independent Schools, a group that represents 1,200 schools and associations nationwide. "It's an amazing diaspora from Louisiana."

For John Gonzalez and Patricia Weeks, a husband-and-wife legal team, finding precisely the right school for their two girls—ages 12 and 9—was the top priority. The girls attended Metairie Park Country Day School, among the most exclusive private schools in the New Orleans area.

The family had evacuated to Houston, where Weeks did some necessary legal work and, after a bit of denial, Gonzalez went to work finding a new home. He went to the Web site of the independent schools association and started looking for a school in a wide region from Houston to New Orleans, and beyond.

But he ran into snags: "There were so many moving parts to this," he said Wednesday. "In places with schools, we couldn't find housing. In places with housing, we couldn't find a school. I needed both in place before I put these children back in a car."

He also needed the right kind of school—one that matched the feel and philosophy of Country Day. He found it in Columbus, Ga.: Brookstone School. The girls started there Wednesday.

Gonzalez and Weeks are also back at work, running their environmental practice from a Columbus law firm. After some fearful days, the family has also reconnected with its long-time nanny, who was evacuated to Houston. They are exploring whether to bring her to Georgia.

While much of the focus of the past week has been on New Orleans' poorest citizens, everybody across the city is feeling the pain.

David Sattler, a psychologist at Western Washington University who has studied the personal impact natural and manmade disasters have on people, says just because a person or family has the financial wherewithal to escape a bad situation doesn't mean they'll escape the mental scars that disaster victims often suffer.

Sattler said disaster victims across economic lines feel the same thing: a sense of loss of control over their lives.

"They are going to experience a loss of routine," Sattler said. "The loss of infrastructure has a profound impact on our daily routine, the sense of control over our lives. We have identities with our jobs and we have identities in our social roles. All that is turned upside down in a disaster."

For his part, Grace is already looking forward to the next Mardi Gras, in February 2006. He's not certain the city will be able to hold it then. But he does know it would be a huge step, symbolically, for the city to take. And, on the practical side, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is big business.

"Some people may say, `How can you be thinking about such frivolity,'" Grace said. "You need to put on something to show the world that New Orleans is still on the map."

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(Adams reported from New Orleans, Douglas from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-KINGS

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