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New Orleans businesses confront a murky future

BATON ROUGE, La.—Rising near Interstate 10 within sight of the Superdome, the tower of the New Orleans Times-Picayune is a landmark in a community served by the newspaper since 1837.

Now that building stands vacant, with the 270 editorial employees who normally work there scattered throughout Baton Rouge.

Forced to evacuate as water lapped the steps of their building, the band of reporters and editors who gave the world the first information about Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact have relocated to the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Photographers, page designers and administrators work at a suburban office park several miles away.

For the first three days of the storm, the newspaper existed only on the Web, with up-to-the-minute Web logs, emergency contact information and forums for worried New Orleans residents searching for family members. The paper recently has been printing 60,000 copies—a fraction of its usual 269,000 circulation—from a site in Houma. It's been distributing them at Red Cross shelters, at emergency stations and in less hard-hit areas such as Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, anywhere its readers can be found.

"We'll go back to New Orleans as soon as we possibly can," said editor Jim Amoss, who doesn't yet know the state of his own home. "It will take a while before we understand what the shape of things will be."

The Times-Picayune isn't the only New Orleans business that must figure out a future with an uncertain customer base. With 480,000 residents dispersed as far as California and forbidden to return, many of the commercial enterprises that define a city and make it run are, for now, largely unnecessary.

Yet many business owners are already planning their return, lining up contractors and suppliers. Others, however, are plotting to relocate, perhaps to nearby cities such as Baton Rouge and Houston. Those with the highest likelihood to return are the family-run operations that have been based in New Orleans for decades.

Nancy Napoli's family owns five businesses, including Empire Antiques on Magazine Street, Cafe Sbisa in the French Quarter and The Boot, a legendary drinking hole near Tulane University. She said her family, now living in Dallas, intends to return as soon as possible.

"All of our properties are intact so far with the exception of a building that collapsed on the corner of Magazine and Jackson," she wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "We will definitely be returning."

Others are less certain. Entergy Corp., the utility that is New Orleans' only entry on the Fortune 500, has moved its main office to a suburb of Jackson, Miss. Other Entergy employees have been sent to Little Rock, Ark., Houston and Beaumont, Texas. A press release called the move temporary, but left some wiggle room.

"New Orleans is Entergy's home, and we are absolutely dedicated to the city's reconstruction and resurrection," said J. Wayne Leonard, the company's chief executive officer. "We intend to return home. Our ability to do that depends, of course, on a number of factors over which we do not have complete control."

Perhaps most tenuous are the professional services that made up the city's white-collar base. Some companies, such as those in the maritime industries, require a presence near the Port of New Orleans; those are likely to return. But those with looser requirements wonder if Baton Rouge, already the center of state government, or Houston, where the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily relocated, might make a better headquarters than a depopulated Crescent City.

Yet at the Times-Picayune, top officials are optimistic. Don Newhouse, chairman of Advance Publications, which owns the paper, visited the makeshift Baton Rouge offices on Tuesday. The company has guaranteed that employees will be paid for two months, regardless of whether or not they work.

Metro editor Peter Kovacs said he believes New Orleans will remain a viable, albeit smaller, market as the residents who love their city return.

"In the shadow of an event, it looks like things will never go back to the way they were," he said. "But they do go back. A year from now, things will be a lot closer to Aug. 28 (the day before Katrina hit) than they are now."

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(Gray reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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

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

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