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New Orleans area businesses assess damage, slowly reopen

NEW ORLEANS—In the historic French Quarter, a high-ground salvation to this city's sunken economy, restaurateur Thomas Wolf and his employees donned surgical gloves and masks this week to clean the spoiled food from his refrigerators. He is working toward a speedy reopening of his upscale eatery, Peristyle.

A dozen blocks away, hoses snaked through the city's central business district, pumping water from building lobbies that are flickering to life more than two weeks after levee breaks flooded the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some hotels are opening. Law firms are plotting a quick return.

And on Thursday, Mayor Ray Nagin laid out a plan that could restore power to several sections of the city, paving the way for business owners to return to the central business district as early as Saturday and for up to 180,000 residents to return to their homes within a week or two.

The French Quarter, the heart of the city's $5-billion-per-year tourism industry, will officially welcome residents and business owners back Sept. 26.

"The sun is shining," Nagin said Thursday. "We're bringing New Orleans back, and this is our first step."

But along the Mississippi River, the Domino Sugar refinery, where a sign proclaims a record 452 days worked without lost time to injury, is silent. The entire work force is out—an illustration of how far New Orleans has to go to rebuild.

Closed since just before the Aug. 29 hurricane, the Domino plant in Arabi, La., one of the hardest-hit towns of St. Bernard Parish, represents the side of the economy that will take far longer to recover. Plant managers are still trying to locate three of their 326 employees. They hope to get into the plant on Friday to assess the damage.

About 50 to 60 percent of the plant's workers lost their homes. "But I haven't heard one person say, `I don't want to go back there,'" said Bob Jandovitz, human resources director for Domino's parent company, American Sugar Refining, Inc. One option for employee housing: a barge, expected to dock next to the plant Friday.

That's the New Orleans area economy today: full of hope it can come back, but without a practical sense of exactly when, or how.

Across the metropolitan area, business leaders profess a firm desire to rebuild, and parts of the region of 1.3 million people have sprung back to life. Malls and stores are open in parts of Jefferson Parish, just to the west of New Orleans.

Yet many business owners are throwing up their hands, unsure how smoothly rebuilding will go. Nobody can say how many jobs eventually will be lost. Many larger companies are maintaining their payrolls for now, but it's hard to tell how long that will last. Small businesses are concerned the most.

"It's very difficult for a small business to withstand months and months of no income," said Tim Ryan, chancellor of the University of New Orleans and an expert on the area's economy. "And big employers might not have the employees they need."

The pace of recovery is going to vary widely across the metropolitan area, experts say, with large sections of the western suburbs coming alive far earlier than those in New Orleans or to its east.

"Many of the businesses, large and small, that were operating in New Orleans on Aug. 28 are not going to be here anymore," Ryan said. "If we were to measure the New Orleans economy now, it would make everybody sick."

The recovery might take two years, it might take five, but Ryan is optimistic that the region can emerge stronger than before, particularly with a huge infusion of federal relief money. But exactly what the economy will look like, he said, is anybody's guess.

Up the road from the Domino refinery is a Chevron station. The gas pumps look as though they were bashed in by a car, and a dusty film covers the building. As he inspected his pumps Tuesday during his first hour back in the parish, Armand Serignan spied his coffee pot in the middle of the parking lot.

"My daddy opened this station in 1927," Serignan said.

More than 100 years ago, he said, the shed out back was a blacksmith shop operated by his grandfather. The property has given three generations a good living.

"It's going to be tough to reopen," he said. "Thank God for Social Security."

If things are bleak in flood-devastated St. Bernard, though, they're turning upbeat in parts of New Orleans.

The business district reflects the energy from the new recovery economy: Power company workers, disaster recovery experts, structural engineers and cleaning crews give the downtown a busy feel.

As of Thursday, lights had come back to some downtown office buildings and hotels, though only a quarter of the city has power, according to Entergy Corp., the region's power provider. (By contrast, in the large suburban area of Jefferson Parish, nearly 9 out of 10 customers have power, while just 1 percent of those in St. Bernard do.)

At downtown law firms and brokerage houses, officials say they're actively preparing to re-establish their New Orleans offices and help get the economy moving.

The law firm of Jones, Walker—one of the city's most prominent, with some 400 employees—transferred operations to Baton Rouge, La., Houston, and elsewhere after the hurricane.

Managing partner Bill Hines wants operations to switch back to New Orleans swiftly, even before the city's neighborhoods come back in force. When services—power, telephone service, water, sanitation—are in place downtown, the firm may begin to run a daily shuttle bus from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

"Having our lawyers back in town working will jumpstart the dry cleaners, the drug stores, the gas stations," said Hines. "They need us as customers."

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(Adams reported from New Orleans. Gary Estwick contributed to this report.)

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

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