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Tourists listen to jazz, see sights—but not the way they expected

NEW ORLEANS—The post-Hurricane Katrina French Quarter wasn't quite what Rachel Brooks was expecting.

She had no problem finding a po' boy, the traditional New Orleans something-fried-between-French-bread sandwich. (Restaurants all over the Quarter sell them.)

And it wasn't hard to track down a few beignets, the high-class cousin of the funnel cake. (Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans' original coffee and beignet spot, opened several weeks ago with limited hours.)

When her friends went hunting for hurricanes, the potent red drink that's big in the Big Easy, it wasn't too hard. (Pat O'Brien's, the original home of the hurricane, hasn't reopened, but other places sell them.)

Yes, it was a full day of sightseeing and Mardi Gras beads for Brooks and her friends, but not exactly as they pictured it.

"I expected a lot more people," said Brooks, 20, who took a day off from disaster relief work in Gulfport, Miss., for a trip to another hurricane-addled land. "It was worth the drive. I'd definitely like to come back."

New Orleans won't officially invite tourists back till January, said Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. But it's expecting regular visitors and international tourists—possibly some of the 10.1 million who visited in 2004—to crash the party early. Already, the Quarter is often filled at night with people working to rebuild the city during the day.

Priez's warning: Don't be disappointed if a certain menu item isn't available, a favorite hangout hasn't opened or an interesting boutique isn't keeping normal hours.

"We love it if they want to come, but it won't be the level of service they're used to," Priez said. "That food element and music element are so important, but what's open changes daily."

So, you can ride in a horse-drawn carriage or a bus, but not in a streetcar. (The city is hoping to reopen that service by early January.)

You can visit the French Market, but you might not see any vendors. (Weekends are busy; weekdays are nearly empty.)

You can hear jazz, but maybe not at the most famous clubs. (Preservation Hall and Tipitina's in the French Quarter are expecting to resume concerts this month.)

You can come to Mardi Gras this year, but it might be more locals than tourists. (The big celebration is Feb. 28.)

Friends Lori Link and April Dudney made a day trip into the French Quarter assuming they'd never find a hotel room to stay overnight. So far, 12,000 hotel rooms are available in New Orleans, with a total of 21,000 expected to be ready in January. Many are filled by workers, Priez said, but there are still plenty for tourists willing to call ahead.

The women, who were visiting from Florida, didn't mind the empty streets. With fewer people walking around, they got a better look at the architecture and ironwork on the Quarter's historic buildings.

"I'm amazed at how good it looks," said Dudney, 32, who'd never visited New Orleans. "I wouldn't want to ride past on a streetcar. We'll miss too much. Just walk."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-NEWORLEANS

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