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New Orleans airport remains a ghost town

NEW ORLEANS—Nine weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, travelers are trickling back to the once-bustling Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

But in the airport, ghosts of the disaster remind them that Katrina was here.

Many airport shops and fast-food booths remain shuttered or dark. Most of the open ones operate with skeleton crews. Some restaurants have posted abbreviated menus scrawled with black marker and taped on food counters next to a cashier. Patrons can still get a cup of gumbo, but hamburgers and Philly steak sandwiches prevail for now over such New Orleans traditions as shrimp and oysters, casualties of the storm.

Less than a third of 166 daily round-trip flights once considered business as usual are arriving this week, according to Michelle Duffourc, the airport's public relations manager.

"We're pleased to be at a third. It's a reduced schedule, but that's post-Katrina," she said. "There is no normal now."

Fifty-three round-trip flights are scheduled for Saturday, Duffourc said. By mid-December, 60 daily flights are expected.

Many airport businesses remain shut down because large numbers of employees who evacuated the area haven't returned, she said. Others, including more than half of the 220 people who work for airport administration, have been laid off because of lagging revenue since the hurricane.

Few people who fly into New Orleans International these days come to play. Most are business people, volunteers or relatives of Orleanians whose homes were damaged. Most are here to aid in the rebuilding effort.

Other travelers are area homeowners returning home, some for the first time since the storm. That was the reason for Sheila Wilson's flight from Los Angeles, where a friend took her in after she evacuated.

"I'm meeting tomorrow with my insurance company," said Wilson, who owns a home in storm-battered Carrollton.

Some travelers said that telling friends and colleagues they were traveling to New Orleans triggered noticeable reactions. For Daniel Strozberg, an insurance broker from New York, it was "ughhhh," he mimicked with a grimace as he hurried to a rental-car shuttle.

"Oh, can you fly into there?" is the response Patty Quintana got from friends. The Colorado Springs, Colo., resident is among the very few tourists who've arrived since the airport, transformed for weeks as a shelter and medical center, reopened in mid-October.

Quintana came to see a friend, view the hurricane's devastation and visit the French Quarter.

"It was amazing how good the French Quarter looked," she said of the district, where roughly half of the area's restaurants have yet to reopen.

Karen Keeling traveled from her home in Union, Ky., to help her mother, Anne Graveson, clean up the family's water-damaged house in hard-hit Slidell. Graveson has salvaged her sense of humor despite a daily 75-mile commute from a friend's home in Hattiesburg, Miss., and the wait for an as-yet-undelivered trailer promised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Half of the walls in my house are down. I call it an open floor plan," she said.

Humor is welcome at an airport where frivolity seems to have vanished with the normal pace and the seafood, say some airport employees.

"These people are wore out," said Herb Muller, a baggage screener with the Transportation Security Administration. "You tell them a joke, and they don't laugh."

Like much of the city, the airport "feels like a ghost town," he said.

With cruises canceled, conventions moved elsewhere and many hotels filled with government workers and police for the recovery effort, it may take time to bring back the New Orleans' famous gaiety.

Bettie Scott, a ticket checker at the airport, notices a solemn mood at the airport. But she sees the pall gradually lifting.

"It's happening slowly but surely," she said. "Things are coming back."

Many visitors who've come to New Orleans to work say they'll try to mix business with pleasure.

Shelley Bartkowski, an American Red Cross community relations director who flew in from Kansas City, thinks she may find there's too much work to do. "When I was in Florida last year to respond to Hurricane Frances, I never even saw the beach."

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

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