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A city that embraces death, ghosts struggles with magnitude of Katrina

NEW ORLEANS—This is a ghost town. Always has been.

In livelier days, New Orleans boasted of being the most haunted town in America. It obsesses on death. It venerates voodoo, serenades caskets with jazz on the way to vast necropolises and brags about its persistent phantoms, the Octoroon Mistress and Sultan of Dauphine Street among them, on tours of the city's real-life haunted houses.

Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a flood that killed more than 1,000, the question arises: How will a city with a passion for the macabre incorporate the tragedy in the collective culture?

"New Orleans has always had this intense spiritual life," said Martha Ward, a research professor of anthropology and urban studies at the University of New Orleans.

It's not uncommon for people in New Orleans to casually acknowledge a ghostly presence in their homes, Ward said. Even the Saints, the city's long-suffering football team, has an after-worldly theme.

Spiritualism, Ward said, is deeply ingrained in the soul of New Orleans, rooted in the suffering tied to the swampy climate and slavery.

Even voodoo, which would be taken as an eccentric oddity in most places, has a large margin of mainstream respect, reflecting the city's Afro-Caribbean origins.

"Voodoo took care of poor people in all areas of love, luck and the law," said Ward, the author of the definitive biography of Marie Laveau, the 19th-century voodoo queen.

Complicating the suffering now is the city's inability to bury its dead and process the sorrow.

Its famed cemeteries—in which people are buried aboveground, often in ornate generational crypts, because of the high water table—are closed while hurricane damage is repaired. And identifying and processing hurricane victims' remains is going slowly.

"It's been chronic for 300 years that the city couldn't bury its dead," said Ward, citing mass graves associated with earlier tragedies.

Despite its image as a party town, New Orleans' heritage is one of calamity. For mass casualties, Katrina will be lucky to crack the city's Top 10 of disasters.

The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853 killed more than 8,000 people. Another outbreak in 1878 claimed at least 4,000. Fires, mosquitoes and storms have all proved catastrophic through the centuries.

Totems of death from Katrina now permeate the city. Symbols from search-and-rescue teams are painted on doors or crushed houses. "There are tons of hurricane-associated deaths," Ward said. "And now marks on houses: `two dead.'"

Ghost reports aren't necessarily a local phenomenon. A group of California National Guardsmen sent in after the hurricane reported that a specter was sharing their makeshift quarters at Sophie B. Wright Middle School in the Garden District.

"I was in my sleeping bag and I opened my eyes and in the doorway was a little girl," Sgt. Robin Hairston told KPIX-TV of San Francisco. "It wasn't my imagination."

The ghosts of the French Quarter seem to have survived. Their haunts, on the city's highest ground, sustained little damage.

They're celebrities here, one of the attractions of Louisiana's $5 billion tourism industry, and their legends are tended by guides.

What we perceive as ghosts may be a collection of energy imposed on a physical space at the time of death, said Phillip Landry, a spiritualist who conducts ghost tours of the French Quarter.

Among his stops is the house at 732 Royal, where on cold nights the apparition of the Octoroon Mistress is said to materialize on the roof. It's the very spot where a Creole woman was said to have frozen to death in 1834, trying to prove her love to her master by spending the night outside naked.

Landry also shows visitors the Wyndham Bourbon Orleans Hotel, rated the most-haunted lodge in town, with 17 ghosts, most of whom are playful children.

Closed for two months because of flood damage to utilities, the hotel should reopen by Nov. 1, said Dennis Pearse, the general manager.

Pearse has been with the hotel only a month and said he hadn't met any ghosts.

Nearby is one of the city's most notorious sites, a mansion where authorities discovered a torture chamber in 1834 used by socialite Delphine McCarty LaLaurie to sadistically abuse slaves. LaLaurie fled the city; the house is the source of many a strange story.

At 716 Dauphine St., Landry tells about a wealthy sultan who was murdered with his harem and servants in the mid-19th century, possibly by a relative who was reluctant to share an inheritance. Residents since have reported a turbaned ghost.

Lisa Huber owns the New Orleans Ghost Tour, one of about four companies that cater to tourists' curiosity about cemeteries, spirits and vampires.

"We're proud of our ghosts and mysticism," said Huber, who served about 150 tourists a day before Katrina but sees only about five a day now.

Despite a rising influx of visitors now drawn to gawk at the city's damage—"flood tourism," Ward calls it—Huber said she was repulsed by the notion of even mentioning the hurricane and its catastrophic death toll to her clients.

"We're absolutely not going to do a Katrina tour," she said.

Landry agreed. "That's very inappropriate at a time like this. It may never be appropriate."

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

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

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