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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
French Quarter keen to open for business
The BBC News website's Richard Greene discovers how the heart of tourist New Orleans, largely untouched by Hurricane Katrina, is looking to the future, despite the mayor's order to evacuate the city.

Finis Shelnutt is enjoying a beautiful September day. The sun is blazing hot, the sky perfectly clear, and he has a table with a tidy white tablecloth all to himself in front of Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant.

Finis Shelnutt
Finis Shelnutt is ready to open his restaurant again post-Katrina

His moustache is perfectly trimmed. Not a hair is out of place. His collarless striped shirt hangs comfortably open at the neck. And he gazes serenely out at the world through tinted glasses.

"Beautiful day," he nods in greeting as two people walk past.

What's wrong with this picture?

The restaurant where Mr Shelnutt is sitting is in the centre of the French Quarter of storm-and-flood-ravaged New Orleans.

He proudly points out local gastronomic landmarks; Antoine's, where Oysters Rockefeller was invented; Brennan's, which developed Eggs Benedict; Paul Prudhomme's, which popularised the cooking of blackened fish.

Sitting on high ground, the Big Easy's main tourist destination was almost entirely untouched by the storm.

And now, with the city evacuated and shut down, it is entirely untouched by tourists. The streets are empty.

Mr Shelnutt doesn't expect that to last long.

"We're ready to open up," he says confidently, as two restaurant employees haul containers of rotting meat out of the building.

Mr Shelnutt puts a positive spin even on that, smiling through the stench lingering in the air.

"Good to be doing that now. When the other guys come back to open up their restaurants in a month, they're going to have a hell of a job cleaning up."

And he is entirely certain they will come back and open up.

"You have to be an optimist, not a pessimist," he says.

He is also, under his practiced bonhomie, a practical-minded and shrewd observer of human behaviour.

Will tourists come back to the city after watching the floods and fires on television?

Of course they will, Mr Shelnutt says. Morbid curiosity will drive them. Next year's Mardi Gras will be among the biggest ever, he is sure.

Around the corner, Frank, who says he never gives out his last name, agrees.

Sweeping up in front of Evelyn's Place, he shrugs off the damage the hurricane caused.

"We clean up more after Mardi Gras," he says.

The word has been badly overused, but it is simply surreal to stroll around the French Quarter post-Katrina.

Like a film set after the cast and crew have gone home for the night, the district is utterly charming, entirely peaceful and largely silent.

Mildred Bates
Survivor: Mildred Bates says she is enjoying being free

Even the pay phones are working, as I discovered to my shock when I idly picked one up and heard a familiar buzz as I passed The Centuries, an antique shop at 408 Chartres.

The coin slot was jammed, so I used my mobile phone to ring my brother and asked him to call me on the pay phone's number. A moment later, the phone rang.

Vibrantly coloured buildings stand proudly intact, their wrought-iron balconies having weathered the storm. Even the flowers in the window boxes look healthy.

Mildred E Bates looks healthy as well, despite a bandaged finger. She sits on a step looking out at the world, her grey dreadlocks pulled back from her smiling, gold-toothed face.

What has she been doing since the storm?

"Enjoying being free."




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