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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

New Orleans Disaster Tourism

Posted by on December 27 at 13:15 PM

We’re all getting tired of New Orleans headlines like The Big Easy Hasn’t Lost its Entrepreneurial Spirit and Laissez Les Bon Temps Rebuild, but today’s Wall Street Journal (sorry, can’t link to it) has a heartening story about the latest Big Easy craze: disaster tourism.

Selected paragraphs:

At disaster sites elsewhere, frank attempts to cash in on tragedy so soon would prompt outrage. After the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the city welcomed tourists to the Twin Towers site but not the vendors who followed them. In those early weeks, it wasn’t uncommon to see hucksters being run off by bellowing police and firefighters. Four years later, things are more relaxed in New York.
But New Orleans is almost completely reliant on feting visitors and only a few weeks went by before operators began to exploit the storm. Now, Katrina is viewed by many as another big event with commercial possibilities, like Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest. Along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, shops bristle with clever and bawdy T-shirts that make light of the disaster that killed more than 1,000 people, and the ensuing looting. “I stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was this lousy T-shirt, a new Cadillac and a plasma TV,” says one.
One must-see landmark on [Isabelle Coassart’s] disaster tour is the sprawling, ruined white brick home of famous rhythm-and-blues pianist Fats Domino. Rolling past the manse on a block littered with moldy church pews and a ruined upright piano, Ms. Cossart pointed out the red graffiti a fan had painted on the side of the structure, stating, “RIP Fats.”
But it’s mistaken. Mr. Domino, 77, got away by boat. “It’s a happy story,” says Ms. Cossart, whose own West Bank property suffered some damage when two trees fell in her yard, crushing her canary-yellow Corvette. She has worked the fate of her car into the spiel on the $49-a-head tour.

I know I’m courting cliché, but New Orleans was famous for that peculiar blend of humor, self-interest and self-deprecation—and that’s what will keep the gawkers (and their wallets) coming back for more.