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New Orleans sets out on long road to recovery

A ghost town emerges from the floodwaters

(swissinfo.ch)

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Swiss hotelier Hans Wandfluh tells swissinfo that the city is far from beaten.

Wandfluh, who runs the four-star Royal Sonesta Hotel in the heart of the city's French Quarter, lived through the disaster along with 20 of his staff, surviving both the floods and looters.

What emerges as the floodwater recedes is a ghost town of shattered, filthy streets. Columns of army Humvees trundle through empty neighbourhoods as Blackhawk helicopters chatter overhead.

New Orleans may still resemble a war zone, and a night-time curfew remains in force, but when swissinfo arrived in the city the Royal Sonesta was back in business.

While it will be some time before the bright lights of Bourbon Street twinkle again, behind the doors of Wandfluh's hotel normal service of a kind has already resumed.

The FBI is setting up its headquarters in the 500-room hotel, which is also providing a base for cable-television news giant CNN.

swissinfo: It's two weeks since Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, and the city still looks like a war zone. How has the situation improved over the past week or so?

Hans Wandfluh: A lot has changed. For a start we can't see any water anymore. The water came within about 15 feet of the hotel but now it has all gone, so that is an improvement.

For the first few days we didn't have the military or the police here. The police basically pulled out to do rescue work or ran for their lives along with everybody else. But now we have the police and the army, and we are extremely well protected. Food is also coming in.

swissinfo: The authorities seem to be on top of things now but in the beginning you were left to fend for yourselves as armed gangs of looters roamed the streets. What steps did you have to take to protect the hotel?

H.W.: We just barricaded ourselves in. We nailed everything shut. Looters were running all over the place but they didn't come in here because they couldn't get in.

swissinfo: You have lived in New Orleans for a quarter of a century. How long do you think it is going to take to get the city back on its feet?

H.W.: It's very hard to tell. The French Quarter and downtown are intact – you just need to clean them up. I would venture that within two or three months life will begin again. I have absolutely no doubt that New Orleans will be back, bigger and better, and that life will get back to normal.

swissinfo: Can you really see tourists coming back here in reasonable numbers by Christmas?

H.W.: It all depends on what you mean by "reasonable numbers", but they will come. Americans are wonderful people and they will look towards us. As soon as we can say "hey, we're open for business", they will come here to support us because they know that everybody is hurting. That's almost a given.

swissinfo: There has been a lot of criticism about the slow response from the authorities to the disaster. You saw events unfold from up close, so where does the blame lie?

H.W.: Well, it's easy to criticise. You can point fingers, and politicians are making a sport out of that. But it's tough to say whose fault it is. Is it the governor's, the president's? Personally, I think they are all to blame – from the top to the bottom.

But I really think we should spend less time pointing fingers and more time fixing things up. We should learn lessons from this and basically look towards a better future.

swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont in New Orleans, Louisiana

Key facts

The 500-room Royal Sonesta Hotel lies on Bourbon Street in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter.
The hotel came through the hurricane virtually unscathed and is now taking in its first guests – the FBI.
Hans Wandfluh, who originally hails from Interlaken, has been running the hotel since 1969.

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