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New York Times - Business, Though Not As Usual, Starts Stirring in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 9 - Bones broken, vital organs far from functional, the faintest pulse has begun to beat in the battered and beleaguered streets of the Big Easy.

The Drury Inn welcomed its first post-hurricane guests on Friday night, warning that housekeeping would be weekly, not daily, the exercise room was off-limits and continental breakfast was canceled. A tow-truck driver collected a dozen Cadillacs taken from a dealership during the chaos. A dozen men with walkie-talkies worked on wiring the 51 floors of One Shell Square, the city's largest office building.

There is a very tired man patching tires for $12 on St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater neighborhood, and there is a gruff Irish bartender opening icy bottles of Budweiser and Bud Light (Heineken if you know somebody) for $3 in the French Quarter. And on many a downtown street, there is a guy with a blower strapped to his back or a broom in his hand, trying to tidy the place up.

"It may not be the grandest job," said Joe Salazar, 50, who said he used to be a clerk in a medical clinic, but now is one of dozens donning dirty R.F.Q., for Rebuild French Quarter, T-shirts as they sweep. "I feel that every street that's clean, that makes it easier for the city to come back."

The vast majority of businesses here are locked tight, the only sign of survival the spray-painted signs promising that looters will be shot. Yet there are snippets of economic activity and signs of more to come soon.

Thousands of emergency personnel and journalists are being joined by contractors and cleanup crews, busting the borders of the makeshift encampment of motor homes along Canal Street. They need somewhere to sleep, and how many meals ready to eat can a person eat?

So far, Salvation Army trucks and free-for-all barbecues at Harrah's casino, the police staging area, have sufficed, but the owner of the Palace Café was here on Friday with men in paper masks and knee-high boots to clean out the walk-in freezers.

"The one thing we can do in New Orleans, if they are coming down here, is feed them some good food," said Dickie Brennan, who owns four downtown restaurants, including the 300-seat Palace. "We can serve five-star meals."

The day before, Jason Mohney, owner of the Hustler and three other local strip clubs, arrived with a few dancers and bouncers and some high-powered flashlights, and found little damage to the red velvet heart-shaped couches and shiny disco balls, just a little moisture and mold on carpets - probably flooded, but perhaps from spilled beer.

"As soon as we have power, that will be the only thing that's keeping us from opening," Mr. Mohney said. "There'll be couch dances as soon as we can get open," he promised, though one of the dancers, Dawn Beasley, offered one on the spot ($30).

According to the Entergy Corporation's storm center Web site, 89 percent of Orleans Parish, which includes the city, remained without power heading into the weekend, though the lights were back on at several buildings and hotels in the central business district considered critical to the recovery effort, as well as at a sewage station on Avenue C and the Audubon Zoo.

The Drury Inn was one of the first hotels to reopen, the electricity restored early because it is next to Bell South headquarters. It is swapping a week's worth of 75 rooms, about half its capacity, for the help the phone company provided leading its staff through checkpoints into the city and setting its systems straight.

"If we house them, then that allows them to do their job," said Omar Willis, general manager of a Drury Inn in Houston, who is here for the duration. "It's mutually beneficial."

Guests got a memo along with their room keys that explained the strange situation. "We do not know if the shower/tub and tap water is safe for bathing," it warned. The switchboard would not be staffed day and night. Trash cans and dirty towels should be placed in hallways.

"We're going to do with what we have," said the general manager, Palestine Riles. "We have electricity, we have A.C., we have clean beds. It's some sort of normality back in the city. We're trying to get back on our feet."

But as some hotels were reopening, the Best Western on St. Charles Avenue, which had filled its 123 rooms every night since the storm despite the lack of running water and electricity, posted a sign Friday night saying everybody would have to check out by 4 p.m. Saturday. The manager, Melissa Kennedy, said she could not continue to operate because her employees and special cleanup crews were blocked from getting into the city; a laundry service came to pick up linens for the first time Thursday, but spent six hours stuck at a highway checkpoint Friday and never made it back.

"We have mold growing in the building, not enough people to clean it out," said Ms. Kennedy, who has been running the place from a folding table topped with an open jar of Jif peanut butter and half a loaf of bread. "We'll reopen as soon as security lightens up."

With the computer system down, Ms. Kennedy took credit-card imprints and logged checkouts by hand from the journalists who had spent days hovered at the lobby bar, where there was wireless Internet service and people ate cold ravioli and kidney beans from the can. "I'm hoping everyone in the media's honest enough to give me a valid credit card," she said. "I tell them I can give a handwritten receipt on stationary, or mail them one when the computers get up and running."

Outside the historic former City Hall annex in the central business district, lawyers from the firm of Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann filled a U-Haul with files and computer servers to take to their temporary office in Baton Rouge. "We're not moving out forever, we're just getting some essential equipment," said John Colbert, a partner. "We want to come back as soon as we can."

Around the corner, a crew from Walton Construction assessed the damage at one of eight La Quinta hotels, preparing to start repairs Monday. "I'm fortunate to be in the construction business," said the owner, Bill Petty. "You see bankers, retail people, hoteliers, all out of work."

Scattered throughout the French Quarter, a smattering of taverns and cafes are already serving, some never having stopped. At Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant on Friday, an open bottle of Champagne on a sidewalk table was surrounded by Mardi Gras beads, one strand attached to an envelope that held a condom and read, "Prepare to Party."

Molly's at the Market, on Decatur Street, is open daily from 11 a.m. to the city's 6 p.m. curfew rather than its usual 6 a.m. last call, and the owner, Jim Monahan, makes change from a metal lockbox. There are no lights - the beer is on ice that friends mysteriously manage to muster each day - but there are regulars on the stools.

"The place has been closed 29 hours in 31 years - it's a tradition," said Mr. Monahan, who inherited the bar four years ago from his father. "It's just what my father taught me. You come to work every day. We're hard-working Irish people."

Dollars line the bar for tips, though much of the business within the city borders these days is done by barter. Georgia Walker, who has 20 cats, traded water for cat food the other day with "a bum on the street"; Frank Shea had a surplus of dog food and ended up with oranges. Benjamin Blackwell, who is earning $125 a day running nine-man cleanup crews for Omni Pinnacle, a private company hired by FEMA, swapped cold water for eyewash with an ambulance driving by.

And if you bust a tire, well, there is only one place to go. St. Claude Used Tires looks as if it was barely standing before the hurricane hit; since, it has replaced or repaired nearly 100 tires. Joe Peters, the broken-down owner of the broken-down shop, was sitting outside one day after the storm when a police officer asked if he could fix a flat; another lined up behind him, and it has hardly stopped since.

"I charge the media because they have an expense account," Mr. Peters said, pointing to the price list, $6 for a plug, $12 for a patch, $35 for a 16-inch tire, at least until he runs out. "The City of New Orleans, the government, they sign the book, we'll square up later."

Mr. Peters said, "It feels good to be doing something for my city that's in such bad shape." Sure he is making a little money besides, "but where I'm going to spend it at?"

"I can't go buy a beer," he said, gesturing at the wide boulevard of shuttered stores. "I can't get no red beans and pork chops."

Contributing Writer: Jodi Wilgoren

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