The lumbering buses that carry camera-wielding tourists through New Orleans still stop at Bourbon Street’s bars, Jackson Square’s cathedral and the Garden District’s mansions.
But one destination is now largely off limits: the Lower Ninth Ward, where Hurricane Katrina inflicted its worst havoc and the recovery has been slowest.
New Orleans officials are cracking down on hurricane-themed tours, saying buses damage newly paved streets and cross the line into disaster voyeurism. After years of loosely enforcing a ban on motor coaches in the Lower Ninth, the police are turning back tours and fined one company $150.
It has been a balancing act for a city that depends on 9 million tourists a year, many curious to see the recovery firsthand. But seven years later, patience is wearing thin. In August, the Taxicab Bureau notified bus companies that they risked losing their licenses if they crossed the Industrial Canal into the neighborhood.
A city councilman, Ernest F. Charbonnet, who represents the Lower Ninth, plans to introduce legislation later this year that would cap buses at 30 passengers and restrict them to the neighborhood’s main streets. He has asked tour companies to agree on a single route and wants to charge each bus to raise money for replanting grass and repairing broken street lamps.
“Residents don’t like being gawked at by tourists as though they’re sideshow attractions,” said Charbonnet, who is holding a town hall-style meeting for Lower Ninth residents on Friday to discuss the buses.
Thirty-four licensed bus companies operate in New Orleans, many with tours focused on the hurricane. With names like “Hurricane Katrina — America’s Greatest Catastrophe,” they charge about $45 for firsthand glimpses of vine-covered houses and abandoned properties. “We’ll drive past an actual levee that ‘breached’ and see the resulting devastation that displaced hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents,” Gray Line, one of the largest tour companies, promises on its website.
About 5,560 people live in the Lower Ninth, only about a quarter of the population in 2000. The largely abandoned neighborhood, east of downtown, suffered some of the worst damage during the hurricane and still has no police station, supermarket or hospital.
Residents say they have seen little economic benefit from the tours. Buses do not let visitors off in the neighborhood, but occasionally vendors come aboard to sell pralines. “It’s the bus companies that are reaping the benefits,” said the Rev. Charles Duplessis, who said tours passed his house every hour, from dawn until dusk, seven days a week.
Tour companies say they are simply giving visitors what they want. Without the buses, visitors would take self-guided trips in taxis and rental cars, creating more traffic, they say. And many donate to Habitat for Humanity or Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation after seeing the houses those nonprofit organizations have built.
“This is our most-demanded area,” said Jeff Rogers, owner of Cajun Encounters Tour Co., which offered four daily tours of the hurricane damage until August. “People want to know: What was destroyed, what was rebuilt, where is our tax money going?”
David Lee Ducote, owner of Southern Style Tours, said the ban threatens his company. In August, he received a $150 ticket. Now he avoids the neighborhood, instead taking visitors to Musician’s Village, where artists and musicians rebuilt after the storm.
But not every bus company has stopped its tours. A spokeswoman for Gray Line said its Lower Ninth tours will continue, but it is working with the city to find a suitable route. The company said it has not been issued any tickets. Ryan F. Berni, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city wants a compromise to “benefit both commerce and the community.”
New Orleans limits the size of tour buses allowed in other neighborhoods, including the Garden District and in the French Quarter. But Valeria Schexnayder, 65, who has lived in the Lower Ninth since 1964, would rather see no buses at all. They rattle shotgun-style houses so badly that paint chips and paintings fall off walls, she said. Worse are the cameras.
“I felt like an animal in a zoo,” she said. “Videos of me are all over YouTube.”
Tours by bicycle, car and van are still allowed in the Lower Ninth. But many of New Orleans’s 555 licensed tour guides say they, too, are ready to shift visitors’ focus away from Hurricane Katrina. Tom Nagelin, president of the Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans, said he avoids the Lower Ninth. “We’re tired of hearing about Katrina. We want to move on as a city,” he said. “My tours focus on cuisine, art and architecture — not hurricanes.”