Saturday, November 19, 2005

African American owned Bed & Breakfast Reopening in New Orleans

New York Times

By STEPHEN P. WILLIAMS
Published: October 16, 2005
WHEN Monique Greenwood and Glenn Pogue bought the New Orleans mansion that was to become Akwaaba in the Bayou bed-and-breakfast, they didn't give a thought to high ground, levees or storms.

"If you'd asked, I couldn't have told you the difference between a hurricane and a tornado," said Ms. Greenwood, who runs the couple's four Afrocentric bed and breakfasts; the others are in New York, Washington and Cape May, N.J.

Then, less than two months after their grand opening last July, Ms. Greenwood locked up Akwaaba in the Bayou and left New Orleans to ride out Hurricane Katrina at Akwaaba Mansion, her bed-and-breakfast in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. She expected to return in a few days, but soon found herself preparing for the worst.

She wasn't alone. Although New Orleans is home to many well-financed corporate hotels, it's also thick with at least 50 small, single-owner bed-and-breakfasts. These homey inns appeal to travelers who want to connect with the curious local culture and perhaps save money. The lodgings are an integral part of New Orleans that many fear has been threatened by the devastating economic effects of Katrina.

The bed-and-breakfasts rarely have more than five or six guest rooms and charge $125 to $250 a night, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the lost income. With bills arriving, no guests in sight and disputes with insurers, prospects for bed-and-breakfasts like Akwaaba can look shaky.

To Ms. Greenwood, the storm and flood suddenly rendered her house's location in the Bywater neighborhood, just three blocks from the Mississippi River and a quarter mile from the breached Industrial Canal, painful.

Several days and much worry later, Mr. Pogue found satellite images online that showed that the floodwaters had stopped just blocks from Akwaaba in the Bayou, which sits 10 feet above sea level, about 25 blocks from the French Quarter. But Mr. Pogue's relief was tempered by the reports of looters, wind damage, fires and mold that dominated the news. At one point, a reporter called and said he had seen a group of men having a pool party and barbecue on their property.

After several attempts to return to New Orleans were thwarted by new storms and confusing re-entry rules, the couple caught the first commercial JetBlue flight back to the city on Oct. 1. The airport was hushed, and smelled of mildew as Ms. Greenwood and Mr. Pogue collected their bags, one of them weighted down by tools, nails, food, and water.

At the Budget Rental Car office, a police officer asked Mr. Pogue if he was armed.

"No. Should I be?" said Mr. Pogue.

Startled but worried that they might have underestimated the potential threat, the couple headed toward New Orleans, hoping to beat the setting sun. Abandoned boats and overturned buses lined the road, but it wasn't until the couple dropped from the freeway down into the city that the devastation became clear, with collapsed buildings, cars on porches and not a single person evident.

"It's so desolate; I'm getting anxious," said Ms. Greenwood as she swerved to avoid a downed palm tree at Desire Street. She parked in front of Akwaaba in the Bayou and the couple silently surveyed the damage from inside the van. A tree blocked the front steps; the upper porch swing had knocked out a railing; and windows were broken. There were downed trees; a swimming pool full of black water; ruined brickwork; missing roof tiles.

Inside the graceful, high-ceilinged mansion, everything was basically intact, though rotten apples sat in a bowl, and mosquito larvae swarmed in stagnant water at the bottom of several flower vases.

They found a note:

"Dear Owner, We borrowed a broom from your home. We are located one block up @ the school."

It was signed: "The Oregon National Guard."

That explained the military Meals Ready to Eat containers littering the sidewalk. It also helped explain why no one had broken in, and why, despite the officer's warnings, their neighborhood felt safe, if empty. "I feel really fortunate," said Mr. Pogue.

Akwaaba fared better than some other New Orleans bed-and-breakfasts. Bougainvillea House, in the French Quarter, suffered roof damage and a downed wall. The 17 tortoises the owners had tended since the 1950's, survived, but a collection of 30 bonsai trees died along with the income from the house's two suites. Like other establishments, Bougainvillea House has had to refund deposits made on reservations that now can't be honored.

THE 1896 O'Malley House, in the Mid-City neighborhood, was flooded with more than a foot of water, and the owners, Brad Smith and Larry Watts, said they would have to replace all the sheetrock, redo the wiring and buy seven new condensers for their central air-conditioning.

Though most banks are giving a three-month grace period for mortgage payments, after that time missed payments must be paid in full. "It gives you a knot in the pit of your stomach," said Mr. Smith, of the 1896 O'Malley House, echoing the feelings of many innkeepers.
"I don't think we'll see tourists for the next few months," said Susan Smith, of B and B Inc., which handles reservations for about 20 New Orleans establishments.

She says that so far, no bed-and-breakfasts have closed for good. Many are hoping to house journalists, disaster workers, insurance adjusters or employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Most of the owners seem enthusiastic," said Ms. Smith, "even with all the unknowns."

Ms. Greenwood and Mr. Pogue pondered a big unknown - where's the electricity? - over candlelight on their first night back. Later, they drove to the French Quarter, which had electricity, looking for food. A few sex clubs and live-music bars gave life to the depressed atmosphere along Bourbon Street, which smelled of trash and sewage. The innkeepers ordered sandwiches at the venerable Clover Grill, where a man ate at the counter with a large pistol strapped to his thigh. Out the window, a Humvee full of National Guardsmen passed, trailed by a built-up swamp buggy carrying a load of off-duty disaster workers, some sipping chartreuse-colored cocktails called Horny Alligators. Nearby, a young couple were kissing next to an overflowing garbage can. Ms. Greenwood and Mr. Pogue cited the bizarre confluence of disaster and drunken celebration as evidence that the crazy city they love would definitely return.

Back at Akwaaba, they got out their flashlights and headed for bed. The mansion was stifling because the doors and windows were shut to keep mosquitoes out, and without electricity, the air-conditioning was only a memory. In the morning, the couple bathed in cold tap water, hoping that it wasn't contaminated.

The couple heard an engine outside. As if sent from heaven, a contractor from Wyoming named Scott Hagy appeared from out of the blue with a truck full of tools. He offered to help with the pressing repairs and the cleanup at Akwaaba. By the next morning, all the debris had been cut up and piled at curbside, and a few cars were seen on the street, as a trickle of locals returned home to see what they had lost. Mr. Pogue had covered the broken windows with plastic and plywood, and Ms. Greenwood had cleaned the patio and porches. They made arrangements with Mr. Hagy to cover the damaged roof with blue plastic, drain the pool and make other repairs in the coming days.

For now, the innkeepers had to return to Brooklyn to attend to their small bed-and-breakfast business. They planned to return within two weeks to complete the cleanup. And as soon as the electricity came on, they would start trying to fill their rooms.

"I am blessed," Ms. Greenwood said as she headed to the airport. Much of the city had recently been plastered with mysterious graffiti reading "Voodoo today here now 5." But Ms. Greenwood didn't feel hexed.

"I think everything is going to be O.K.," she said.

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