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New Orleans mending after Hurricane Katrina

Attendance at this year's 2007 Beltwide Cotton Conferences was the lowest it's been in a while (2,800 registrants), some of which could be owed to trepidation over a perceived lack of safety in the city of New Orleans, which is still rebuilding after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina over 16 months ago.

If you didn't attend, you missed out on a great opportunity. As usual, the National Cotton Council put together an insightful and informative conference.

Cotton producers don't get too many chances to see this many cotton industry experts in one place at one time, providing the latest information on technology, the markets, trade and the farm bill.

This year's Beltwide venue gave us something else, however — a firsthand look at fellow Americans pulling together in a time of crisis.

Much of New Orleans is still in shock from Katrina's aftereffects — a few blocks northeast of the French Quarter, there begins a mind-numbing stretch of mile after mile of decaying, deserted homes and businesses.

Katrina's floods did not discriminate. Million-dollar homes, shotgun shacks, Wal-Marts and Stop 'n' Shops sit boarded up in weedy parking lots or overgrown yards, awaiting the dozer. It was our costliest natural disaster ever, with over $81 billion in damage.

But here and there in New Orleans, and especially around our hotel, many communities are on the mend. And if these mini-pockets of prosperity can grow a little larger each year, it's not inconceivable that New Orleans will one day stand tall again, although the city will never look the same as it did on Aug. 28, 2005.

The people of New Orleans were so happy to host us and never failed to let us know — from the young waiter at GW Fins, who lost his pre-Katrina job when Commander's Palace restaurant flooded, to our hotel housekeeper, who had to remind her daughter over and over again that their lives were no longer routine, that they had to be strong. When she finished her story, there were tears in her eyes, and she thanked me for being there and for listening.

Another story came from Sandy, our tour bus driver, who drove us by overgrown golf courses, the devastated Ninth Ward and even to the site of several levee breaches, where houses had slid off their foundations and into each other like dozens of bumper cars.

Sandy didn't have a car when the hurricane of a lifetime hit her city. She rode out the storm in her home, until it turned into a muggy oven.

She walked toward the convention center, where she hoped to find supplies and shelter. At a police barricade, she was told it was too dangerous to go any further. She returned home, packed up a few belongings and supplies and left for the high ground of the Riverwalk, alongside the Mississippi River.

She lived there for two days, unable to reach her family, including her son, who was stationed in Iraq. On the third day, a Black Hawk helicopter landed on her piece of high ground. “Soldiers stepped out with their guns pointed right at us and told us to stand down. We did.”

An hour later, Sandy was aboard the helicopter cruising low over the inundated city. She was placed on a bus headed for Texas and temporary shelter inside the Houston Astrodome.

She finally was able to contact her family several days later to let them know she was all right.

But the first chance Sandy had, she came back to her Big Easy, and wound up driving for Gray Line tours. Sandy is a natural-born talker and hardly takes a breath during the tour, weaving her personal experiences around facts and opinions. She hasn't much good to say about FEMA or the U.S. Corps of Engineers. But she loves her city like a son.

Is the city safe today? Depends. As in any big city, it's important for visitors to use common sense when traveling. But other than seeing fewer residents, the part of the city we stayed in seemed perfectly secure.

It should be noted that the first convention booked in the city after Katrina was that well-known gang of toughs reputed to be among the most fearless conventioneers of them all. You guessed it — librarians.

The next Beltwide in New Orleans will be in 2010, after a stint in Nashville and San Antonio. Make your plans to attend. Be not afraid to see the spirit of America at work. Your patronization of the restaurants, hotels and shops of New Orleans will surely make a significant contribution to the continued resurgence of a still-proud American city.

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