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The manager at the Aunt Sally's Creole Pralines store in New Orleans' French Quarter asked me to spread the news. “Tell everyone you can to visit because we're open and ready for business,” said the 30-something manager. I was surprised by her comments. The last time I visited the store, about eight days before Hurricane Katrina's landfall, I had the impression that the clerk then really didn't care whether we bought anything. In fact, I thought I'd never return. After all, the store had become rather dungy.

Aunt Sally's was one of only a few of the traditional tourist shops reopened on this day. While the exterior retained the architectural style of the neighborhood, the inside was refreshingly bright and clean. This shop's owner had obviously used the opportunity to update and improve the business.

I discovered the spirit of renewal in several other places during my visit in July. In an adjacent storefront, workmen were cleaning damaged plaster and wood lathes. Masons were installing new stone slabs on the structure's sidewalk. And our favorite restaurant had even repaired its restrooms so that all the stations worked.

True, some of our favorite places weren't open. In fact, they showed no signs of any life. Dated spray painted red marks still denoted the neighborhood search for hurricane survivors back in those troubling dark days last August and September.

Everyone has an opinion on what should happen next for this city. During my six-day stay, I literally spoke with hundreds of residents on the subject. While they may disagree on the politics, they are committed to rebuilding the city.

The post-Katrina Southeast is quickly becoming society's urban and regional planning battleground. Experts from all disciplines are telling anyone who listens their opinions on how to best rebuild the area.

Up until now, I've been reluctant to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and her smaller sibling Rita. There seemed to be too many unsettled stories, opinions, and emotional reactions to allow the development of useful information. But I believe it's now time to document how these developments impact our industry.

This is more than a New Orleans story. A statement by Patrick Fitzpatrick, of the GeoResources Institute at Mississippi State University, explains why. In a chapter of the RMC Research Foundation-sponsored study “Coast in the Eye of the Storm – Hurricane Katrina: August 29, 2005,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “Damage occurred in an area greater than the size of Britain.”

Most of us didn't directly face the devastation from Katrina or Rita. Yet we do share a vested interest in what happens next.

In this issue, we begin our coverage with a short report on how two local producers fared during the storm (page 37). Future stories will show how the area's rebuilding efforts will dramatically affect building codes, material specifications, and construction techniques. On the managerial side, producers will want to learn how to review their insurance riders, disaster planning procedures, and employee benefit policies. And then there's the question of how all of this new construction will affect cement supplies.

Is there hope for the area? I think so.

The rebuilding spirit was summed up best by the closing statement my son's new father-in-law made during the wedding rehearsal dinner in which Ricky was welcomed into his Cajun family. “I'm looking forward to the day, when you bring my grandchildren children home to New Orleans so we can share with them what we rebuild,” John said. “But do me a favor: When they're christened, don't choose Katrina or Rita.”

ryelton@hanleywood.com