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New Orleans inn perseveres

In the historic Garden District of New Orleans, Dennis Hilton thinks about rekindling the soul of his city.


"It rekindles the soul to see the people that come in to help residents who are emotionally and spiritually bereft."

—Dennis Hilton

In the historic Garden District of New Orleans, Dennis Hilton thinks about rekindling the soul of his city.

Hilton and his wife have owned and operated the St. Charles Guest House - a small bed-and-breakfast - for 25 years. Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof and siding off - what Hilton calls "minimal damage" given what happened to the rest of the city.

Today, Hilton wants people to understand the difficulty of being a small business owner in New Orleans - but more important, he said, are the challenges facing families with children.

Many families - including his own - were forced from the city because they were determined to keep their children in school. "The schools weren't opening and functioning," said Hilton. "I have a child in college, plus two other children, 8 and 12 years old. Their school had closed. We got them in a school in Massachusetts. They stayed there for three months, and so we did, too. I came back once to just kind of make sure the property was closed."

He vividly remembers the day volunteers helped do the very first repairs on the guest house, he said. "They lived here and helped us straighten things out."

Now up and running, Hilton still offers volunteer groups a discount rate as they work in other areas of the city. "At some point, you've got to make some money. We needed to charge a little bit to kind of defray the expenses," he said. "You have to stay open. You have to create some money, some cash flow."

Hilton is amazed at the number of volunteers still pouring into New Orleans. "And they come from various sectors of society."

He is especially grateful for church groups, he said. "It's been really heartwarming to have these people come here and help our community."

Disaster volunteers, said Hilton, embody what he calls "the spiritual side of disaster recovery."

"It rekindles the soul to see the people that come in to help residents who are emotionally and spiritually bereft," he said.

It's not that volunteer groups can repair thousands of homes in a few weeks, he explained - but they are a visible sign that somebody cares. "Just having somebody come here to work and volunteer and help people get their houses and their yards back - their gardens, their churches, the fabric of our society."

Like some other small business owners in New Orleans, Hilton has welcomed back paying customers and is trying to keep his business alive. Tourists have come back in small spurts, he said, mostly during the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Mardi Gras.

At this point, Hilton said, volunteers and tourists both bring hope in their own way. Trying to combat occasional bad feelings between volunteers and tourists, Hilton urged both groups to realize they are guests in the city.

"A guest is a guest whether they are working in the community or playing in the community," he said. "I like them both for a variety of reasons. They both bring renewed hope. A lot of people who have been through this devastation have had their hopes dashed."

Hilton also urged people to remember the small businesses in New Orleans because they create the fabric of the city. "We live here. We have a home here."

Hilton wants tourists back - but he also realizes people are wary of the potential effects of contaminants left by the flooding. "Many people who would come to New Orleans before won't come because they're fearful of the toxins. People need to keep away from situations that might impair their health."

It's also discouraging to look around and see a half-empty city, said Hilton. "A lot of our residents are not back. Vast neighborhoods that had houses are just empty. You can drive all over this city from the lakefront area to the Ninth Ward across the industrial canal - and houses are empty."

Now 200,000 people are back, Hilton said, "but we had a population of 450,000. They're in, they're about, they're spread out and they're coming back sporadically."

Hilton thinks his city will rise again - even if it's never the same. "New Orleans has been here a long time. It's a critical city for the oil and gas industry. It's a great tourist destination. People love living here. It will come back based on people's ability to get employment."

The problem - and it's a well-publicized one - is the dearth of housing. "People have children," said Hilton. "Families have to change their way of doing things. We might lose some citizens. But we have a great spirit here."

And next hurricane season is on his mind. "It's right around the corner. No matter what we do, that hurricane season is going to happen. We've been working on the levees. I mean, they're saying they're getting the levees up to pre-Katrina strength. Well, we need more than that. New Orleans is too important a city to let it languish."

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