The idea of tourists paying to peer at the remnants of people's lives smacked of callous profiteering, some residents said. Distasteful at best, others said.
Don't tell that to Gray Line tour guide Joe Gendusa, 65, a lifelong New Orleanian who rode out the hurricane on the 16th floor of a building in the Central Business District, only to flee to the Convention Center amid hellish conditions.
"This town means a lot to me," Gendusa said, opening the 9 a.m. tour that drew about a dozen customers. The 1 p.m. tour had sold out its 24 seats. "I'm going to show you my home. We want you to go home and let people know."
Gray Line isn't the only company offering tours:
Tours by Isabelle promises a close-up view of the Lower 9th Ward's ruins via vans, for $49 a head, in addition to the Lakeview area.
"It must be seen," tour company owner Isabelle Cossart said of the Lower 9th. "It's a historical sight. People must see this because we need help. I want people to lobby Congress and senators. New Orleans is not fixed. We need help."
At first I thought this was ghoulish and exploitive. Then I read this:
After the Gray Line tour, the bus riders are given a form letter in support of rebuilding New Orleans, suitable for signing and mailing to their state's congressional leaders. Gray Line also asks riders to sign a petition in favor of President Bush's pledge to fortify the levees. Three dollars from each tour ticket goes to one of several nonprofit groups, including Habitat for Humanity and the Second Harvest food bank network.
On a recent day, one of Cossart's tour groups got an intimate view of a Lower 9th Ward man's grief. Robert Green was mourning the loss of his mother, having found her that day in their Tennessee Street home, where she was recognizable only by the clothes she was wearing the day the levees broke.
Green knew his mother was dead when he and another relative were rescued and evacuated from New Orleans, police reports said.
"He was still there meditating," Cossart said. When Green spotted the van, he knocked on the window, Cossart said, and asked whether they were indeed touring the ruins.
"Robert said, 'Good,'" Cossart said. "'I want the people to know what happened."