Frank Stewart, chairman emeritus of Stewart Enterprises, has been attending the ICFA Convention for nearly 50 years, and had hoped to welcome the convention to his hometown of New Orleans this year. Hurricane Katrina kept the convention away from New Orleans, but it didn't keep the Stewarts away from the convention.
Your home was close to one of the levies?
Yes, we backed up to the 17th Street Canal. The slab of our home was six feet above street level, and there was 15 feet of water in the front yard, so we had 9 feet of water in our home. I heard a 20-foot boat, one of the rescue boats, was tied up in our front yard.
How long did you stay out of town?
We basically never left. We had to stay in Florida for two or three weeks until the city was reopened and they allowed residents to come back, slowly as the flooding subsided and the electricity began to return.
We came back at the end of September, and we've been living there since then. We're living a mile or two away from our house in a townhouse. We hope to have electricity restored in our neighborhood in another two to three weeks.
Our major funeral home in New Orleans has been up and running now for two months—we built a temporary building—and is serving right now as many as 10 families a day. The other funeral home will be open in a few more months. Everything is being brought back, but it's a slow process.
You're optimistic about the future of New Orleans?
With the infusion of federal capital, we hope to see the city return to its splendor. It will happen. We've just got to go through the heartache now of remediating everything.
The outlying areas that were inundated will undoubtedly take longer-I may not even see it in my lifetime. But now the city has a chance to master plan, to rebuild with vision and some green space. And the low-income people who lost everything and left the city will eventually come back, but they'll come back into a much better environment.
I'm very bullish and optimistic about the New Orleans area. It's not the way you'd like to have it. Definitely people lost a lot of hard assets—their businesses, houses and cars. It's amazing the percentage of people driving new cars, for example.
Over $100 billion will be pumped into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast before it's over with. What's sad is, if they had done what they should have done three years ago to protect the levy system around the metropolitan area, this would have never happened. It really is a shame.