NEW ORLEANS – The clackety-clack is officially back. New Orleans on Sunday resumed its streetcar service, which had been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina wiped out the utility poles and metal tracks used to propel the city's trademark mode of transportation.
Car number 930, adorned with holiday garland and red ribbon, was the first to roll out from the French Market post at 7 a.m.
"It has taken so much to get here," said Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman Rosalind Blanco Cook. "Evaluating the cars, trying to get the cars on different routes and getting the operators back — it took a lot of work."
Six of the 35 historic New Orleans streetcars that before Hurricane Katrina ran along St. Charles Avenue — the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world — operated Sunday along the Mississippi Riverfront line and part of the Canal Street line. There were two backup cars on the tracks as well.
The newer red cars that usually travel those routes were severely damaged by floodwaters and are not in service. The New Orleans City Council had to pass an ordinance allowing the RTA to move the older green cars, which date back to the 1920s, to the new routes.
The RTA is providing free bus service on the St. Charles route, whose infrastructure is not yet ready for streetcar service, Cook said. She said it's unclear when the service, which runs through the city's Garden District, past mansions and Audubon Park, will resume.
The riverfront line was added in 1988 and the Canal Street line, which was abandoned 40 years ago, was restored in 2004.
Clarence Glover, who has driven streetcars for 22 years, was instructing conductor Jerry Duplessis on Sunday's first run. Before Katrina, Duplessis drove the newer cars, which had more automatic features. He had to be briefed on the older cars' manual components, such as a foot pump that drops sand on the tracks for traction as the car comes to a stop. The newer cars drop sand automatically, Glover said.
Getting conductors back into the city was part of the battle to resume streetcar service. Many RTA workers, including Cook, are living on a cruise ship docked at the riverfront after their homes were destroyed by Katrina's winds Aug. 29 and subsequent flooding.
Glover, whose home in eastern New Orleans was flooded, left his wife and daughter with family in Houston to return to his job. He's currently living in a hotel until he finds something more permanent.
Duplessis, whose home was deluged as well, said he is living with family in Avondale.
As the streetcar rolled Sunday, several bystanders waved and took pictures. A handful hopped on board. Kurt Hampton, a self-proclaimed "streetcar buff" who lives in suburban Metairie, said he woke up early to come into the city and see the first car roll.
He was glad he remembered to bring his camera when barely five minutes into the first run, car 930 came to a halt — a car parked near Jax Brewery in the French Quarter was too close to the tracks for the streetcar to pass. So, in typical New Orleans fashion, a policeman, some RTA workers and even a couple of passengers helped bounce it away from the tracks. The vehicle was later towed.
"This is the kind of job where you have to have a sense of humor," Glover said, chuckling as the streetcar continued its route.
The Department of Transportation allowed the RTA to use up to $70 million in federal money to make repairs to the streetcar system.
Passengers talked of friends and family, the chilly weather and about how good it felt to have a little piece of New Orleans back.
Alan Drake, whose lower Garden District home fared well, said he "couldn't resist being here." He said he was among the first passengers to ride the Canal Street line when it launched last year.
"I love the great positives about this city, and this is one of its great positives," he said.
Hampton, who works for Cox Media, said he's been commuting to Baton Rouge since his New Orleans office was relocated there after the storm. When his office returns in January, he said he plans to take advantage of the free streetcar service being offered until March.