It was the epicenter of disaster, and now it’s a tourist attraction.

The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans is still the site of unsalvageable wrecks — homes completely unanchored from their foundations, upside-down and rusted-out pickup trucks, spray-painted symbols denoting the number of dead that rescue workers found inside.

But the area is on the rise — and perhaps the best indication that it’s a much different time from August 2005 is the crowds of disaster tourists, out-of-towners in four-wheel-drive trucks and chartered buses surveying for themselves the damage they had seen on television.

Disaster tourism has even become a booming business for international tour bus operator Gray Line, which charges $35 to take out-of-towners on an air-conditioned trek through and past areas that became nationally recognized landmarks on cable news months before — the Superdome, I-10, the waterlogged houses whose roofs have since been covered over with the unmistakable blue tarp of disaster-relief agencies.

But not the Lower Ninth Ward, which the city has asked Gray Line to stay away from. Instead of the big red buses, it’s smaller, independent groups in rented trucks, or government officials in black convoys.

Residents and newcomers alike are ambivalent about the idea of disaster tourism.

“When we started seeing all the people in trucks gawking at the broken houses, and when we realized the entire population of the Ninth Ward was 100 percent tourists, that’s when I started feeling a little nauseous,” said one visitor from New York. “I mean, it made me feel weird about doing it myself, too.”

But others weren’t so sure it was as simple as that.

“Look, it may seem horrible on the face of it, but the fact is that the more people see how bad it is down here, the better is us for us,” one native New Orleanian said. “The city needs the help.”

Of course, it’s arguable how much of a city is left. Of the approximately half million residents of New Orleans before Katrina, just under 200,000 have returned, and many of the little touches that made the Crescent City what it was have been damaged or destroyed.

The famously picturesque streetcars won't be running again until at least 2007. The neutral ground — the broad median strips on the city's once-pretty, wide streets — are blanketed by forests of signs promoting carpentry businesses, mold specialists and politicians vying for council-seat nominations in the April Democratic Party primary elections.

And though coffee shops on the Irish Channel's Magazine Street boast about their Wi-Fi access, many others on the same stretch still can't take credit cards, and residents who live only two or
three blocks away are still waiting for mail from November.

The streets have taken on a kind of Wild West quality — stop signs are missing or upside down, drivers regularly ignore traffic rules and the final three-day weekend of Mardi Gras saw a fatal traffic accident on every single day — including one in which the driver apparently stalked an out-of-town couple and ran down the man for some perceived insult.

But back at the Lower Ninth Ward, all the cars drove slowly and carefully — and none of their drivers were looking at the road.

The New York visitor also couldn't take his eyes off the ruins, which he compared to modern Asian battlefields.

"Now that I'm here, it's impossible to look away," he said. "You can't click to another channel. It's so awful. It's Biblical."