If you drive into New Orleans on I-10, exit by the Superdome (now with a new roof), and drive down Canal Street to one of the big downtown hotels, you’d never know that a year and a half ago the city had been ravaged by the worst natural disaster in its history. It looks like the same old New Orleans. Oh, there’s a construction crane here and there and some buildings fenced and boarded up — but those have been common sights in downtown New Orleans for decades. It has never exactly been a candidate for Most Beautiful Downtown. The French Quarter, for the most part, looked little different than when I was last there, five or six years ago.

Even the ricky-ticky rusty tin shacks in the cypress-shrouded bayou fishing camps alongside the 23-mile bridge south of Hammond offered the same picturesque postcard view as for decades. None seem substantial enough to withstand a hurricane’s wrath, but all appeared unscathed by Katrina’s fury.

It was just a tad eerie, sitting in the lobby of the towering downtown Marriott Hotel, watching hundreds of Beltwide Cotton Conferences attendees laughing and chatting — knowing that not that far away, more than a year post-Katrina, scenes of incredible devastation remained.

Perhaps more eerie and disconcerting was the dearth of people. New Orleans has always been a city of people, of crowds, particularly in the downtown/French Quarter touristy spots. But even with the few thousand Beltwide attendees circulating about, the place seemed almost deserted.

Daytime, shops and stores were devoid of the usual milling tourists, and at night, walking to and from the French Quarter for dinner, we passed restaurant after restaurant that had only two or three tables filled and bars that were basically empty.

“It’s pretty bad,” a waiter told me. “During the week, a lot of these places don’t do enough business to pay their utilities and their help. Some don’t even open on weeknights unless there’s a big convention in town.”

You could’ve rolled a bowling ball through the cavernous casino at the foot of Canal Street with pretty good odds of not hitting anyone.

New Orleans’ economy has always been tourist-driven, and with the ongoing media reports of laggard, inept reconstruction and murders, crimes, and lawlessness far out of proportion to its diminished population, tourism isn’t exactly booming.

It’s no problem, barring the occasional convention, to find a room at almost any downtown hotel, even for the upcoming Mardi Gras, and in many cases at rates below those pre-Katrina (but be forewarned of some of the nation’s highest hotel taxes, totaling a whopping 20 percent, and $30 per night for parking, which can easily push the tab well over the $200 mark).

Estimates are that New Orleans’ population may now be only half or less than before the hurricane; many evacuees have established lives elsewhere and may never return, causing a shortage of workers.

The lack of tourists has resulted in one noticeable change — attitude. Businesses that once pretty much took visitors for granted now go out of their way to make them feel wanted.

And that’s good.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com