For New Orleans It's Been Anything But Easy, But The Big Easy Is Back, Post-Katrina Style

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on August 25 2012 2:16 PM

It began its journey over the Bahamas, blew across southern Florida and built up strength in the Gulf of Mexico before walloping New Orleans as a monster storm.

That was Aug. 29, 2005 -- the day New Orleans' timeline was divided into pre- and post-Katrina.

A city known for funky brass, moody blues and sweet soul, for Creole cooking and bead-throwing bonanzas became a city of floating ghosts when the levees broke and the dominoes tipped in the wrong direction. The City That Care Forgot, as it is known, had to ask the nation if it could remember to care.

"I can recall being back in the city, just after it opened up to hotel workers and essential personnel," said John Theriot, a longtime New Orleans resident whose partner worked at a hotel downtown when Katrina hit. "Coming back to what was just a few weeks before a bustling city full of noises and action to a city that was in darkness and under the control of martial law was a feeling that I don't think I'll ever forget. It was a desolate place. It was full of sadness."

It's now been seven years since New Orleans was torn asunder by Mother Nature and some, like Theriot, who works at a Mardi Gras supply store, believe the city actually looks better than it did before.

"Many areas are under revitalization. Streets are getting repaved and sidewalks repaired. Neighborhoods are filled with new renovated homes, and there are grant programs to encourage neighborhood development," he said from the house he just purchased downtown. "We all have our Katrina stories -- and some are sadder than others -- but nobody could take away the spirit of the city."

The road to recovery has been as long and winding as the Mississippi River that snakes through town, but the people of New Orleans are ready for the world to see what they've known for a while: New Orleans is back.

Is it OK to Party in New Orleans?

New Orleans is a city dependent on tourism, and the reality, though few outside of the city bothered to notice at the time, was that the historic French Quarter suffered minimal damage from Katrina. Then again, nobody wanted to party on Bourbon Street while local residents suffered a few blocks away.

Kelly Schultz, vp of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that was the biggest problem: How do you convince people that it's OK to come back to New Orleans?

"People felt guilty. But our answer was: 'We want you to come. By coming, you will help those that are suffering to get better. You will bring jobs and put people to work'," she said. "We had to let them know it was OK to have a good time."

The physical damage to the greater city was unfathomable, but the brand damage, too, was enormous. For years, Schultz said, there were "so many misperceptions" around the world.

Skittish travelers, fed by news of an anarchic New Orleans, stayed well away, leaving the city with just 3.7 million visitors in 2006, down from 10.1 million the year before the storm.

Armed with an $8 million federal grant, the New Orleans CVB unleashed a massive marketing campaign in 2007 to dispel all myths. One ad featuring a jazz trumpeter declared, "Soul is Waterproof," while another showing a tourist at the aquarium, stated, "To Be Clear, This Is The Only Part Of New Orleans Still Underwater."

Slowly but surely the aggressive ad campaign worked and, by the end of the year, the industry saw the first signs of recovery. Some 7.1 million people visited New Orleans in 2007 -- 3 million fewer than pre-Katrina figures, but more than 3 million than the year before.

What happened in the ensuing years gave New Orleans residents even more reason to smile. Yet, like any tale of the comeback kid, the Big Easy faced some oily obstacles along the way.

Troubled Waters ... Again

"New Orleans was on this roll," Schultz said. "We had all these big victories, and everything was feeling normal and good again ... then the BP oil spill happened."

On April 20, 2010, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit about 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coastline killed 11 workers and released some 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean. It was to become the second-largest environmental disaster in U.S. history and the second major blow to hurdle-jumping New Orleans.

Once again, it was the idea more than the actuality of the events that scared people away. No oil washed up in the city of New Orleans, but Schultz said prospective visitors became wary. Was the seafood safe to eat, they wondered, and would the coffee-colored Mississippi look a bit more espresso?

So, the CVB did what it does best: use millions of disaster-relief dollars -- $5 million from BP this time around -- to dispel false impressions.

"We didn't just say the city was safe, we backed everything up with facts and had scientists and federal agencies say it was safe too," Schultz said. "That's been our approach all along: always be honest, credible and have a third-party source back us up. But we're also sort of aggressive. We need to protect New Orleans' tourism and we're not going to let misconceptions cause people to lose their jobs."

And aggressive they were. Despite the oil spill, the city had a record-breaking year in 2010, surpassing pre-Katrina visitor spending for the first time. Since then, the city hasn't looked back, booking one high- profile event after another leading right up to the 2013 Super Bowl, the ultimate affirmation that New Orleans is indeed open for business.

Hotels, Floating And Standing

Tourism has been one of the bright spots of Katrina recovery every step of the way, and by 2011, visitor numbers rose to 8.75 million while spending soared to $5.47 billion.

The industry, vital to the economic engine of New Orleans, employs 74,000 people and generates spending that represents half of the tourism expenditure of the state of Louisiana.

According to a University of New Orleans study released on Aug. 16, the leisure and hospitality industry as a whole has reached an almost complete recovery, at 91 percent of pre-Katrina employment levels. Moreover, there are now about 500 more restaurants in the city of New Orleans than before the storm, and the number of hotel rooms is just 2,000 lower than pre-Katrina levels, at 36,000.

Many restaurateurs and hoteliers could have fixed structural problems and reopened soon after the hurricane hit, but they chose instead to completely remodel their properties and update facilities.

The 1,200-room Hyatt Regency, for instance, was long a major player in the city's hotel scene until it shut its doors for nearly six years. The hotel's blown-out windows became an iconic image of the storm's destruction, but some $275 million later, the newly redesigned Regency reopened last October with a restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef Josh Besh, 200,000 square feet of state-of-the-art event space and a striking new design. The Regency is one of three Hyatt hotels to enter the city within the last year and joins others like Marriott's Saint Hotel in diversifying New Orleans' accommodations options.

As hotels signaled their commitment to New Orleans, so too did the cruise industry.

Like the Regency, two Carnival ships -- the Ecstasy and the Sensation -- moonlighted as dormitories for police officers, firefighters, city employees and others involved in relief work immediately after the storm. The ships, however, left when the Big Easy became anything but.

"We had our best year ever in 2004, and in 2005 we were on our way to eclipse that mark, but Katrina brought everything to a screeching halt," said Robert Jumonville, director of cruise and tourism at the Port of New Orleans. "It wasn't the storm, but the aftermath of the storm that hurt us the most. It was the lack of political leadership, the portrayal of the 'lawlessness of New Orleans' ... The cruise lines didn't want to come back here for a while, and we went until October 2006 without a single ship."

The Port of New Orleans cruise terminals grew to accommodate about 528,000 passengers by 2010 and experienced more than 45 percent growth, to 737,000 passengers, in 2011. By the end of 2012, they anticipate handling more than 1 million passengers -- 78 percent of whom, studies show, will spend at least one night in New Orleans.

The 1 million mark, one of many such targets in this goal-oriented city, was made possible after new investments by the cruise industry. Last November, Royal Caribbean returned to New Orleans for seasonal journeys on the 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas, one of the largest passenger ships in the world. That same month, Carnival brought in two larger ships, the 2,052-passenger Elation and 2,974-passenger Conquest. These luxury liners joined the Norwegian Spirit in offering a plethora of new cruising opportunities out of the Crescent City.

More recently, two paddle-wheel riverboats -- the "Queen of the Mississippi" and the "American Queen" -- returned to the city, signaling the revival of the river as a viable economic engine.

The Mississippi has been vital to New Orleans and greater Louisiana since the city's inception, when the port was its lifeblood. Nearly 300 years later, the cruise industry pumps about $140 million into the local and regional economy -- a number that is expected to reach nearly $200 million in 2012.

The Steps of Rebirth

The byproducts of a disaster can seem odd at first glance and utterly predictable at another. That's why the idea of a Hurricane Katrina Tour sounds equally deplorable and intriguing.

Gray Line pioneered the idea back in February 2006, and Adrienne Thomas, manager of Gray Line New Orleans, said affected staff members were the catalyst.

"They wanted people to understand what had happened, beginning with their own stories," she remarked. "They had no desire or intent to exploit, only to share and try to explain."

Once a somber affair, the mood on the tours these days is more upbeat, Thomas said, as visitors "see the steps of rebirth from destruction."

This concept of rebirth has become an underlying theme in the city over the past seven years. Take, for instance, another outcrop of the disaster that's as popular as ever: "voluntourism."

Schultz of the New Orleans CVB thinks "it's safe to say millions have come" to the Big Easy to volunteer, though the need has changed.

"At first, people came to rebuild," she said. "But organizations like the St. Bernard Project still have a waiting list for families. The issues these days are things like contractor fraud or just plain running out of life savings."

Though the scars of Katrina are still present, Schultz believes the spirit and resilience of the city has never faded.

"If you lose something, it makes you appreciate it more," she said. "The people of New Orleans were so committed to keeping their tradition, their way of life. That grip and that desire made people roll up their sleeves and say they will make it work no matter what."

Through it all, the city has always lived by its creed: Laissez les bons temps rouler, "Let the good times roll." Post-Katrina, post-oil spill, post-come-what-may, New Orleans, it seems, will keep rolling on.

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