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New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

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NEW ORLEANS ( — Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans on August 29, 2005, one of the worst years for hurricanes in history. Some 80 percent of the city was affected by the floodwaters and almost three years later the devastation continues on so many levels. New Orleans needs people to come and help to recover – the tourist economy is vital to its recovery.

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NEW ORLEANS ( — Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans on August 29, 2005, one of the worst years for hurricanes in history. Some 80 percent of the city was affected by the floodwaters and almost three years later the devastation continues on so many levels. New Orleans needs people to come and help to recover – the tourist economy is vital to its recovery. To date, the government has not come to the plate to help. The first order of business is to try to get people interested in visiting again.

I have personally come to New Orleans as president elect of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) whose Editors Council is holding their annual conference here. After taking a four-hour “Katrina Tour” and witnessing the enormous breadth of the destruction on so many neighborhoods, it is impossible not to feel very strongly for what this distinctive city has gone through. A panel named “New Orleans Today and Tomorrow: Recovery and Resurgence” addressed issues relating to the city’s tourism challenges in the wake of the devastating natural disaster faced in 2005.

The question posed: New Orleans is one of the greatest cities in the US and also the one most in need of the most help – How can we love it back to health?

According to this panel, to date, it’s only the people that have helped with the recovery – not the government at all. It is felt that this is a government level disaster but there has not been adequate response. Things have been so ridiculous that citizens that received some financial assistance to help re-build are expected to claim those funds as income and pay around a third of it back in taxes.

Three panelists weighed in on the issues:

Sandra Shilstone, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism, says they place special emphasis on developing tourism especially in slower times. Tourism employed over 80,000 people before Katrina and contributes a third of the economy. Some 15 million dollars a day in revenue was being lost from conventions being cancelled after the hurricane. War correspondents were coming instead of travel journalists and were giving the rest of the world a frightening picture of the state of things.

A huge initial decision was to continue with the 150th anniversary Mardi Gras, despite the turmoil. A “Thanks America” campaign was launched to everyone that helped during the worst of it. One week after Mardi Gras, New Orleans hosted the SATW Freelance council meeting, targeting some of the most successful travel journalists to help spread the word that New Orleans was still open for business and that the city’s spirit was still alive and well. There was a “Come Fall in Love with New Orleans All Over Again” campaign that had huge media placement across the US.

The latest high spirited commercial stars Jerry Davenport and a cast of thousands. The arts community has returned with vive, starting a bit if a cultural renaissance. The Audobon Nature Institute is opening an Insectarium in June, creating terrific family entertainment.

“Voluntourism” is inspiring, as volunteers come to help mend the devastation. In fact, enrollment is on the rise at the major universities such as Loyola with students that came to help with the rebuilding effort.

Prior to Katrina, annual tourists were 10.1 million and in 2006 that had decreased to 3.7 million people. In 2008, there has been a 90 percent increase, but certain misperceptions remain. People think the city is still under water and not ready to be visited. The city IS coming back, but there is a need for more leisure tourists to continue the recovery.

Warren J. Riley, superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department with 27 years in the police force, says: In terms of crime and redevelopment – three precincts were completely destroyed and 5 out of 19 were greatly devastated. 174 officers were hired last year and another 72 this year. Many officers have been living in trailers that are 10 by 25 feet with four people in the same trailer. The criminal justice section was destroyed – people have been working out of trailers and bar rooms, but the system is now operating on all cylinders mainly because there has been such a strong determination to get home. The first two years was very tough, trying to stabilize the situation after such rampant evacuation.

Superintendent Riley feels that the police force of New Orleans handles huge events better than any other in the country. The force is still short with around 170 officers but Riley feels they will fill this in the next year. He hopes to convey that the city is safe to visit and people should feel quite comfortable. Significant strides have been made and there is a focus on tourism areas. Over 800,000 people are handled during Mardi Gras without incident, a fact of which Riley is proud.

Some of the terrible headlines after Katrina were accurate because of the lack of manpower in the police force, but the recruitment efforts have now changed all of that. Undercover officers also patrol some of the major popular areas such as on Bourbon Street. The numbers have increased from 88 officers pre Katrina to 124 assigned to the French Quarter. Like any other large city, there are areas of concern regarding crime. Much crime is very internal and drug related.

There are four hospitals that are capable of handling large crowds in the city, as well as other facilities with in a twenty-minute drive from the city. There is a heightened state of readiness for emergencies since the days prior to 9/11.

Quint Davis, producer and director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, says they look at the festival as a metaphor for the city – a microcosm of New Orleans. There are around 5000 musicians that participate in a festival, but during Katrina, obviously there was a tremendous shortage. They decided to have it, despite the fact that the population of the whole city was around the size of a typical one-day audience. Huge names agreed to appear for the event and somehow 50 or 60,000 people came. The will of the people to see the festival happen and go on was palpable.

Last year New Orleans was back to around 30,000 rooms and there was more international travel to the jazz festival than there has been since 9/11. There ensued an effort to advertise in national newspapers that resulted not only in a growth on a regional base, but from all over the country and the world. In fact, the numbers even exceeded pre 9/11 numbers.

Jazz Fest is a New Orleans experience – not just a music event. The impact on the city of the Jazz and Heritage Festival is around US$285 million. 103 live bands are advertised in today’s paper as playing in the city right now. As you walk down famous streets like Bourbon Street, live music emanates from so many establishments, a pleasure in an era of piped music and DJs. It is expected that this year’s festival will be the largest in history and Davis believes they have not just recovered but are actually moving forward.

Aaron Neville, Santana, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Diana Krall, Jimmy Buffet Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow are some of the names expected to entertain this year.

The success of the Jazz and Heritage Festival is more a testimony that there is a mission to keep the essence of New Orleans alive.

The first weekend of the festival this year is April 25th to 27th, and May 2 to 4 is the last weekend. The New Orleans Wine and Food Experience runs May 21 to 25, 2008.

June 13 – 15 – Creole Tomato Festival
June 13 – 15 – Zydeco Music Festival

The city is ready to welcome back the tourists and hopes very much that they won’t stay away, thinking that the city is not capable of handling tourists.

It appears as though it’s impossible to stop the people of New Orleans from dancing!

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