This is not a political story but a piece about survival and rebirth. Who and what failed can be debated forever. Was it the Federal Government, the Corp of Engineers, state and local governments? maybe all of them? On a long Memorial Day weekend 2007 I spent six days in New Orleans looking for answers. I was at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino & Hotel, the New Orleans Wine & Food Festival.
We all saw the images on TV and read the accounts in the newspapers. On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina missed the city of New Orleans but the storm surge caused the entire levee system to break. By August 31st 80% of New Orleans was flooded. The storm hit all along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi causing $81 billion worth of damage making it the costliest natural disaster in US history. 1,836 people lost their lives while over 90% of the residents of southeast Louisiana were evacuated. Before Katrina the city of New Orleans had a population of 485,000; there are now 255,000 people living there. This has caused a real problem as the city rebuilds. Police, fire, sanitation, construction, wait staff (NO is the third best city in the world for foodies, after Paris & New York) are all needed.
The May 2007 issue of Basketball Times had an article- “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” by Jack Stycznski where he asked, “So in a post-Katrina world, should the Final Four come back to N.O.?” For you non-sports fans it referred to the two games (four teams) that determined the collegiate basketball champion. It was last played here in 2003. New Orleans is a football town with the NFL (football) Saints waiting list topping 25,000. They play in the refurbished Superdome with a capacity of over 70,000 for football and 55,000 for basketball. The 2002 Super Bowl was played here. The LSU Tigers who call Baton Rouge home (about an hour drive) had an 11-2 football record in 2006; the basketball team was 17-15. In 2007 a basketball sub-regional was held at the 18,500 seat New Orleans Arena next door to the Superdome and did not sell out. The New Orleans Hornets of the NBA (basketball) will play all their games in N.O. (They split their 2006-7 schedule with Oklahoma City). The same article talked about some of the good things happening in N.O.: “The Police Department graduated its first class of recruits since the hurricane. Habitat for Humanity will build 1,500 houses in SE Louisiana. Donald Trump is building a new tower in the Central Business District. The Superdome & Convention Center are completely restored. The French Quarter & most tourist favorites are fine. In 2008 the BCS football national collegiate championship & NBA All Star game will be in New Orleans”
The May 31st New York Times had a story about Louisiana setting July 31st as the deadline for applicants for The Road Home, the grant program for homeowners who lost their homes to Katrina (and Rita). People could receive up to $150,000 to repair or rebuild their houses. “National flood insurance paid out but many private insurers did not” Insurance benefits are generally subtracted from grants awarded by The Road Home. Everyone under 65 years of age is required to live in the rebuilt houses for at least three years. The Army Corp of Engineers has three major projects they are working on simultaneously (with limited funds): 1- Restore more than 300 miles of levees, floodwalls and gates. 2- Redesign and rebuild the hurricane protection system. 3- Protect the entire Louisiana coastline including rebuilding the state’s coastal wetlands and barrier islands. Maybe someone can explain why they have not been given unlimited funds?
Penny Wise, Pound Foolish.
When I visited the French Quarter, the Garden District, Arts District, Riverfront or the hotel zone where I stayed you would not notice any damage. But walk up Canal Street and look at the water marks at five feet or the empty stores and you will start to think about Katrina. Best yet take the three hour Katrina Tour given by Gray Line every day at 9AM and you will get the full picture. The driver and guide are locals who lived through the disaster and lived to describe it. It was not just the Lower 9th Ward but thousands of homes in many neighborhoods that have been abandoned, with no place to shop for essentials for miles. We saw the levees that did not hold and are being rebuilt because the hurricane season was about to begin. Will we have a repeat of 2005? You must take the tour or just get in a taxi and tell the driver to show you all areas that were destroyed. No wonder almost half the population never returned. Mardi Gras 2007 drew over 800,000 people whereas pre-Katrina there was over one million. But it is a step in the right direction.
Where To Stay – Harrah’s N.O. Casino opened in October 1999 as the largest land-based Vegas style casino in the south with 2,100 slots, 92 table games and a 23 table poker room. In September 2006 Harrah’s Hotel opened across the street with 450 rooms and 98 suites. Other options nearby are: Windsor Court, W, Hilton N.O. Riverside, Loews NO & Hotel Monteleone. While I was in residence at Harrah’s, Live with Regis & Kelly produced four shows (two live) on a stage below my window. Great pub for the city.
Where To Eat– Don’t come to New Orleans if you are on a diet. Cajun or Creole cuisine? Beignets, café au lait, gumbo, grilled oysters, flaming Banana’s Foster, po-boys. Getting hungry? How many meals can I eat in a day? Let me start at my home base- Harrah’s. I had dinner at John Besh’s Steakhouse that opened in Harrah’s Casino in 2006. He was named the 2006 James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast. Why did I order the 38oz steak? Even sharing it with another writer I managed to finish only half. You might have seen me chomping at the remainder as I waited for my flight home. I surprised the TSA didn’t confiscate it as a weapon. Another super star chef Todd English supplies the chef and staff at Riche, a Parisian Brasserie at Harrah’s Hotel. I had my first meal as part of the vintner’s dinners for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience. What is N.O. without Breakfast at Brennan’s? I added lunch there also. This Wine Spectator Grand Award winner wine list lost over $1 million of wine when they lost electricity for over one month. Emeril’s (he is everywhere) is the other Grand Award winner in town. I also had dinner at 7 on Fulton a few blocks from Harrah’s where I was lucky to be served by the most professional wait person at any restaurant anywhere I have ever eaten. Other classic restaurants include: Galatoire’s, Commanders Palace, Mr. B’s Bistro, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s and Broussard’s. Did you know that the first cocktail, the Sazerac was invented here? Ditto Peychaud’s Bitters, the Grasshopper and the Hurricane.
Things To Do– I previously mentioned the Gray Line Katrina Tour. After you finish the tour hop on the Steamboat Natchez (their box offices are next door) for a two hour water view of the city. I used my free time to visit: The N.O. Museum of Art & Sculpture Garden, the premier art museum, in the Gulf South; Ogden Museum of Southern Art, an affiliate of the Smithsonian and the largest collection of southern art in the world; National WW II Museum which is next door to Ogden and contains many interactive displays of both the European & Asian battles; Audubon Aquarium of the Americas & Imax Theatre. When the power was out for long periods most of the fish perished. The IMAX show is entitled- Hurricane on the Bayou.
Earlier I mentioned the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience which was one of my hosts. This was the 16th year and over $100,000 was raised for charities in the area. There were winemaker dinners, the Royal Street Stroll (my favorite since you went into antique stores and were able to sample food & wine & at the same time check out the art and furnishings. I even bought several gifts), wine, food & lifestyle seminars, two Grand Tastings (2,000 people, 165 wineries, 800 wines and over 40 restaurants), Vigola (high-end wines only) and finally Bubbles & Brunch.
The last afternoon all the writers got into a limo and were driven about an hour (near Baton Rouge on the banks of the Mississippi) to Houmas House, one of the South’s oldest and most beautiful plantation estates. Begun in 1770 with the present mansion built in 1820. In 1858 the new owner began accumulating sugar cane plantations and had over 300,000 acres. He was called “The Sugar Prince of Louisiana”. All the furnishings were sold off in 2003 and present owner Kevin Kelly purchased the 23 room mansion completely empty. He added the gardens, ponds, fountains, statuary, wine cellar (4,000 bottles), restaurants and all the interior furnishings. On the 32 acre property there are oak trees over 450 years old. Kevin lives on the second floor of the mansion and his room/office is part of the public tour.
I was thinking of Tennessee Williams, Harry Connick Jr, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Paul Prudhomme, Wynton & Branford Marsalis and all those famous and not so famous people that called New Orleans home. Wake up America. New Orleans is a classic and must be saved. Get on a plane and spend your money where it is needed. You will see for yourself what has and has not been done.