Hard Recovery For The Big Easy

20 11 2011

It is perhaps the worst natural disaster in American history. On 29 August, Hurricane Katrina made landfall just southeast of New Orleans. And while the fury of Katrina’s wind may not have wreaked as much havoc as initially feared, it went on to completely devastate the Big Easy in ways that only Noah could truly appreciate.

After the water finally receded, the city was left to dry itself off, clean up, pick up, and move on. And in a remarkable display of resolve and resiliency, its healing has proceeded with remarkably (This book pays tribute to the amazing recovery in progress.).

Never mind the federal bungling and local finger-pointing. Never mind that the core of Nawlins’ tourist area was actually high and dry the whole time. It’s just that the face of the Crescent City did not look all that good on national television, and people started staying away. In droves.

While New Orleans’ mainstay is supply chain-related (petroleum products and cargo). it is also a prime tourist destination. But conventions immediately started pulling out, long before the mold and water lines could be removed. It was like New Orleans had the plague. And no one wanted to be a part of it.

I will attest that the face of this historic town was ugly. I was here in April 2006 for one of the few conventions willing to stick it out here (actually, hotels had started offering killer deals). A local friend took me on a 4.5 driving tour of hurricane damage, which was still quite vivid even 8 months after the fact (view the pics here). My jaw hung the entire afternoon as I shot about 200 frames to document it all.

But whereas Bourbon Street and the usual touristy places were noticeably quiet in 2006, this year it is more like business as usual (and it’s not even close to Mardi Gras). I have been for 5 days and have noted a turnaround that is nothing short of incredible, at least from a tourism angle (see this year’s pics here).

Let’s face it. After infrastructure repairs were made, the city was faced with a marketing problem of enormous size. Its image was as tarnished as the building that were submerged. Tourism rules in New Orleans. It would be like sucking all the visitors’ money out of Las Vegas. For without it, Vegas would be just another truck stop town in the desert. And that’s nearly what would have happened to New Orleans.

Over 1800 people died. Property damage was tallied at $81 billion. That’s nearly three Googles. Query that for a moment.

While the French Quarter is still a rather dirty place to be (in more ways than one), its historicity is legendary and unparalleled in the Deep South. Savannah may be a small-scale New Orleans, but there is only one NOLA. The city’s still labor to survive poverty. Las Vegas may have street performers on every vacant section of concrete, but it pales compared to the musicians, painted people, magicians and crooners trying live off money tossed into a bucket.

Take away the tourists, and suddenly you have little need for hotels and restaurants, as well as the workers employed there. Drunkenness and debauchery may well be NOLA’s middle names (especially before Lent), but there’s far more to do here than just get plastered. Fortunately for New Orleans, it figured out that complaining about how FEMA and local politicians dropped the ball, it decided that life goes on. To say that it has completely recovered would be to lie, because some 100,000 people left after the storm, never to return. And there are still neighborhood infrastructures that still have not returned (like the many stores that were completely wiped out).

But maybe that means that New Orleans is now a leaner, meaner fighting machine. The ones who stayed are bootstrapping a recovery. Residents, tourists and entrepreneurs are optimistic. There’s plenty of signs of growth after the meteorological summer of their discontent. The restaurant trade is now booking (oh my God, I have not eaten this well in a long time. I’ve eaten more beignets than any so-called athletic man should be consuming).

Are things perfect? Not at all. But it’s a far cry from the Nawlins I saw in April 2006. Back then I thought I was viewing a broken city, a people who were so down on life that recovery was out of the question. Just tear it all down and haul it to the landfill.

But today the picture is quite different. All I have to do is find another conference to attend here. I’ll be back for sure.

Dr “Hooray For Beignets!” Gerlich


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