Oasis Amid the Ruin: New Orleans' areas intact, if not yet thriving

Originally published April 24, 2006 in MeetingNews

More than seven months after Hurricane Katrina's havoc, New Orleans is a city of two tales. Vast areas remain devastated, but the downtown and historic districts are substantially restored, having escaped extensive flooding because they sit on higher ground.

Hotels, restaurants and nightclubs are largely reopened in the French Quarter, Central Business District, Warehouse District and Garden District — the areas that most meeting attendees frequent — although many hospitality establishments are operating with limited staff and during limited hours.

"In many ways, normalcy prevails in a large part of the city," J. Stephen Perry, chief executive of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, told a group of 18 meeting planners who visited New Orleans in late March.

At the same time, Perry acknowledged that the city and local hospitality community are still grappling with Katrina's aftermath.

"Many of the challenges we deal with still exist, and they're going to exist for awhile," said Perry. "You're not going to find anyone in the city who pretends that everything is perfectly normal, because it's not."

The planners were on a familiarization trip sponsored by five New Orleans hotel-clients of the Krisam Group, which supplies group leads to hotels, and Bonnie Boyd & Company, a local destination management company. The group, which included journalists from MeetingNews and Successful Meetings, participated in a one-day meeting with local hospitality executives and toured the city to see first-hand whether New Orleans is ready to accommodate groups.

The site inspection essentially bore out Perry's assessment, and the meeting planners seemed mostly satisfied with what they saw and heard.

"I was really afraid of what I was going to see, but I've been wonderfully surprised at how well the city looks," said Gerrilyn Grant Gibson, events coordinator for the Alabama Lawyers Association, which has frequently held its annual meetings in New Orleans.

"There is the devastation," Gibson continued, "but most of the things we love are still here. I feel like I can go back and really sell my group on New Orleans. My group members can come here and enjoy themselves as they have in the past."

On a weekday morning, there was considerable construction in the Central Business District, including reconstruction of the Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt Regency hotels — all of which are expected to remain closed until early next year. A fair number of other businesses appeared closed, and foot and car traffic were light. But on the whole, the business district appeared to have weathered the storm.

The French Quarter was virtually intact; only a few contractors' signs hanging on buildings indicated the wind damage and basement flooding caused by Katrina. Few people were on the streets, and many shops were closed. The street activity picked up by mid-day but remained light.

Of the nearly 1,000 businesses that belong to the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, about two-thirds are back in business, the vast majority in the downtown areas, according to the chamber's president, Sandra Gunner.

"Many businesses are working on limited hours because of staffing shortages," said Gunner. "Our problem is getting employees into downtown."

Nearly 90 percent of restaurants in the downtown areas, including the French Quarter, are open, but with about half their pre-Katrina staff, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

At a shop along Jackson Square — the heart of the French Quarter — the manager confirmed that the area, which defines New Orleans to most visitors, is still not up to speed.

Not only are businesses short of all the labor they need — fewer than half the city's residents have returned — but owners and managers are battling the aftermath of Katrina on multiple fronts, she said.

"It depends on whether your house was affected," said the shopkeeper, who asked not to be quoted by name.

She explained that business people whose houses were damaged are too busy rebuilding their homes to keep their businesses open full time. Many people could not even begin to rebuild because they were waiting for the federal government to issue new flood maps, which determine construction standards or the feasibility of rebuilding. The government issued those maps just before press time.

She also said that a lot of evacuees have children in schools elsewhere now, and they are waiting for the current semester to end before returning to the New Orleans area, a point Perry also made in his presentation to the meeting planners.

More shops and restaurants in the French Quarter are opening and staying open longer, the shopkeeper said, especially on weekends, when more visitors make staying open worthwhile. (There was considerably more activity in the French Quarter on the weekend after the fam trip, although still light by historical standards.) She predicted much more activity come fall, when the convention season begins and more residents have returned.

"It's going to happen," she said about the rebuilding of New Orleans. "It's just a question of time. It's going to take time."

On an afternoon bus tour around the city, the Krisam group saw the other side of New Orleans. Katrina's widespread destruction became apparent not more than a dozen blocks from the French Quarter. While constant television news video of devastated places like the Lower Ninth Ward give a distorted picture of downtown and other functioning areas, the television images also fail to convey the staggering impact of Katrina's fury.

In the Lakefront and Lakeview districts, block upon block of houses — hundreds, if not thousands, of homes — were deserted along with the local businesses that served them.

Observers could see interiors in shambles through the many broken doors and windows. A dirty brown line of smudge — commonly known in New Orleans as the brown line — ran horizontally across the building exteriors at up to eight feet above ground, marking where the flood waters settled. Every so often a white trailer, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sat in the front yard of a house, indicating the owners were staying on the property, rebuilding. Landscaping and building debris remained scattered about or piled up, although the vast majority of it has been removed.

The tour concluded through the Uptown, Garden and Warehouse districts and back to the Central Business District, and once again New Orleans seemed a city relatively untouched by disaster.

Renovation work continued at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, which partially reopened in February. In June the city will receive the first big test of whether it can successfully accommodate large meetings: the 22,000-attendee American Library Association annual convention.

Despite the positive impression of New Orleans that the planners received, some concerns lingered.

Limited air service and limited restaurant operations troubled Kathleen Quinlisk, director of customer experience for Invensys, a provider of supply-chain technology based in Foxboro, Mass.

Quinlisk, who was considering New Orleans for an October meeting of 2,000 people, also wanted the city and local hospitality industry to intensify its marketing efforts to combat the image of New Orleans as a city destroyed.

"They're taking some good steps," Quinlisk said, "but they need to take some more steps before I would be completely comfortable about my group coming here."

As advice to planners considering New Orleans, Quinlisk said, "You have to see it for yourself, because what you see on the news is very different from the reality."