- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

A little more than two months ago, Bill Burke watched as Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the place he has lived all of his 50 years.

He observed with particular interest as the rains and floods buried the streets for days. He saw the extensive damage to the Louisiana Superdome, which forced the Sugar Bowl to move to Atlanta and the Saints out of New Orleans.

But Burke never gave up hope even though the Mardi Gras Marathon he organizes and manages each year is Feb.5, less than three months away.

“The one thing great about a marathon is that I don’t need a convention center,” said Burke, who owns Premier Event Management, which produces the marathon along with many triathlons. “I just need clean streets. And we have clean streets. It looks like the course won’t change this year.”

It will start as usual at the Superdome but will end outside the stadium rather than on the 30-yard line as in previous years.

Burke conceded the easy thing would have been to cancel the event. No one would have blamed him. The 41st running would have waited for 2007.

Instead, Burke became inspired. Just four weeks after Katrina, Burke posted on the race Web site, mardigrasmarathon.com, that “the 2006 Mardi Gras Marathon is on.” He went on to say the “marathon and half-marathon will donate all net proceeds to a special Hurricane Katrina Fund called ‘Back to the Big Easy’ to assist local charities based in the city to help with the recovery efforts.”

When he speaks of his race, he talks passionately, as if he grew up on the streets his marathon traverses. That’s because he did.

Burke is quick to point out the marathon will be the first major sporting event in New Orleans since the hurricane, hopefully bringing in much-needed tourism dollars.

“There are no conventions in this town,” said Burke, who has seen a steady decline in Katrina donations as time passes. “This is a psychological thing. If this marathon comes back, it’s very positive. It’s a unique way to jump-start the tourism industry.

“New Orleans is not dead,” he continued. “The perception in the media is that it is going to take 10 years to rebuild. Some of the city is back, like the French Quarter.”

There should be some attractive deals for out-of-towners looking for a destination marathon. Burke said there are plenty of hotels and motels aching for the business, although the largest ones are booked solid through 2005 and possibly into 2006 with FEMA workers. As a result, he had to put together a pack of eight to nine smaller hotels to house his runners.

Thus far, just 450 runners have entered the race — about 200 fewer than last year at this time. But Burke said most runners sign up late, in January and right up to the day before the race. He added that the race has attracted an average of 6,000 runners in the past four to five years.

There certainly will be people who come to see what the devastation has done to the Crescent City, much like those who ran in marathons in Washington and New York after the September 11 attacks.

“Will there be people running down the streets looking at empty houses?” Burke said. “Yes, that’s what it’s like down here now.”

Burke plans to add to the curiosity by posting a pole at each mile marker to demonstrate how high the water level reached at each point.

“I think Mile4 was five to six feet high,” he said.

But Burke’s first priority will be to find a title sponsor; Nokia left with the Sugar Bowl after nine years at the helm. He said he has been talking with four sponsors, all of which have made sizable profits in New Orleans as the city recovers.

The Inaugural A1A Marathon was not as lucky as Mardi Gras. Because of Hurricane Wilma, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., race will need to be rescheduled from its original date of Nov.1.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide