- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29 and images of destruction and desperation were broadcast around the nation, many people thought travelers would not return to New Orleans or the coast. As the one-year anniversary approaches, the region faces a long road to recovery, but it is calling out to tourists.

Visitors may be a little reluctant to wine, dine and enjoy good times where thousands of people are still living in trailers, but the consensus is that tourism may be the savior for these communities. There is hope that tourists can bring money directly to the businesses and people who need it the most. The guide a traveler hires, the tips left in a restaurant and the souvenirs bought at the corner store all help feed and rebuild a suffering industry.

In places like Bay St. Louis, Miss. — where officials are projecting a $12 million budget deficit in the next two years because of a depleted tax base — stopping for a burger can make a difference. A trip to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast now isn’t just a vacation; some might say it’s a philanthropic and charitable endeavor.

Through the eyes of a tourist, there aren’t many noticeable differences between New Orleans now and the way it was pre-Katrina. One still can take a steamboat ride down the murky waters of the Mississippi, dine on spectacular Creole and Cajun food, visit the world-class Audubon Zoo at the Audubon Nature Institute, shop the French Market and drink away the night on Bourbon Street.

Travelers who stick to the French Quarter and central business district would be hard-pressed to find evidence that Katrina passed.

In neighborhoods like Mid-City, Lakeview and the Ninth Ward, however, New Orleans remains a world in tatters. Half of the city’s population has yet to return, and block after block is silent, without a human in sight. Dusty, dark shells of houses without doors and windows have created large urban ghost towns.

Lawns are littered with mud, debris and cars; waterlines still can be seen on homes and businesses. A few boats remain where they rested when the floodwaters receded in mid-September. Entire strip malls have been gutted, boarded up and fenced off.

Some gas stations still display fuel prices from Aug. 28, 2005, and in a few areas, the weeds are growing so high that they conceal the wrecked houses behind them. Thousands of swimming pools have become green swamps teeming with wildlife.

This isn’t the picture the tourism industry wants the nation to see, but some might say it is the picture the nation needs to see. Many travelers come to post-Katrina New Orleans with a strong interest in seeing what has happened here with their own eyes.

Gray Line Tours takes travelers to some of the hardest-hit areas of the city in an attempt to show them the real damage. Passengers are asked to sign a petition and draft a letter to send to their legislators. Volunteer tourism also has become very popular in New Orleans.

CAN’T KILL THE CULTURE

The picture isn’t rosy for New Orleans’ infrastructure and housing, but all the great characteristics that have made this a world-renowned city remain. The intoxicating aroma of fried seafood, gumbo and beignets still lingers in alleyways. The soothing sounds of traditional jazz still can be heard in the clubs and corners of the French Quarter, and the festivals for which Louisiana is known still rage on almost every weekend. Where businesses have closed and thousands of jobs have been lost, New Orleans’ culture may be its most important remaining commodity.

That love for good food, good music and bon temps has played a critical part in the rebirth of the city. The Musicians’ Village, a concept developed by Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis and Habitat for Humanity, is revitalizing the hard-hit Ninth Ward with more than 80 homes to help house some of the city’s displaced musicians. Almost daily, a couple hundred volunteers from around the country can be found carrying lumber, hammering and sawing. Their work is as much about saving music as it is about building homes.

Earlier this month, the city held its annual Satchmo SummerFest, a four-day festival dedicated to jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Along with Jazz Fest, Swamp Fest, the French Quarter Festival, the Gretna Heritage Fest and others, it celebrates the life and culture of a unique American city and area.

On Bourbon Street, revelers still throw beads from balconies, bare the occasional body part and drink Hand Grenades and Hurricanes. A few blocks away on Frenchmen, musical legends such as Charmaine Neville and Walter “Wolfman” Washington play weekly shows. “Laissez le bon temps roullez” — literally “let the good times roll” — isn’t just a phrase here, but a way of life.

Katrina brought a little more maturity and seriousness to New Orleans; the city is noticeably tamer than it used to be. The restaurants close a little earlier — mainly because they don’t have the workers to cover second shifts — and some of the clubs seem to play music at lower volumes. On Bourbon Street, there are fewer screams and fights.

Though some are eager to put Katrina behind them, no one can ever leave behind what happened Aug. 29. In the three days leading up to the one-year anniversary, a number of events in New Orleans will commemorate Katrina. They include a jazz funeral procession to be led by Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, head of Task Force Katrina and leader of the first major relief effort for New Orleans; a televised benefit concert at the New Orleans Arena; a masquerade gala at Harrah’s Casino; and a fireworks show over the Mississippi River to signify the rebirth of New Orleans. There also will be a number of marches, processions, and candle-lighting and wreath-laying ceremonies.

QUIET STREETS ON COAST

The Mississippi Gulf Coast is more than 60 miles from New Orleans, but it shares a similar fate in the wake of Katrina. The Category 4 hurricane swept away coastal communities on a scale never seen before in recent history. A storm surge more than 20 feet high rushed ashore and washed away entire homes, restaurants and hotels.

From the looks of it, small towns such as Bay St. Louis and Waveland may never recover. Anything between the beach and the railroad tracks was leveled; anything between the railroad tracks and Highway 90 was severely damaged. Waveland’s City Hall is now in a congregation of trailers, and in many areas, the only signs of what used to be are concrete slabs. Many of old-town Bay St. Louis’ charming shops, restaurants and guesthouses were destroyed.

Nowadays, the Gulf of Mexico is at peace. Sea gulls frolic along the shoreline, kayakers paddle in the waves, sailors ride the wind to nearby islands, and a few sunbathers slather on lotion and sprawl out on towels. Some residents who aren’t quite ready to leave behind their ocean views are still living in trailers along the beach. Living on the coast can come at a hefty cost, but many are more than willing to try it once again.

Marine Life Oceanarium, a prime tourist attraction in Gulfport, was ripped to shreds and sucked out to sea. All that remains is the shell of the main aquarium and a hulk of twisted metal that was the canopy. Many of the animals had been moved to safety before the storm, but some dolphins and sea lions had to be rescued after being washed offshore.

Like many harbors along the coast, the one adjoining the aquarium used to be filled with picturesque boats and shrimping fleets. The debris have been cleared away to leave an empty port without piers, but the ferry to Ship Island is still in operation and almost filled to capacity daily. It is one of the few signs of life and hope that are starting to rise along the coast.

Eleven miles off the coast, Ship Island was cut in half in 1969 by Hurricane Camille, the last major storm to hit the area before Katrina. Last year, the island saw more erosion and damage, but when the major attraction is sun and sand — there are no amenities on the island — it makes little difference.

The seclusion of Ship Island, with its crystal-clear waters and beautiful beaches, attracts day-trippers by the hundreds. The island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches 160 miles from Cat Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola, Fla. Since 2004, the national seashore has been battered by a series of powerful hurricanes.

GAMING COMEBACK

Back along the coast, visitors still can toss a towel on the beach (though there is no swimming because debris are still in the water), blow their money in casinos and take a day trip to play on some of the finest golf courses in the country.

On Aug. 29, the anniversary of Katrina, the MGM Beau Rivage Resort and Casino will reopen to its full capacity. Having this famous resort, employing almost 4,000 people, reopen is a boon to the local economy. The property features an 85,000-square-foot casino, a 1,500-seat theater with top national entertainers, retail stores, numerous restaurants and more than 1,700 rooms.

Perched right on the water, it took a severe beating during the storm. Storm surges overtook the bottom floors, threw around slot machines as if they were toys and turned a multimillion-dollar resort into a wreck. The Beau Rivage will reopen not only in its pre-Katrina condition but with improvements. The neighboring Hard Rock Hotel & Casino was scheduled to open in 2005 before Katrina washed ashore and destroyed it. For a second time, the casino is moving toward a grand opening, expected next year.

Other casinos that have reopened include Boomtown, Treasure Bay, the IP and the Palace. Grand Casino Biloxi was to reopen in temporary quarters this week while a billion-dollar shoreline replacement is designed and built. Island View is to open next month. With all projections, the coast’s casinos will be back up to pre-Katrina status by the end of next year.

The fact that they’re all rebuilding and resuming operations is a positive sign that the Gulf Coast will rebound, just as it did after Camille struck. Ironically, one of the few things that survived Katrina was the SS Hurricane Camille, a tugboat that was thrown ashore by that powerful hurricane in 1969.

Hotels, restaurants easy to find in city

Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans is still the region’s major hub. It has about two-thirds of its pre-Hurricane Katrina flights, but there still are plenty of options to get in and out of the city.

Although taxis seem fewer in the city, getting to and from the airport is not a problem.

Travelers should be aware that some bridges on the Mississippi Gulf Coast haven’t been rebuilt, so driving distances between some towns are considerably longer than before Katrina.

In New Orleans, most of the major hotels are back in business. This includes the Hotel Monteleone, 214 Rue Royal (call 800/535-3341 or visit www.hotelmonteleone.com), and the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, 2 Poydras St. (504/561-0500 or www.hilton.com).

International House, 221 Camp St. (800/633-5770 or www.ihhotel.com), is a 95-room boutique hotel in the beaux-arts building that once was home to the United States’ first world trade center. It is the city’s first smoke-free hotel.

Historic French Market Inn, 501 Rue Decatur; 888/538-5651, historicfrenchmarket.neworleanshotelreservations.com.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a few hotels are in operation, including the 236-room Palace Casino Resort, 158 Howard Ave., Biloxi, Miss.; 800/725-2239, www.palacecasinoresort.com.

The Beau Rivage, 875 Beach Blvd., Biloxi (888/567-6667 or www.beaurivage.com) is scheduled to reopen Aug. 29 at full capacity with restaurants, bars and more than 1,700 rooms.

In New Orleans, most of the popular restaurants are back in operation, but many are operating with limited hours and menus.

Run by the famous Brennan family, the Redfish Grill, 115 Bourbon St. (504/598-1200 or www.redfishgrill.com), serves great seafood just a block off Canal Street.

K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, 416 Chartres St. (504/524-7394 or www.kpauls.com) has been a longtime favorite, serving up the Cajun and Creole creations of Paul Prudhomme.

Restaurant August, 301 Tchoupitoulas St.; 504/299 9777; www.rest-august.com. Chef John Besh’s much-praised restaurant in an old carriage house is a relative newcomer, almost five years old. The chef uses provisions from local farmers, seafood purveyors and artisan craftsmen.

For quick and cheap eats late at night, head to Maspero’s, 601 Decatur St.; 504/523-6250.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, few eateries have opened along the beachfront road. Look to casinos for dining, and travel closer toward Interstate 10 for restaurants in Biloxi and Gulfport.

For more information: New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/672-6124 or www.neworleanscvb.com) and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau (888/467-4853 or www.gulfcoast.org).

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