by Brendan M. Lynch | November 01, 2005

The French Quarter

The French Quarter prior to
reopening on Sept. 30

Editor’s Note: In late September, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, M&C associate editor Brendan M. Lynch packed a bag full of bottled water and turkey jerky (“I was warned there wouldn’t be much food around,” he says) and, armed with a press pass, flew down to New Orleans to spend four days touring the ravaged area. He saw the road to recovery through the eyes of local hospitality leaders and obtained unrestricted access to areas of massive destruction and scenes of great hope.

New Orleans sputtered back to life on Sept. 30, 2005 a full month after Hurricane Katrina ripped, flooded and demoralized the city and surrounding Gulf Coast. This Friday morning, the mayor had reopened the still-enchanting French Quarter for business and pleasure. Now, scores of the city’s world-famous restaurants, boutiques and bars could get back in operation. It was an especially important occasion for J. Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Having recently recovered from a bout of post-Katrina laryngitis, today Perry had a lot to talk about.
    “Ralph Brennan and all those restaurant families are getting ready to open as soon as tonight,” he explained during a morning interview at the Morial Convention Center. “It was killing us that for the first few weeks, most of the food was white bread and bologna. And here you are in the gastronomical capital of the world. But let me tell you, the pots of étouffée and gumbo, the grilled fish... I mean, you can smell it already coming back.”
    Behind him, workers in white coveralls and protective respiratory masks swept carpet glue and water out the front doors of the convention center. This place had been the scene of much televised suffering during the height of what could be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. In the storm’s wake, the 1.1 million-square-foot facility has emerged with image problems Perry and the city want badly to overcome.
    “Right now they’re doing cleaning that is hospital-level,” said Perry. “That means the highest degree of cleaning and sanitation possible. We’re resurfacing every carpet and wall covering to make it absolutely brand new.”
    Perry gazed along the beige edifice of the nearly mile-long structure, which he claimed would reopen by the end of next March. “We’re still planning on going ahead with our Phase 4 expansion, on schedule. There’s no slowdown on that.”
    The CVB executive, charged with marketing New Orleans to tourists and conventioneers, spoke with the same underdog spirit that has characterized this city since Katrina. After the hardships of the storm, the Big Easy’s community, business and political leaders were now rallying to meet what likely will be remembered as the challenge of their lives.

The French Quarter prior to

CVB chief J. Stephen Perry
says a “hospital-level”
cleaning is under way at
New Orleans’ Morial Center.

Wanted: $250 billion
By 10:30 a.m., Perry was late to a morning meeting with aides to Louisiana’s U.S. Senate delegation at the Hilton New Orleans Airport hotel. He soon was speeding west on I-10, past the police roadblocks that still prevented home and business owners from entering many outlying New Orleans neighborhoods. Unlike in the central core of the city, it would be at least another week before residents in heavily flooded areas like Eastern New Orleans, Gentilly, Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward could go back in to assess damage. Estimates varied, but many said half the buildings and homes in the city might eventually be razed. Business leaders in New Orleans were wondering where badly needed employees would live.
    Perry pulled into the Hilton. “Big day,” he said. “I get about five minutes with Senator Vitter to talk about the $1 billion that involves us; we’re going to break that number down.”
    For the State of Louisiana to make a comeback, it will require generous help from the federal government. Indeed, Louisiana’s two senators have proposed a $250 billion aid package for their state and other storm-stricken communities of the Gulf Coast. Of that, fully $1 billion would go to the hospitality industry a vital link in the area’s economic health. (In 2004, approximately 10.1 million visitors came to New Orleans alone, spending an estimated $4.9 billion and fueling hospitality jobs for more than 80,000 residents.)
    Perry proceeded to outline his CVB’s budget priorities in a closed-door meeting with Vitter. Afterward, he said the senators’ staffs also were crafting a tourism-specific aid request to introduce before Congress.
Continuing at the Hilton, Perry, Senator Vitter and local industry leaders assembled before the TV cameras to announce their commitment to “return to Louisiana all of our companies’ operations of whatever kind that were here prior to the recent hurricanes.”