by Brendan M. Lynch | September 01, 2006

Inside the refurbished Morial Center


Shine on: A refreshed
Morial Center successfully
hosted 18,000 ALA
attendees in June.

The story of New Orleans one year after Hurricane Katrina is sometimes referred to as a tale of two cities. On the one hand, the historic heart of the Big Easy so familiar to tourists and business travelers survived the storm wonderfully intact. Today, the streets of the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, Garden District, Warehouse Arts District and Central Business District are safe and clean; the stores and world-famous restaurants are open; and, crucially, 90 downtown hotels are back online. Within the city’s core, so full of music, architectural charms and vibrant street life, it is possible to forget that last summer’s awful hurricane ever occurred. This New Orleans is the same as it ever was.

On the other hand, tracts of the metropolitan area outside the “sliver by the river” still lay in sad ruins. This is the other city: Block after block of moldy, decimated homes continue to lack services, schools or nearby stores. With comprehensive insurance or rebuilding plans still lacking, and rebuilt levees distrusted by some, residents in such heavily damaged neighborhoods as the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview have been unable to return to rebuild in large numbers, giving these districts and others a haunting mood of abandonment.

It was into this city of dueling realities that 18,000 members of the American Library Association came in late June for what would be the first citywide convention since Hurricane Katrina, complete with headliner speakers like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and first lady Laura Bush. The event, expected to generate $24 million in badly needed revenue for the city, would be a critical test of New Orleans’ rebirth as a convention destination. And by the end of the conference, one thing was clear: The Big Easy passed with ease.

Damage control

Marketing a city that one year ago experienced a hurricane, disastrous flooding and a widely televised humanitarian crisis brings interesting challenges. For Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, the job in June involved steadying the nerves of the librarians.

Just days before the start of the ALA conference, the governor had called out the Louisiana National Guard to patrol outlying parts of the city. But with images of Humvees and armed troops in the news, more than a few ALA attendees had become apprehensive about their impending visit, and the NOMCVB went into damage control mode.

“We jumped into action immediately,” says Perry. “The national press conveyed an impression that there was crime all over the city, when that wasn’t the case. We were in favor of the National Guard coming to patrol desolate, heavily flooded areas that did not have electricity and were dark at night. But the National Guard was not coming to the New Orleans that tourists experience.”

For Deidre Ross, the ALA’s director of conference services, the deployment of troops initially threatened to diminish attendance numbers, cut revenue and panic attendees. “I thought, ‘Thank you very much.’ What were they thinking?” says Ross. “I started to get so many comments. It reminded me of Toronto during SARS. When they had the second outbreak there, we had to give people money back. I thought, ‘Here we go again, the other shoe is dropping.’ ”

But the NOMCVB quickly assembled the facts and sent that information directly to the ALA’s membership: There would be no troops with M-16s and Humvees anywhere near the convention.

“The bureau has been phenomenal,” says Ross, sitting in her temporary office at the renovated Morial Convention Center. “When I started getting e-mail, I went to the bureau and they explained what was happening -- that the National Guard was not going to be here around the center, they were going to devastated areas so the police could be around here. We sent it out to our membership, and it stopped the panic in its tracks. The truth of the matter is that in this district, before Katrina, they had 85 patrolmen. While we’re here it’s going to be 130, but that’s police, not National Guard.”

In the end, the ALA’s attendance was unaffected by the deployment. “People in New Orleans are accommodating and great,” says Kevin Pendleton, a librarian from Ogden, Utah. “In a few years the city will be back to its old glory. We have no concerns about safety.”