When you say “New Orleans” it is difficult not to think of Hurricane Katrina. So when we first were invited to fly into town for “Harrah’s Greatest Weekend Ever” the cynic in me thought, “they don’t want us to see the ‘bad’ parts.”
And granted, as we were whisked from the airport in a chauffeur-driven stretch limousine it was difficult to stop taking pictures of the limo’s inside (ignoring my own mantra of ‘act like you’ve been there before’) and look out the dark-tinted windows to the outside for hints of the combined God-and-man-made disaster that devastated one of the Gulf Coast’s best-known tourist cities.
I say “God-and-man-made” because people seem to forget that Hurricane Katrina missed New Orleans. The waters that rushed into the city did so because the powers that were (and thank goodness are no longer) decided that requests for money to repair NOLA’s levees were frivolous. And the result, documented in Trouble the Water and depicted on the t-shirts we saw in some of the shops we visited on Sunday that said “‘Drove my Chevy to the Levy and the Levy Was Gone” — a riff on a stanza from Don McLean’s American Pie — was a city left to drown.
When the skies opened up on Friday night after our four-hour indulgence of wine and food at Emeril’s Delmonico, I went to sleep in the posh Harrah’s 26-story hotel and dreamed that outside my 25th floor window the waters had risen 14 floors and covered the Quarter. When I recalled my nightmare to Joe the next morning we wondered if residents experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) had similar feelings when it rained. And I must admit being treated like a VIP all weekend made me feel a bit guilty. Partly because my years in PR put me on the planning side of such extravaganzas versus the recipient side.
But during our dinner at Emeril’s, one of our hosts told us a story that brought with it a perspective I had not considered. Kelly Schulz, Vice President, Communications and Public Relations, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc. grew up in New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, she’d left the city and was working elsewhere. After the levees failed the home where she grew up was destroyed. She heard about the opening at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. But at the time Kelly told herself she “was never going to move back to New Orleans.” She told us of attending a tourism convention where she met a fireman from Michigan. He told her that he was one of the first responders to the aftermath. And as they talked, it turns out that he was the one who was the first responder to the site where her childhood home once stood. She said, “some people might see that as a coincidence, but to me, it was a sign.”
Kelly moved back to New Orleans. During our dinner she beamed about the city where she grew up, and the city where she has returned to help restore. A city that is authentic, historical and focused on tourism. She touched a nerve when she talked about so many people who have said they feel guilty about vacationing in a city that suffered so much. But, she said, the best thing people can do for the city is to visit it. Enjoy its restaurants and its hotels. Enjoy the French Quarter, which wasn’t flooded, and its plethora of eateries, shops, artists, music and friendly residents. (Check out a 2008 interview with her here.)
It’s one thing to be treated well because you’re billed as a VIP. But everywhere we went, people were genuinely friendly. Time after time they said, “Welcome to New Orleans, we’re so glad you’re here.” And we do plan to go back. To me, ignoring the city as I had since Katrina, simply adds insult to injury. New Orleans needs tourism to flourish. It’s making a comeback. And it’s welcoming visitors with open arms.
1. A trick of the camera, Harrah’s hotel room reflected back from the window looking out over Harrah’s Casino, the Riverwalk Shops and Canal Street below.
2. Shops and Artist Galleries line Royal Street with street musicians playing for tips.
3. Crowds of folks from Baby Boomers to Generation Y fill the French Quarter on a Friday night.
4. Check out New Orleans’ 2009 Official Visitors Guide here.