From the CEO
At the invitation of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, I returned to New Orleans in late April. I had not been back to the city since October, when the APA site visiting team evaluated the city only two months after Hurricane Katrina hit. Below are observations from my visit.
Flight availability and the airport. The first thing I noticed was the contrast in flight availability this time compared to October. Last fall, there were few flights and no direct ones from Washington, D.C. This time I had numerous flights and carriers to choose from, including several direct flights. In contrast to my last visit, the airport seemed much more normal, with stores and restaurants open and large numbers of the types of people you typically see in airports (e.g., families, tourists and business travelers). There was also a long line of taxis outside baggage claim.
Devastated areas. On the drive in from the airport, we detoured through the Lakeview and Seventh Ward neighborhoods, which sustained heavy damage because of the breach of the 17th Street Canal. Some of the homes had clearly not been worked on since the storm, while others were undergoing major reconstruction. I was struck by the FEMA trailers parked aside many homes to house residents during their homes' renovation. The areas most affected by the flooding are still far from anything approximating normal. People's lives are still turned upside down, and most residents of the flooded regions have not returned.
Closer to the city. Overall, there was less evidence of storm damage as we approached downtown. As we proceeded up Esplanade Avenue through the City Park and Faubourg Marigny neighborhoods, conditions improved with each block. I saw children playing in schoolyards, open stores and restaurants, people walking and biking, and more traffic. We also swung by the historic Garden District, a favorite of tourists. Although not damaged by flooding, the Garden District did look like a severe storm had gone through it when we visited last October. In April, it looked like it was well on its way to returning to its old stately self.
Downtown and the French Quarter. These areas may be of greater interest because the hotels and convention center are located here. In October, many stores were boarded up, recovery workers were the main people on the streets, and recovery vehicles were parked over the streetcar tracks. This time, Canal Street, the heart of downtown, was bustling with traffic, business people, tourists, taxis and the famous streetcars. It looked pretty much like the Canal Street I remembered from pre-Katrina trips to the city. One aspect of the recovery still in evidence was the complete reconstruction of the sidewalks on Canal Street. One side of the street will be finished by August, but the other will not. We had lunch at the Palace Cafe on Canal, which was packed. The French Quarter, with its restaurants, antique shops, music venues and other tourist attractions looked more "normal" than in October. However, with 50 percent of the city residents displaced, it did not have the level of energy you typically see, even on a Thursday afternoon.
Convention center and hotels. The convention center renovations were still under way, but the areas we will occupy have been completed. With new flooring, carpeting and paint, the convention center looked fabulous. The hotels are pretty much back to full capacity, and the Hilton, the APA headquarters hotel adjacent to the convention center, is almost finished with its major renovations.
The people. I was fortunate to visit the city during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where the vibrancy of the city and its people and visitors was evident. Although the festival had many famous musicians, most of the performers had New Orleans or Louisiana roots. Every local performer I saw took time to reflect on what he or she had been through since August (many lost their homes), and to give heartfelt thanks to those attending the festival, and, consequently, supporting the recovery of the city. In fact, the main thing I remember about my visit was how welcoming, hospitable and appreciative the New Orleans people were, especially when they found out our convention was coming there. Tourism and conventions are their lifeblood, and as one woman said to me, "Thank you. Thank you so much for staying with us. We will make sure we show your group a great time. You won't regret it." From what I saw, I am sure she is right.