On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf shores downstream from New Orleans, its storm surge weakening and eventually breaking through the system of levees protecting the city. And slowly, New Orleans — built in a “bowl” two to 12 feet below sea level — began to fill with water.
In the days and weeks that followed, the nation watched, shocked, as city, state and federal governments scrambled too late to help residents trapped in the waters without food, power or medical assistance. The weeks-long crisis exposed vast disparities in American wealth and power that some likely would have rather remained hidden.
New Orleans changed that day, and the country changed with it. But the city has bounced back. Visitors returning to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina will recognize the lush, laconic Southern city they knew, with a few changes; first-time visitors will wonder what’s different and fall for New Orleans’ many charms.
The city has long been dependent on tourism, and new businesses have popped up to handle the returning crowds. The hospitality, music, food and fun — everything that made New Orleans special to locals and visitors before — is plentiful and just as good or better than before. Some say that the city is cleaner than it was before Katrina.
Drycleaners attending Clean ’09 will recognize the city’s fresh, clean look immediately, show planner Riddle & Associates says. The city’s touristed neighborhoods — the French Quarter, Central Business District, Garden District and Arts/Warehouse District — are back to normal. But “normal” in New Orleans is usually exciting, often quirky and always entertaining.
What makes New Orleans so vulnerable to storms is part of what makes it so unique. Isolated by the Mississippi River and the swamp, the city attracted émigrés early on from Europe, the Caribbean and other areas, creating a true melting pot of cultures.
Originally established as a French colony in the 1690s, the city and surrounding territory was sold to the Spanish and back to the French before Thomas Jefferson spearheaded the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Canal Street was the boundary between American and European rulers, and its architecture reflects its heritage. Cajun settlers — Acadians from Nova Scotia — adopted a pidgin French dialect and introduced much of the spicy flavor to the area’s cuisine.
Established and flourishing long before the invention of the automobile, New Orleans is a walking city; the streets are narrow and unforgiving to cars. Part of the New Orleans experience is to hail a cab — unlike most cities, cabbies can license their own vehicles, and they’re often large, low and plush conveyances that reflect their operators’ personal tastes in decoration.
A 30-minute cab ride to your hotel will cost about $30 plus tip; an airport shuttle is $13 per person each way. Complimentary shuttle buses to the Morial Convention Center will stop within two blocks of the show’s official hotels, all of which are located within a mile-and-a-half.
The French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, is the postcard-and-party New Orleans most people recognize. Here, visitors will find plenty of restaurants, nightclubs and shops in a quaint, intimate setting. What’s missing? The dirt and the odors one might remember from the past.
Street performers and artists populate the narrow streets of the Quarter, particularly around Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral. Bourbon Street is where New Orleans (or at least tourist New Orleans) parties; a block away on Royal Street, antique shopping is the attraction. And on the Quarter’s eastern end is the French Market, where one can shop for souvenir hot sauces, kitschy alligator jaws and Mardi Gras masks, as well as browse exotic imports and fine antiques.
Harrah’s Casino and the Convention Center anchor the Arts/Warehouse District, near Emeril Lagasse’s original restaurant, Emeril’s. Once an industrial no-man’s land, the district now houses many museums, galleries and upscale eateries.
New Orleans is a music town; jazz was invented here, and it continues to thrive in traditional and contemporary forms. Cajun zydeco and rhythm & blues also draw big crowds at the clubs nightly, and many famous acts call the Big Easy home.
But it’s also a food town, and there are even more restaurants now than there were before the flood. Shrimp, redfish, crawfish, catfish and oysters are menu staples, often served raw or in a simple fish-boil format that’s eaten over newspapers for easy cleanup. Cajun and Creole cuisine are quintessentially New Orleans, and red beans and rice, gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, andouille sausage, and pralines are just a few dishes for which the city is famous.
Even carry-outs in New Orleans can be a gastronomic delight, from Po’Boy sandwiches stuffed with fried clams or shrimp to the delicious muffuletta, a hubcap-sized submarine sandwich dressed with crushed olives and served by the quarter.
For sightseeing, a riverfront trolley runs along the river from the Convention Center to the French Market, and the St. Charles streetcar cuts through the lush Garden District to view magnificent mansions and above-ground “cities of the dead.” City Park and Audubon Zoo are favorite stops for flora, fauna and relaxation, and art galleries and museums are springing up to satisfy a thirst for culture.
Those who wish to see how far the city has come since Katrina can take a guided tour of the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, which are still on the road to recovery. Visitors should take the usual precautions they would against crime when exploring, of course — keep purses and bags close, and stick to well-lit and well-populated streets.
New Orleans’ swampy location can get hot and humid. Dress comfortably — linens and seersuckers are popular here — and wear comfortable shoes for sightseeing and the show floor. There’s no limit to the attractions in New Orleans, and you’ll want to sample a little bit of everything it has to offer as you experience the latest the industry has to offer at Clean ’09. Let the good times roll!
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].