New Orleans spirit shines four years after Katrina

OPINION - Much work remains to restore housing, infrastructure, jobs, and other essentials in New Orleans. But there are bright spots...

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in early August, I found myself amidst a crowd of people in the French Quarter of New Orleans, waiting on a parade. The event was in honor of the city’s illustrious native son, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The late great trumpeter is feted each August during a lively weekend festival, dubbed Satchmo SummerFest. This year it drew about 26,000 visitors and locals alike.

There was jazz, naturally, delicious Creole and Cajun cuisine and ample displays of the history and cultural crosswinds, that have shaped the Crescent City’s distinctive flavor.
One unique New Orleans tradition, known all the world over, is the `Second Line’ parade. But after more than an hour of delays, we tourists were starting to wonder if the incessant downpour would cancel the fun. “Don’t worry,” said an elderly man standing next to me, a lifelong native of the city. “Here in Nawlins’ we call rain, liquid sunshine. They’ll be here. Nothing’s gonna stop them from coming.”

Sure enough, we soon heard the distinctive strains of a lively brass band, and spied musicians in white uniforms and black caps, marching down the street playing golden horns. They were drenched. Close behind them strutted a bevy of costumed revelers—men and women, young and old—also soaked to the bone. Yet they danced, preened, twirled colorful umbrellas, and celebrated, all in the pouring rain.

I clapped and cheered with the other onlookers, and not merely because the parade was a rollicking good time. For me, it was a display of pride and resilience. It illustrated the indomitable spirit of New Orleans, and people who are determined to keep going.

As America marks the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the horrific day the levees broke, much work remains to restore housing, infrastructure, jobs, and other essentials here. But there are bright spots. For instance, while other U.S. destinations have suffered due to the recession, New Orleans was one of the few locales nationwide, to actually see increased visitation in 2008.

“The question is no longer whether the city is ‘ready’ for visitors, but how the economy is affecting the industry,” said Mary Beth Romig, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A survey conducted by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center shows that 7.6 million people visited last year, an increase over 2007 but still nowhere near pre-Katrina visitor levels. According to the CVB, the high for tourism was 2004, when numbers neared the 10 million mark.

That said, despite a drop-off in convention bookings, the CVB reports strong attendance for festivals and annual events. Indeed, this year’s Mardi Gras drew approximately 1 million attendees, compared to upwards of 850,000 visitors in 2008.

As the recovery continues, New Orleans officials, businesses, and many residents, aren’t shy about the need for folks to visit. Tourism employs nearly 80,000 people in New Orleans and generates some $5 billion in visitor spending. It accounts for 35 percent of the city’s $210 million operating budget, meaning that it impacts everything from public safety to transportation.

“If you do nothing more, then come here and visit as a way to help with the rebuilding process,” says Mark Barton, director of sales and marketing for the sprawling New Orleans Marriott. It’s one of five luxury properties that the hotel chain owns in the city, which employ some 1,500 people. Last year, they also supported local vendors, he said, to the tune of about $6.2 million.

“It’s exciting to see people working,” said Barton, an Atlanta transplant who relocated here with his family about two years ago, and can’t imagine leaving. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I think we’re better than ever.”

Like many corporations who are stakeholders in New Orleans’ recovery, Marriott has given back to the city. They’ve partnered with Habitat for Humanity to construct homes; built playgrounds; donated to children’s hospitals and more. Through its “Big Easy Spirit to Serve” program, launched in 2007, travelers who book a Marriott reservation, receive a list of local volunteer groups and opportunities to serve. Meanwhile, a portion of the room rate is donated to Habitat for Humanity.

“We’re a hotel and in the hospitality business, but we feel a responsibility to this community,” said Barton. “And when you have associates who’ve been with your company for decades, who rely on these jobs for their livelihoods and to feed their families, you realize that everyone is in this together.”

Ellis Marsalis, III, is a member of a famous New Orleans family, although he hasn’t lived in his hometown in more than 20 years. Son of the acclaimed pianist whose name he bears, and brother of musical greats, Wynton and Branford, the entrepreneur and brilliant poet, photographer and author in his own right, now resides in Baltimore. But as the classic tune that Satchmo once played goes, Marsalis knows what it means to miss New Orleans.

“I think about it all the time,” he said, noting that his relatives stayed put after Hurricane Katrina, but only because they—unlike many others—had the economic wherewithal to do so. He visited his birthplace soon after the storm, has followed the recovery, and speaks of New Orleans with a mixture of melancholy and deep affection. “It amazes me sometimes how it survives,” he said. “Most cities that are predominately black, with a history of deprivation, without an industrial base—they dry up. New Orleans shouldn’t be as successful as it is. But the people are always on the hustle.”

Marsalis plans to return someday, and in the meantime, he continues to pay homage from afar to a place he will always love. “It’s a very interesting place—dynamic and colorful for a lot of reasons. And no hurricane is gonna change that.”