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New Orleans makes a mighty comeback

Since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been slowly rebuilding itself. Jules Gray looks at how the city fought back against the force of nature

New Orleans' unique appearance and rich cultural history has earned it a reputation as one of the most distinctive cities in the US 

The devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on one of the US’ oldest and most populous cities shocked the world in 2005. Causing huge structural damage, close to 1,000 deaths and the loss of countless people’s homes, many thought that the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans would be so severe that the city would struggle to return to anything close to its former glory. The vast expense of rebuilding such a large city, let alone rehousing many of the residents who had lost their homes, seemed too daunting a task.

Keystats: Hurricane Katrina

Louisiana residents died as a result of Hurricane Katrina

of New Orleans was flooded

people were housed in hurricane shelters

However, nearly a decade since the catastrophe struck New Orleans, there are signs that it has started to recover. Economic growth that is outpacing other US cities has been welcomed, and a staggering number of citizens have shown an impressive determination to return to the city they have always called home – a city that was once one of the most distinctive in the US, known for its rich history and diverse culture. As such, it is one that many of the world’s inhabitants would be equally determined to see undefeated.

Cultural offerings
New Orleans has long been known as a unique melting pot of cultures that have little representation elsewhere in the US, ranging from the French-speaking contingent to the Cajun descendants of Acadian exiles. Today, the city is made of many different groups
that bring their own distinct characters and cultures to its various districts.

While many cities in the US trace their history back to settlers from a variety of European countries, New Orleans has a distinctly French influence that is the result of it being, for a long period, France’s most important outpost in North America. The first settlers from France arrived in the 1690s, but it wasn’t until 1718 that the country officially founded Nouvelle-Orléans as a major colonial city. Although it was also occupied by the Spanish from 1763 until 1800, the city firmly maintained its French influence on account of its strategic location close to many French Caribbean islands, including Haiti and Saint-Dominique.

Thanks to this mix of cultures, New Orleans is unlike any other US city. It has developed its own dialect, thanks to the surrounding American English, Cajun and Southern accents, and the French language is still spoken by many. Its food is world-renowned – based largely on local Creole, Cajun and French cuisine, as well as influences from Cuba, Spain, Italy, and Africa – and the city’s local seafood is especially good.

City sights

Where to eat:

The brainchild of chef, television presenter and author John Besh, Lüke has been serving local New Orleans Franco-German fine dining since 2007. It’s particularly known for its locally sourced seafood, including the Louisiana Shrimp Cavatelli, as well as more German fare, like Chappapeela pork schnitzel and ragout of wild boar. While not usually a restaurant to go to on a budget, Lüke offers discounts each weekday between 3pm and 6pm, where diners can enjoy raw oysters and speciality cocktails for half price. The full-service bar is also one of the few places in New Orleans to serve German, French and Belgian beers, as well as three locally brewed beers.

Mr B’s Bistro
Famous for its Creole food, Mr B’s Bistro can be found in the heart of the city’s French Quarter. This part of New Orleans is renowned for its food, and Mr B’s Bistro is seen as the original gourmet bistro, having been founded in 1979 by acclaimed local restaurateur Cindy Brennan. Diners can enjoy such dishes as bacon-wrapped jumbo gulf shrimp and grits, or honey-ginger blazed pork chops. On Sundays, a live jazz trio performs for diners at lunchtime. Closed in 2005 after severe damage from Hurricane Katrina, it reopened in 2007 with exactly the same look and atmosphere as before. The restaurant even has its own cookbook, penned by its owner, Brennan.

Where to stay:

International House Hotel
In the heart of the modern central business district is this beautiful former bank, which was converted into the International House Hotel in 1998. Littered with local art, the hotel is a tribute to the historical mix of cultures found throughout New Orleans. The Beaux-Arts style building, which began life in 1906 as the Canal Louisiana Bank & Trust, was transformed into the world’s first World Trade Center in 1943. Its latest incarnation as a hotel offers luxury accommodation, a colourful character, high quality local food and music, while sitting in the middle of the district in which many international business travellers are based.

Ashton’s Bed and Breakfast
For an alternative place to stay in one of the city’s most historic districts, Ashton’s Bed and Breakfast is hard to top. Luxury rooms in this charming Greek revival mansion all have high ceilings, four-poster beds, chandeliers, and an atmosphere that takes visitors back to the city’s heyday. Built in 1861, the house is in the historic Esplanade Ridge district, just a short walk from the French Quarter. An open courtyard also allows visitors a tranquil space to relax amid the hustle and bustle of the city. The hotel is known for its generous breakfasts that include local spins on traditional dishes, including its famous Mardi Gras Eggs Benedict.

Where to meet:

Morial Convention Center
Named after former Mayor of New Orleans, Ernest N Morial, this conference centre is the sixth largest in the US. Built in 1978, it has a 1.1 million sq ft exhibition space that covers nearly 11 blocks, as well as an additional two million sq ft of other space. It became an iconic feature of the post-Katrina relief efforts, when it housed many of the displaced citizens that had lost their homes in the hurricane, as well as acting as a medical clinic. A complete renovation was finished in November 2006 and the centre now caters for a wide range of different meetings and corporate events, only minutes away from the city’s best restaurants and exciting nightlife.

Hyatt Place
The world-renowned Hyatt chain of hotels has established itself in New Orleans as the go-to place for business events. The Hyatt Place New Orleans Convention Center welcomes visitors from all over the world, offering packages that include room rental, food, drinks and audio-visual facilities. Ideal for small corporate and executive events, guests receive free wi-fi throughout the building. The centre is also conveniently situated directly across the street from the Morial Convention Center, meaning that business people attending the city’s largest events can arrange a smaller get-together in the comfort of the beautiful Hyatt hotel.

Perhaps the city’s most well known cultural offering is music, with blues and jazz being particularly prominent: one of New Orleans’ famous sons is jazz musician Louis Armstrong, and the city also hosts a number of annual music festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Southern Decadence, Voodoo Experience, and the French Quarter Festival. Its most famous annual event, however, is undoubtedly Carnival – more commonly known as Mardi Gras. Taking place at the start of the year, Mardi Gras New Orleans is a roughly two week-long celebration that includes a major parade every day and parties across the entire city.

However, all of these attractions were put in serious jeopardy when Hurricane Katrina struck, causing many to wonder whether a city once known as a place to which people from the world over would travel would ever fully recover.

The devastation
Battering the south coast of the US during the Atlantic hurricane season of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ultimately caused the most financial damage of any natural disaster in the country’s history. As one of the deadliest hurricanes that the US has ever seen, causing at least 1,833 fatalities across the country, the impact of Katrina was truly devastating. While it struck much of the Gulf Coast and Louisiana, the biggest damage was caused in New Orleans after the city’s levee system completely failed to prevent huge amounts of water from flooding it. Such was the flow of water that as much as 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged, and it took weeks before the waters subsided.

While it’s hard to put the blame for such a natural disaster on anyone, the inadequacy of the flood control system is seen as one of the worst civil engineering failures in the country’s history. It led to a number of lawsuits against the government and the designers of the flood control system, as well as the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) – although these eventually came to nothing.

Rebuilding the economy
Perhaps the most important aspect of New Orleans’ economy is its port, which is one of the largest and busiest in the world. The city itself was founded because of its strategically advantageous location on the Gulf Coast, offering mainland access to the Gulf of Mexico as well as up into the Mississippi River. The city also has a prominent oil and petrochemical production industry – thanks in large part to this seaport – and is home to many leading firms, including Exxon, Chevron, BP, Texaco, Shell, the Dow Chemical Company and Koch Industries.

While the shipping and energy industries certainly dominate the city’s economy, its rich cultural heritage means that New Orleans also attracts a considerable amount of tourism. A $6.47bn industry that accounts for around 40 percent of the city’s tax revenues, the tourism industry has bounced back after the turmoil of Katrina. In 2013, the city welcomed 9.28 million visitors, which was an increase of three percent on the previous year. Spending has increased too, helping to contribute to the city’s economic recovery.

In a report published last year by the New Orleans Convention and Business Bureau (CVB) and the University of New Orleans, it was noted that while visitor numbers had sunk to 3.7 million in the year following Katrina, they have soared in the years since. Stephen Perry, New Orleans CVB’s President and CEO, said in the report how important this resurgence in the industry has been for the city: “The traveller economy at its core is about driving economic growth and enriching the lives of people. The more than nine million visitors in 2013 pumped a record $6.47bn in spending directly into our city. The money contributes greatly to state and local economies and supports jobs for more than 78,000 New Orleanians from every neighbourhood.”

Staying afloat
New Orleans’ economic recovery has been somewhat remarkable, considering the full scope of the devastation that the city suffered in 2005. Coupled with the subsequent global financial crisis of 2008, the circumstances in which New Orleans found itself could not have been more challenging. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, however, has set about reforming much of the city’s economy and labour practices while encouraging businesses to return to the area. He has invested heavily in diversification, which included the construction of BioDistrict, a new 1,500-acre biomedical corridor that is intended to attract bioscience companies and researchers to the city, as well as a 300-person strong General Electric software development centre. There has also been a surge in video game and creative companies setting up shop in the area, along with an influx of educated young people.

According to research by the Data Center – a New Orleans-focused group that has been studying the city’s recovery after Katrina – the progress made in the eight years since the hurricane struck has been encouraging, and the employment reforms being implemented should return the city to prosperity. “There is no doubt progress has been made. Leaders and residents have undertaken an unprecedented number of reforms that, over time, may have transformative outcomes. In addition, the New Orleans metro has weathered the Great Recession impressively”, states the report.

It added: “The recession took hold locally in 2008, and the metro lost only one percent of its jobs before the economy rebounded. In contrast, the nation haemorrhaged jobs beginning in 2007 and lost six percent before its turnaround. By 2012, the New Orleans metro had fully recovered, and employment levels surpassed the 2008 peak by one percent. At the same time, the nation remained three percent behind its pre-recession employment level.”

Part of the reason for this recovery is the government’s policy of diversifying the economy, while also encouraging entrepreneurship, according to the Data Center. “The economy is a current strength of New Orleans. Diversification is happening with traditional industries (such as shipping and tourism) and newer knowledge-based industries (such as higher education, insurance agencies and heavy construction and engineering), [and they are] expanding despite the Great Recession. Entrepreneurial activity is taking off. For New Orleans to expand diversification, producers within older industries can tap new markets by rearranging their current products and expertise. In emerging industries, producers can aim to export specializations more broadly — even globally — to sustain success. Entrepreneurship can help achieve these goals.”

New Orleans city diary

Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Feb 6-17
The city’s most famous event, Mardi Gras is a two-week celebration of all that New Orleans has to offer. Parades, parties, fireworks and balls all take place, primarily around Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, but it has also spilled out into other parts of the city.

International Beer Festival, Champions Square, March 22
Every self-respecting city has a beer festival, and New Orleans is no different. Taking place each March at Champions Square, visitors can enjoy more than 150 craft beers from across the world, as well as exclusive seminars on how
to cook with beer.

Literary Festival, 938 Lafayette Street, March 25-29
An annual five-day literary festival dedicated to one of the country’s most acclaimed playwrights, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival culminates in the Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, based on a scene from Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

Foodfest, French market, March 27-29
A weekend-long celebration, Foodfest is made up of three events: Street Festival, featuring hometown eats from pecan pie to Texan pit barbecue; America’s Hometown Sweets, where desserts and sweet treats are on offer as far as the eye can see; and the Beignet Eating Contest.

French Quarter Festival, French Quarter, April 9-12
Founded in 1983, the French Quarter Festival is a free music event in one of New Orleans’ most distinct neighbourhoods. Featuring predominantly local music, it saw 732,000 people attend last year and bills itself as the ‘largest free festival in the US’.

Jazz and Heritage Festival, Fair Grounds Race Course, April 24 – May 3
Also known simply as Jazz Fest, this is the city’s largest music and cultural event and has been running since 1970. While it encompasses New Orleans’ entire musical heritage, international stars also perform, with The Who and Elton John playing this year.

Wine and Food Experience, New Orleans, May 20-23
Over 100 of the city’s finest restaurants and more than 250 wineries are present at one of the city’s most extravagant festivals. Live music, food tastings, seminars, talks and expert-led classes all feature on the event’s extensive list of activities and attractions.

Greek Festival, Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, May 22-24
New Orleans may have been founded by the French, but it boasts a thriving Greek community. On Memorial Day weekend each year, the city’s Greek inhabitants celebrate with three days of food, drink and music. Specialities include souvlaki, spanakopita and gyro pita.

Unbalanced recovery
While New Orleans has enjoyed a period of economic growth during the last nine years, not everyone in the city is seeing the benefits. As a result, the poverty rate in the area has jumped significantly. Allison Plyer, Executive Director of the Data Center, told The Guardian last August that, while this wasn’t a problem exclusive to the city, it was certainly more pronounced in New Orleans: “Like the nation, we are seeing increasing income inequality. Even though our economy is doing well, not everyone is benefiting.”

Despite a series of encouraging signs, inequality in the city has continued to grow. The report warns that an uneven spread of employment will have a detrimental effect on the city, and that all areas across New Orleans must be treated fairly. “Yet, preparation of the labour force is happening unevenly, and the benefits of employment are being accrued unevenly as well. To be sure, all the progress the New Orleans metro makes in other [areas] will not be enough to signal to the world the emergence of a qualitatively different place post-Katrina if large segments of the population continue to be left behind. New Orleans must cultivate a culture that promotes openness, creative collaboration, and interaction across groups that becomes evident in its economic activity.”

Laura Paul, Executive Director of the charity Lowernine.org – which is helping to rebuild the city after the devastation of Katrina – says that it is likely to be another decade before New Orleans can claim to have fully recovered from the hurricane. She told The Guardian that the comparative poverty found in the city, even before the hurricane struck, meant that the recovery would take longer: “Conservative estimates have the recovery of this community taking another decade. Studies suggest that communities of low wealth take three times longer to recover from events like this than communities of means, which makes sense.”

However, Paul stresses that such is the connection New Orleans inhabitants have with their city that people are starting to return after being displaced. In the lower ninth ward that her organisation is helping to restore, she says this is particularly apparent: “You wouldn’t come back if you didn’t love this neighbourhood. It’s just not an easy place to live.”

Even before Katrina hit, New Orleans was one of the poorer parts of the US – at around 19 percent, the city’s poverty rate was considerably higher than the US average of 15 percent. While the rate has declined in recent years, there is obviously still a lot more that needs to be done to turn New Orleans into a thriving and successful economic city.

Looking to the future
New Orleans experienced a setback in 2005 that few cities would find easy to recover from. That it is returning to any semblance of prosperity is a testament to the determination of its citizens and the unique and varied character that the city possesses. This charm has also been shown through the passion and loyalty that the city’s inhabitants feel towards it.

This can be seen from a recent television show based upon the city and its recovery after Katrina: in 2010, acclaimed journalist and television writer David Simon followed up his award-winning exposition of Baltimore’s drug dealing and gang culture, The Wire, with a show about New Orleans’ rich musical scene and how the city dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Treme follows a number of residents living in that part of the city in the months following Katrina as they rebuild their lives, homes and hold onto their unique culture. The particular focus on musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians and other distinct citizens of New Orleans gives the show its heart, bringing to life the celebrated character of the city that they all treasure so much.

In an interview with website Reason.com in 2012, Simon spoke of how people from New Orleans have a greater attachment to it than any other US citizen does for their own city: “Before the storm, 77 percent of the population was born there. That’s unheard of in America. Everyone is from somewhere else in this country. But if you’re born there, if you grow up with that culture and that essence, it’s very hard to say goodbye.”

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