“It takes a toll on you when you have to keep showing the mess over and over,” sighed Isabelle Cossart. It was past 9 p.m. in New Orleans, and she had just returned from leading a “disaster tour,” taking visitors through the devastated regions of the city. “You’re not showing empty houses. These are families.”
Too exhausted to speak further that night, Cossart, owner and operator of Tours by Isabelle, chatted the next evening while giving her two-year-old granddaughter a bath. “Yes, she was born on Katrina. She gave us a little bit of hope.”
Cossart is just one of the thousands of New Orleans residents who have struggled after the hurricane flooded 80 percent of New Orleans two years ago. “When I started the business, my motto was ‘We’ll make you fall in love with Louisiana.’ I wanted to show beauty.” Tours by Isabelle has been operating for 28 years, but it’s a vastly different experience than it was just two years ago.
After Katrina, business disappeared. Nobody was interested in visiting grand old plantations or swamp tours. “Fortunately, it’s just me and my daughter. The small size allowed me to stay in business when there was no business for the first six months. We’re little, but stubborn.”
With five vans sitting unused after the hurricane, a group of Japanese engineers chartered two of her vehicles to survey the damage. “They were trying to gather information on where to start,” she explained. “The first thing that people asked me was to see the levee breaches. There were no maps, not many people knew besides the obvious Ninth Ward and the 17th Street Canal.”
She drove the engineers in silence, but paid close attention to where they were headed. “I memorized the way to other levee breaches. I was just looking and gathering information.”
Soon after, Cossart was showing around FEMA workers and their spouses who were curious to see the devastated regions. “They only had knowledge of the tiny areas they were in charge of.”
She even drove around family who visited on Christmas day, navigating over broken streets and around crumbling buildings. “There’s so much debris. My other granddaughter said ‘It’s like dinosaurs walked on this road.’ We had so many flat tires; now it’s about one flat a month.”
Disaster tours are now the primary source of Cossart’s business. “Before the storm, the percentage of city tours was 20 percent. We showed air boats, swamp tours, Cajun villages, plantation homes, all-day tours lunch in the dining room of the mansions. We just showed beautiful living. Now the only thing is the disaster. This is all they want.”
She goes on to point out that after designing a pie chart of what types of tours people were taking: “It looked like a Pac Man. But it’s getting better; it’s about 75 percent of our tours now. Pac Man is starting to open his mouth. It’s getting better,” she pauses, “like FEMA.”
In the two years since Katrina, there is optimism in the city, but it’s marked by a heavy dose of frustration. Reports show that only 60 percent of the population has returned, the murder rate is the highest in the nation, and still entire neighborhoods remain shattered. Although $116 billion have been earmarked for the Gulf region, only about $6.78 billion has gone toward rebuilding New Orleans.
And, yet, as time passes, those outside of the Gulf region forget that New Orleans is still need of help. “Nobody realizes, it destroyed seven times more than Manhattan,” says Cossart. “It was larger than the size of Great Britain. This is two years later. We have to show it. At first, people feel guilty to say they want to see the tours. After, they’re amazed at the destruction that’s there after two years, and the size of it.”
“Volunteering is slowing down tremendously,” points out Francis Smith. She, along with her husband Rodney, owns and operates the Soniat House, a boutique hotel and local institution in the French Quarter (it was even listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die). “The conception is that we don’t need it anymore. Last summer we saw an awful lot more.”
The Smiths’ hotel was back in business almost immediately after the city re-opened, on October 3. “We were full because the Red Cross was paying the bills, with policemen, nurses, longshoremen. We gave our precious rooms to those needed to rebuild the city… Then they quit paying,” says Smith. “Last October and November were our worst, and those for 23 years were our best months. The tourists just didn’t come. We’re still fighting the conception that the French Quarter was damaged, which of course it wasn’t.”
Smith continues thoughtfully, “People say to me all the time, ‘Are things back to normal?’ I say, check back with me in 40 years and we’ll see some semblance of normal. Eighty percent of the city was underwater. It was a miracle that the remaining 20 percent was where business and universities survived. It’s the original footprint of the city. If you take a map of the city from 1830 and overlay it on the city after Katrina, you can see.”
Indeed, the main historic and busy tourist areas suffered little to no damage. That includes the French Quarter, the Warehouse Arts District, the Garden District/Uptown, Faubourg Marigny, Audubon and University section, Carrollton and Riverbend and Algiers on the city’s west bank.
Talk to anyone in the hospitality industry in the area, and the first thing they’ll stress is how crucial it is to bring tourism back to New Orleans. Statistics from the New Orleans Tourism Office show that tourism accounts for 35 percent of the New Orleans annual operating budget. It is the largest employer in the metropolitan New Orleans area and the second largest industry in the state of Louisiana, encompassing hotels, restaurants, shops sporting arenas, live music venues, museums, and tour operators. Since Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana has lost more than $1 billion. Every three months results in a net loss of a $1.25 billion buying cycle in New Orleans.
In 2006, 3.7 million travelers visited New Orleans between January and June. Compare that with the same period in 2005, which had 5.3 million visitors. Pre-Katrina, 2004 was actually a record breaking year, with 10.1 million visitors, and 2003 welcomed 8.5 million visitors.
The hotel industry is on the upswing, slowly but surely. There are over 140 metro area hotels and motels in operation with over 31,000 rooms (compared to 265 hotels with 38,338 rooms pre-Katrina). During the last weekend of Mardi Gras in 2007, hotels reported a 95 percent occupancy rate.
(please note, this is not a complete list)
Bienville House Hotel, 504-525-6079, www.bienvillehouse.com
Mid-September rates begin around $99
Bourbon Orleans Hotel, 504-523-2222, www.bourbonorleans.com
Mid-September Web rates begin at $98 a night.
Garlands Guest House Bed and Breakfast, 504-523-1372, www.historicgarlands.com
Rates range from $114-$400 a night, year-round.
Hilton on St. Charles (taking the place of Hotel Monaco), 504-524-8890, www.hilton.com
Mid-September rates begin around $89 a night.
New Orleans East’s Avalon Hotel, 504-378-7000, http://book.bestwestern.com
Mid-September rates begin around $65 a night.
New Orleans Marriott Hotel
Mid-September rates begin around $99 a night.
Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, 504-524-1331, www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/NewOrleans
Mid-September rates start around $149 a night.
Royal Sonesta Hotel, 504-584-0335, www.royalsonestano.com
Current published rates begin around $129 a night.
Soniat House, 504-522-0570, www.soniathouse.com
Mid-September Web rates begin around $164.85 a night.
Restaurants are faring better as well. According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, there are more than 1,800 restaurants open in the metro area, compared to 3,414 pre-Katrina.
A Taste of What’s Open
(please note, this is not a complete list)
Café Du Monde – The venerable New Orleans institution is still serving up beignets and hot café au lait, 24 hours a day. 800-772-2927, www.cafedumonde.com
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse – The elegant steakhouse continues its tradition while owner Dickie Brennan is often hailed by the community for his leadership and fund-raising efforts after Katrina. 504-522-2467, www.dickiebrennanssteakhouse.com
Drago’s Seafood Restaurant – Open since 1969, this is where charbroiled oysters were invented. Not much has changed since then, and that’s the way it should be. 504)-584-3911, www.dragosrestaurant.com
Joel Dondis’ Grande Isle – Serving regional specialties with a heavy emphasis on seafood, it’s now open at the Harrah’s Fulton Street. 504-520-8530, www.harrahs.com
Lil’ Dizzy’s – Authentic soul food fills the plates at this Central Business District extension of the original Creole restaurant on Esplanade. 504-569-8997
Lüke – Southern Louisiana native and acclaimed chef John Besh serves it up Old-World style with a mix of Franco-German and Creole cooking inside the Hilton New Orleans. -504-524-8889
Mr. B’s Bistro – This French Quarter mainstay is all about Creole soul food, serving up so much seafood that you’ll be rolling yourself home. 504-523-2078, http://www.mrbsbistro.com
There are still plenty of ongoing opportunities to spend time volunteering to help the Gulf Coast. Don’t be afraid to get dirty, and after a hard day’s work, go out for a night on the town.
Some hotels are offering packages to support voluntourism efforts:
W Hotels of New Orleans has arranged a package with Join Hands on New Orleans which includes one day of volunteering plus transportation, two box lunches, two pairs of work gloves, and a box of spa products to soothe your aching muscles with a hot salt scrub and body butter. Additionally, 10 percent of your room rate will go toward Hands On New Orleans. Rates start at $239 at the W New Orleans and the W New Orleans French Quarter. Book and stay by December 31, 2007. Learn more about the package online.
All New Orleans Marriott properties (Pere Marquett, JW Marriott, Renaissance Arts Hotel, New Orleans Marriott Canal Street, and Marriott Convention Center) are offering a package Care Concierge package. The package, which starts at $129, includes recommendations on volunteer organizations, 25 percent donation to Habitat for Humanity, and free breakfast. Ask for promotional code P54. 866-530-3763, www.marriott.com
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is organizing and recruiting volunteers to gut damaged for rebuilding and is campaigning to prevent the bulldozing of homes in storm-damaged neighborhoods. The association works with FEMA to help provide lodging, food and transportation for volunteers. http://acorn.org
Emergency Communities recently opened community recovery center in the Lower Ninth Ward. Volunteers serve three hot meals a day, gut and rebuild houses, clean up yards and streets, tutor kids at the Diamond FEMA trailer park, and arrange family events every week. Skilled labor is welcome, but not required. 917-442-8900, www.emergencycommunities.org
Habitat for Humanity is continuing its efforts to rebuild after Katrina. The Katrina Recovery Effort is currently undergoing massive rebuilding effort to build hundreds of new homes in Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard Parishes, among other locations. Become a registered volunteer at 504-861-4121, www.habitat-nola.org.
The United Methodist Church Disaster Relief Station is working with volunteer groups find work sites to fit their abilities throughout Southwest Louisiana. 800-456-7952, www.visitlakecharles.org.
Also, visit free, independent online message board Craigslist for ongoing opportunities with community centers, churches and other volunteer organizations. http://neworleans.craigslist.org/vol
Past Coverage of New Orleans:
By Managing Editor Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com