Six months on from Hurricane Katrina, PHIL LUTTON finds that, contrary to what you might have read, New Orleans is very much alive.
Don’t go outside after dark. Don’t stray too far from your hotel. Take taxis everywhere, never walk. Don’t let your wife out of your sight. In summary, lock yourself up in your room and pray you make it out alive.
With all the good advice we were getting about visiting New Orleans, rediverting to Baghdad or Kabul seemed like a fairly feasible option. At least it would be sunny. But could it really be that bad? Reading the letters pages of Time magazine as we made the hour drive over the marsh and swamp from Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s compact but somewhat less inspiring capital, it seemed like much of America had already given up on the Big Easy, once one of the US’s shining tourism lights, famous for Mardi Gras, endless parties in the French Quarter and steaming bowls of gumbo.
“A city should have never been built on a swamp,” one letter writer wrote, summing up the thoughts of a group of contributors who believe the area flattened by Hurricane Katrina in August last year shouldn’t be rebuilt. Why bother, they ask. One more storm and it will all crumble again. Taxpayer dollars will be needed to build it back up. Indeed, the Bush Administration has already signalled it may bulldoze tens of thousands of homes in the deserted outlying suburbs unless the residents start returning. With no power or running water, there isn’t much chance of that happening.
Driving into the city centre, aiming for the Superdome that was used as a makeshift shelter as Katrina unleashed her might, there seems to be little progress in the restoration of New Orleans. The blue tarps used as makeshift shelter, now a badge of honour among repatriating residents, punctuate the rooftops as our taxi driver points out the areas where Katrina’s ensuing flooding did most of its damage.
On the surface, it looks as if the doomsayers are right. The streets are hushed and free of hustle, hundreds of useless cars remain stranded and impotent under the freeway underpasses and businesses remain boarded up, inundated when the levees failed or looted into submission.
But in the French Quarter, the historic vibrant heart of the city, the reasons for restoring New Orleans to its former stature are self- evident. Largely undamaged by Katrina, these few blocks of twirling wrought-iron balconies, European charm and jazz bars have become the symbol of optimism for the Big Easy’s rebirth. One by one, the Quarter’s famous bars and restaurants are reopening, shutting the door on Katrina and opening to what they hope will be a new influx of visitors and guests.
On our first night in town, determined not to be detered by the looters and muggers we assumed would be lurking in every dark corner, we left the Hotel Monteleone, a grand old French Quarter standard, in search of a tipple on Bourbon Street.
What we found was hardly a city in meltdown. Instead, thousands of revellers were swelling the boozy thoroughfare as blues and jazz seeped from the endless rows of bars. In the restaurants and eateries, the wait for a table grew longer as the night progressed, with traditional shrimp po boys (barbecued shrimp on a white crusty roll) served up by the dozen and bowls of crawfish gumbo on permanent rotation from the kitchen.
The Bourbon Street souvenir shops are starting to cash in on Katrina, with each and every one cranking out Creole music and selling T-shirts like I went to New Orleans and all I got were 300 of these T-shirts”. They’re tacky but clearly walking out the door. Anything to get the local economy back on its feet and lift the spirits.
Many of those partying in the Quarter on this night are workers in town to help with construction and rebuilding, but as word gets out that the French Quarter is safe and open for business, the tourists are slowly starting to return.
If safety was a concern, New Orleans authorities are making sure everyone out enjoying themselves can feel secure. Military police in humvees patrol the streets along with regular beat cops. The heavy police presence treads a fine line but results in a feeling of safety and confidence, rather than drinking in the party district of Fallujah.
Further down Bourbon, one of the city’s most famous bars is back in business, churning out the signature drink that has become a Big Easy standard: the Hurricane. Pat O’Brien’s serves up the original and the best version, although the rum-based cocktail is offered at every street vendor, bar and fancy restaurant in town.
New on the drinks list is the Cat 5 Hurricane, added after Katrina tore through and featuring just that little extra shot of rum. Like its meteorological counterpart, it’s a lot harder to stand up when its effects kicks in.
Early in the morning, and with few signs of the crowds thinning out, Fritzels bar is a welcome retreat and a glimpse of the musical heritage that defines a city that was the birthplace of jazz. Fritzels is a tiny, smoky bar with a handful of afficionados listening to a quartet crooning I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, before launching into a few foot-stomping dixieland standards.
If there are any signs that New Orleans is shaking off Katrina, it’s the return of the musicians. Up and down Bourbon, the blues and jazz bars are beginning to bring back the sounds of redemption. After the weekend rush has come and gone, the bands are still playing their tunes midweek, with the lucky few in attendence being privy to some of the best barroom jazz on this planet.
As a few scotches and a cigar begin to take their desired affect, the Fritzels band bids us goodnight. Their efforts were good enough to ensure we left with a CD under our arm as we staggered back to the hotel.
The concierge greets us and tells us the number of people out still rates for a “quiet” night in the Quarter, leaving us perplexed and prompting us to vow to return when the city is once again firing on all cylinders.
New Orleans has naturally fallen off the tourist trail in the US, but it is the tourism trade that is going to help the Big Easy once again become the belle of the South. And make sure you tell them you’re in town for a holiday, not work. You’ll get treated like royalty, with a hearty serve of Southern hospitality thrown in.”