New Orleans Four Years After Katrina
New Orleans Four Years After Katrina
September 28, 2009
BY TOM UHLENBROCK
NEW ORLEANS â€” With the glow from nine crystal chandeliers reflected in the gleaming marble-and-mosaic floor of its block-long lobby, the reopening of the historic Roosevelt Hotel puts a glittering exclamation mark on the comeback of New Orleans.
"It's a treasure for New Orleans," said Kelly Schulz of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And it's something that was missing."
The city had 130 hotels when Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago; now it has 119. There were 809 restaurants before the storm; they now number 1,031. The average annual number of tourists was about 8.5 million pre-Katrina; 7.6 million showed up last year.
"Considering the economy, we were very pleased," Schulz said. "Our hotel occupancy for July of this year was 65.7 percent. Compared to some other destinations, New Orleans is doing pretty well."
And in a bid to become even more visitor friendly, the city has begun hosing down the French Quarter with lemon-scented soap to wash away the odorous residue of the past night's revelry. Imagine, Bourbon Street smelling like citrus on the morning after!
Yes, areas of the city that were inundated by the collapse of the levees remain unoccupied and at the mercy of the Corps of Engineers. Some residents never came back. But a tourist would have to look to find those neighborhoods. Otherwise, the good times are rolling once again in the Crescent City.
The trolleys are clanging past the stately architecture of the Garden District, the lines are forming outside the Cafe Du Monde for powdery beignets, and the antique shops of Royal Street have showrooms full of museum-quality heirlooms. Personally, my dream purchase was an exquisite Tiffany table lamp at M.S. Rau, priced at $249,000.
The sporting world has recognized the comeback by awarding the city its top events â€” college football's BCS National Championship and the NCAA Men's Final Four basketball tournament in 2012, and the Women's Final Four and the Super Bowl the following year.
One last important set of numbers: Jefferson Parish had more than 18,000 FEMA trailers three years ago. Now it has 10.
"Some areas of the city are still recovering," Schulz said. "But for tourism, Katrina is in the rear-view mirror."
Like much of the city, the Roosevelt Hotel was slam-dunked by Katrina.
"The basement area, where our mechanical and electrical equipment are located, was flooded out," said Mark Wilson, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "When you don't have air conditioning and there's water, you get mold and peeling paint. The hotel was in need of restoration, anyway."
Located at 123 Baronne Street in the Central Business District, across Canal Street from the French Quarter, the hotel was called the Grunewald when it opened in 1893. "After World War I, the name was not politically correct, so it was changed to the Roosevelt in 1926 in honor of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders," Wilson said.
The Roosevelt established itself as the city's social center and one of the South's grand hotels. Sophie Tucker, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles were among the celebrities who played its Blue Room. Elvis Presley and his entourage took over the hotel's top floor in 1957 during filming of "King Creole." Legend says Elvis avoided his adoring fans by entering the hotel through the fire escape.
In 1965, the hotel became The Fairmont and remained under that name until Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina brought the city to its knees. In 2007, a group of local investors bought the hotel and began a $145 million, top-to-bottom restoration. Returned to its former glory and former name, the Roosevelt is now part of the Waldorf Astoria Collection of Hilton Hotels.
On a walking tour of the 504-room hotel, Wilson pointed out the expanded rooftop pool and terrace, the two restaurants, the new Guerlain Spa with 10 treatment rooms and the Sazerac Bar.
"These murals are by Paul Ninas, they date back to the early '20s," he said, pointing out works by the modernist known as the dean of New Orleans artists. "When the storm hit, we covered the murals with wood to protect them. They're worth $2 million."
To recapture the nostalgia, the hotel is bringing back Sunday jazz brunches, Teddy Bear Teas, Angel Hair Christmas Lobby and name entertainment. The hotel opened in early summer and has scheduled a grand celebration on Oct. 23-25 with the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint performing.
"New Orleans has lost a lot of things," Wilson said. "To bring something back that people who are 85 years old recall, it really has a strong emotional response."
Schulz, the convention bureau vice president, credited the city's resurgence to two important factors: New Orleans is within driving distance for much of the country, and it represents a fairly cheap vacation during these tight times, especially with many hotels offering bargain rates and third-night-free specials. To find them, check the "hotel package deals" at neworleanscvb.com.
"You can come here with a family, or on a romantic weekend, or a girlfriends getaway, and you don't have to spend a lot of money," she said. "We certainly have high-end hotels and high-end fine dining, but you also can get a po-boy for $8 or a plate of red beans and rice for $7."
During our three-day visit, we did some extensive research at our French Quarter favorites to check her last assertion. The results:
A dozen barbecued oysters on the half shell at Desire in the Royal Sonesta Hotel were delicious, and $7.95. An hour later, we tried the "peace maker" po-boy at Acme Oyster Bar. It was half fried oysters and half fried shrimp with Tabasco and mayo for $10.99.
That night, the blackened fish at the Gumbo Shop was $14.99. It was so good that we came the next night, going with the red beans and rice with smoked sausage for $10.99. The hot bread pudding with whiskey sauce was $4.99 and heavenly. We had breakfast twice at the Coffee Pot, and both times had the Eggs Jonathan, with honey ham, tomato, shrimp and hollandaise, for $13.75.
On a venture Uptown, we found Domilise's at Bellecastle and Annunciation streets, which has been hailed as selling the best oyster and shrimp po-boys in the city. We bought four, for $40, and feasted.
Somehow, we found time, and room, for a trio of beignets piled high with powdered sugar at Cafe Du Monde in the French Market. With coffee, the bill was $4.59. We celebrated a birthday with brunch at Brennan's, which was $36 for a three- course meal of berries and cream, oysters Benedict and Bananas Foster.
New Orleans is back, from fine hotels like the Roosevelt to street musicians like David Leonard, who is 71 and has spent half his life playing guitar, harmonica and trumpet for tips on French Quarter streets. Leonard left after Katrina, toured the Northeast, spent a month in France, and returned in December 2006 to restore his flood-damaged home.
The returning tourists have been tight with their money, Leonard said, but seem to be loosening up a bit. "I did tell my wife that we're seeing more $5 bills lately," he said. "And yesterday, a lady laid a $20 on me. It was for a love song."
IF YOU GO
NEW ORLEANS: The Convention and Visitors Bureau lists bargain rates and specials for lodging under "hotel package deals" at neworleanscvb.com.
ROOSEVELT HOTEL: The hotel has 504 rooms, including 135 luxury suites. The restaurants are John Besh's Domenica, which offers casual dining featuring Italian cuisine, and the Sazerac Restaurant, which offers fine dining next to the hotel's legendary Sazerac Bar. Summer room rates began at $139 a night, with suites at $199 a night. A third night free also was offered. The hotel has state-of-the-art meeting and convention rooms. At 123 Baronne Street, 1-504-648-1200 and therooseveltneworleans.com.