NEW ORLEANS—On Aug. 29, it will have been a decade since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Ten years have passed, though it seems much longer. And like no time at all.
The waters have receded. The refrigerators and their fetid contents have been carted away. The dead have been buried.
The mold has been conquered—for the most part. New Orleans is back, better than ever.
But Katrina is still a presence here. The one watermark that cannot be scrubbed away. The line that divides New Orleans into pre and post. Post-Katrina is different. For the locals—and for the visitors, too.
It's better, but it's not the same. It is cleaned up. Buffed down. Innovation. And tradition. Washboards. And nose rings.
New entrepreneurs, Old magic.
In short, it is still New Orleans.
As the anniversary approaches, New Orleans is preparing its commemorations—not celebrations, the usual mode for a New Orleans event. It's a time when the city will “reflect on the loss and celebrate the progress made, as well honor those around the world who have helped our region recover,” as Mayor Mitch Landrieu explains on the special website created for the occasion, Katrina10.org (K10 for short).
The New Orleans you visit today is a testament to resilience and the human spirit. From the images following in the wake of Katrina, it seemed almost impossible the place could ever be put back together.
That it has come back with a new vision for development, revitalized neighborhoods, new attractions and infrastructure for both visitors and locals—not to mention a new wave of residents who have moved in from other places—is kind of amazing.
Forbes magazine called the New Orleans comeback “the greatest turnaround of our lifetime.” Nowadays New Orleans turns up not just on top-10-cities lists for music and food, but ranks as the No. 2 boomtown in America, according to Bloomberg. And it topped Forbes' lists of “Best Places for Entrepreneurs” and “America's Biggest Brain Magnets” for attracting people under 25 with college degrees.
It's not all uplifting. The city's population hasn't rebounded from the pre-Katrina numbers—it's more than 100,000 lower than in 2000 and crime is still a problem. New Orleans has one of the highest murder rates in the country.
But people still fall in love with New Orleans and can rarely explain why. A musician I spoke with gave me his observation: Just like the gumbos and the jazz that were born here, the key to New Orleans' allure and joy and, well, call it a spell, is the abundance of ingredients—of influences—that go into it: Every one contributing to the final presentation.
On a recent trip, I discovered some of the ways the recipe has been revised in post-Katrina New Orleans. Here's just a taste of what you'll find.
• • •
At 9:30 on a Monday morning in March, I am heading toward the Hyatt Regency, which became a symbol of the destruction as Katrina battered the city on Aug. 29, 2005. Winds blew out every window and tore out walls, leaving guest rooms and beds exposed to the rampaging elements. The images of the hotel were some of the first to hit the wires and provide an inkling of the scope of what, in the end, turned out to be the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history, according to FEMA. The total estimated damage of $108 billion made it the most costly hurricane in history, as well.
The Hyatt reopened in 2011 after a $275 million renovation. I haven't seen the rebuilt hotel yet, and, as I get near the address on Loyola Street, it seems I might not get the chance today, either. I'm close, but thwarted by barricades and traffic police and—a parade.
Traffic is stopped as a long, seemingly endless stream of marching bands and cheerleaders proceed down Loyola Street. They're elementary scholars, little kids with big brass instruments, some barely visible beneath their battered tubas, cheerleaders knobby kneed and smiling expertly as they shiver their pompoms. Parents and friends have taken over the neutral ground (median dividers), handing out juice and water and snapping pictures.
Parades, I remembered, are standard New Orleans fare. They can happen anytime, anywhere.
What is new is all the roadwork and infrastructure construction in the city—more than $1.63 billion is being invested in this area of post-Katrina New Orleans—and you can't always follow your GPS directions, so be prepared to wing it.
Anyway, after many right turns, I parked and, after a brief, marching-paced merge with the schoolkids, proceeded through the new entrance to the Hyatt, which faces the newly constructed Loyola Streetcar line, which connects to the French Quarter.
Michael Smith is the general manager of the Hyatt. He was the general manager when Katrina made landfall. Today he sits in a big, quiet office, in a building with all its walls intact. Not a bed can be seen from the outside.
“In those first weeks, it was hard to believe you were even in the USA,” said Smith, who has worked at Hyatts around the world for 37 years. Thinking about Aug. 29 and the five days that followed before help really began to arrive causes him to shudder.
But, like most of the residents of this city today, people are looking to the future rather than dwell on the past.
The silver lining of Katrina was that it left “a chance to do a redo,” Smith said. “You had a chance to take New Orleans as she was and reinvent her.
“And I think we've taken advantage of that opportunity.” He cited some of the many new features and improvements in the city—a revamped school system producing higher testing scores, a $4 billion medical district, a new airport and a restaurant scene that has grown from 857 pre-Katrina to 1,400-plus today.
The city is being redeveloped with much forethought and input. It's the most planned city in the country, in fact. Neighborhoods once left for dying or dead have been revived—more like reinvented. Hot spots today are in neighborhoods many visitors would never have known existed pre-Katrina—including Central City, Freret and the Treme.
More than $1.6 billion has been invested in long-term neighborhood revitalization projects. In some cases, neighborhoods that were down and out even before the storm have become the hottest hoods in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Just downriver from the French Quarter are two of the city's most distinct enclaves: the Faubourg Marigny, one of New Orleans' oldest neighborhoods, and Bywater. Here you'll find historic New Orleans shotgun shacks and Creole cottages, small boutiques, art galleries, ethnically diverse restaurants and a bohemian, offbeat spirit. The St. Claude Arts District, centered around St. Claude Avenue, is within the Bywater neighborhood and has grown to more than 30 galleries and venues for visual and performance art.
Many consider the Treme (faubourgtreme.org), the cultural heart of New Orleans. Because it was one of the few neighborhoods that didn't see much flooding—not to mention its starring role in the HBO series—the neighborhood is being rediscovered and experiencing a renaissance of new businesses, renovated homes and young families moving in.
The Treme is one of the oldest black-American and free-people-of-color neighborhoods in the country.
The 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park is the neighborhood's dominant landmark. Within is Congo Square, where everyone gathered throughout the 18th and 19th centuries on Sundays to drum, dance and trade. It's also where the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival actually started and was held until it became so popular it had to be relocated to the fairgrounds.
More recently, a Jazz in the Park concert series is attracting new visitors to the park for free shows every Thursday night.
• • •
Speaking of music . It's after 10 and the music is cranking, the riffs rolling out of the open club doors like steam from a pot of boiling crawfish. Inside, the barstools are all taken, the dance floor moves getting friendlier, the beers flowing even faster than the sweat.
A typical night on Bourbon Street?
No. This is Frenchmen Street, the post-Katrina hot spot for the “real” New Orleans music scene.
OK, it's not new, and the music is probably just as real back on Bourbon. But it's the music hot spot of the moment, a 10-minute walk and a lot more civilized than the Bourbon Street scene.
Frenchmen Street is in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, once a plantation owned by Bernard de Marigny, a political leader in early New Orleans and apparently the embodiment of his Creole heritage's “joie de vivre” spirit. As Bourbon Street became more unwieldy and crowded with out-of-towners, Frenchmen emerged as a spot for locals to party.
The street is on some of the highest ground in the city and escaped Katrina with little incident. Post-Katrina, it was officially designated a city arts and entertainment district, which provided some business incentives. The final jewels in the popularity crown were its discovery by the legions of volunteers who came to help out in the wake of the disaster and its appearance on “Treme.” Word was out.
The action is between the 400 and 600 blocks, and the range of styles—the music and the clubs themselves—is so varied that you'll probably feel at home at least somewhere.
It might be at Snug Harbor on a Monday night when Charmaine Neville clenches her fists and throws her head back and happily yowls the chorus of a tune of a woman's revenge. Or at the Spotted Cat, where Chaz Leary hitches up his washboard and gets lost in a three-minute solo making sounds. Or at Café Negril, where a young woman with heavy eyeliner and matching voice is moving in time with the mesmerizing sound of the rhythm and blues. A gray-haired man with a whiskered face shuffles around the dance floor by himself—but not alone.
• • •
There are new tours in New Orleans to see all the new neighborhoods. There is one tour that has been around since not long after Katrina: The Katrina Tour.
I cringed when I first heard about it. Seemed a bit … ghoulish. After 10 years, though, it seemed this might be a good way to get an overview of Katrina 10 years on.
So I went.
The three-hour tour promised we would “Travel thru neighborhoods destroyed by the natural disaster … Drive past an actual levee that 'breached' and see the resulting devastation that displaced hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents.”
The tour did take us to places and sights I had never been to. I saw aspects of post-Katrina New Orleans that I needed to see. Places that are still struggling, despite the new New Orleans boomtown status.
The Lower Ninth Ward, for instance. Hardest hit by the storm, it's where the levee system failed. After a decade, life is still in limbo, recovery stalled and the community's needs ignored.
This is the area of the city musician George Porter Jr. mentioned when I'd asked him about the state of New Orleans, post-Katrina. I'd heard so many optimistic observations about the city, Porter's utter cynicism was a surprise.
The tour gave me a glimpse into the foundation of his attitude, inequities that, once witnessed, can't be Photoshopped to something prettier in your mind. More than nine years later, few businesses have reopened, only one of seven public schools has been rebuilt and only 34 percent of the population has returned. The sections of the neighborhood most affected by the Industrial Canal levee breach are still either seriously damaged or simply empty lots where rows of houses once stood.
We passed the new development built by Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation. Brand new futuristic houses designed by top architects, with LEED-certified sustainable technology. The houses line the neat streets, the bright white sidewalks. People, mostly elderly, have moved in here. But not a soul is in the street. The houses came, but the community didn't follow, not a store, not a fast food place. Just very cool looking houses. And, the cutting edge, environmentally friendly wood used in the building—is rotting. Pitt's foundation is suing.
We are rolling.
This is the problem with a bus tour. The subject, the sights, the issues, are completely wrong for a drive-by. Even slowing down, even stopping momentarily, looking out a window, felt inappropriate. More than that, it was disrespectful. A sightseeing tour of a city's social ills? I walked away feeling slightly ashamed.
Still, the images remain. The situations, the lives and the hopes and the needs exist today, 10 years later.
Michael Smith at the Hyatt knows the situation in the Ninth Ward. It's one reason he is a bit reticent about the 10-year commemoration.
“We are better off than we were,” he said, “but we have so much work to do,” he said. He rattled off the social ills, the things that bother him.
“Brad Pitt still building those houses. People still haven't got lights in some places. There's a 53 percent unemployment rate among African-American males—in a city where the overall average is 5 percent. And we still have the same elements of crime,” he added.
“This (anniversary) should be a tipping off point, in my opinion. The time to say, 'OK, now we've gotten here, how do we get to the next milestone? Let's go there. Let's come up with a logical path.'”