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Central American Adventure

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, New
Orleans is a city with a promising future.

Music dances through the air in New Orleans, in the streets and restaurants, along the riverbank and in parks. An ensemble plays at Café du Monde while people grab a beignet and café au lait to go or grab a seat for a more leisurely pastry and chicory-laced coffee.

Streetcars carry tourists and locals heading to work or classes at Tulane or Loyola universities. Filming is frequent, whether for the hit television series NCIS New Orleans or one of the other many television shows or movies shot in the city.

After a New Orleans Saints football game, fans pour into Bourbon Street to join the tourists. The Big Easy is alive, pulsating with energy. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago Hurricane Katrina destroyed levies that caused massive flooding. How does a city recover from that?


Above: The Crescent City Connection Bridge in the aftermath of the storm was the only open highway into or out of the east bank of Orleans Parish. Richard Nowitz/New Orleans CVB photo

Below: In 2014, more than 9.5 million visitors spent a record $6.8 billion. There are more hotel rooms and restaurants in the city today than before Katrina. Karen Gibson photo



Hurricanes along the Gulf Coast are nothing new. Galveston, Texas, still refers to the 1900 hurricane that killed 6,000 as “the Great Storm.” Hurricane Camille ripped Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi in two in 1969. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew damaged southern Florida before setting its sights for Louisiana.

On Aug. 23, 2005, a tropical depression formed in the Bahamas. Within 24 hours, it had a name–Tropical Storm Katrina. On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina came to a forceful end at the Louisiana-Mississippi border with 20-foot storm surges and 55-foot waves. It also spawned a long and wide path of 33 tornados and up to 14 inches of rain.

AAA Southern Traveler Associate Editor Don Redman, who lives in Slidell, La., said it was as if there were two separate events. Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast were heavily damaged by tidal surges, winds, and tornados. “The greatest damage to New Orleans was caused by faulty levees. Had they held, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about the storm outside of St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he said.

Surrounded by water, New Orleans was at special risk. High winds and storm surges breeched more than 50 levees. Three floodwalls broke, bringing strong walls of water rushing over neighborhoods. Water covered 80 percent of the city at a depth of more than 15 feet in some areas.

Approximately 1,500 people in the New Orleans area died, according to a 2006 report by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, but we may never know the true loss of life due to this disaster. News reports showed rescues from rooftops and tens of thousands taking refuge in the Superdome, thought to be able to withstand hurricane-strength winds, but suffering major roof damage. Landlines and cell phones didn’t work. People who lost everything waited for help to arrive with no food, water, or power. It took four days.

Rescues continued as the city remained flooded for weeks. Thirty-four of the city’s 71 pumping stations were damaged. The Army Corps of Engineers dropped sand bags from helicopters into the breeches along the floodwalls.

The city was dealt another setback just weeks later when Hurricane Rita, one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, brushed by New Orleans, bringing more flood waters to the city. When the water finally receded, officials discovered that more than 80,000 homes and countless businesses were damaged beyond repair. How could any city withstand such devastation?


According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Hurricane Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in history, causing $75 billion in damage. After the storm, the city’s flood control system took priority because the city couldn’t survive another storm under current conditions. The Army Corps of Engineers, along with other agencies, worked full-time on flood barriers within and around the city.

Celebrities have spurred other building projects in the city’s hardest hit area, the Ninth Ward. New Orleans musicians Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis in 2005 had the idea of a neighborhood centered on the city’s strong musical heritage. Working with Habitat for Humanity and 40,000 volunteers, the Musicians’ Village includes 72 single-family homes, five elder duplexes, a park, and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

Actor Brad Pitt also visited the Ninth Ward two years after Hurricane Katrina. He was dismayed to see what little progress had been made in rebuilding. He created the Make It Right Foundation to build environmentally friendly housing. More than 100 colorful homes–sometimes referred to as the Brad Pitt homes–have been built for Ninth Ward families, first responders, and teachers.

The Superdome, now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, was restored and has become a symbol of the resilience of New Orleans. It didn’t hurt when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. City Park, where supply trucks parked in the days and weeks after the storm, lost 2,000 trees, but has had 5,000 replanted.

Capital improvements have added new streetcar lines. New service and routes at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport contributed to the 9.79 million passengers that flew through New Orleans in 2014, the highest number since before Hurricane Katrina. City leaders have focused on diversification beyond its major industries, tourism and shipping. A 1,500-acre biomedical corridor, known as the BioDistrict, is attracting bioscience companies to the city.

New Orleans has shown significant economic growth since Hurricane Katrina, more so than other cities. They haven’t just rebuilt. In many cases, they have expanded. For instance, there are now more hotel rooms in New Orleans than before Katrina.

Known for its food as much as its music, the city had 809 restaurants before the hurricane. Now, there are more than 1,400.

In a recent profile, Business Destinations noted that, “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.”

Rebirth of Tourism

Tourism has long been a significant part of the New Orleans economy due to that unique character. The rich history of New Orleans’ cultures, music, and food can’t be found anywhere else.

After Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau had to cancel $2 billion worth of business. Meetings for the following nine months had to be rescheduled, and visitors dropped to a low 3.7 million in the year after Katrina.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Lea Sinclair, director of communications for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC), said the city was on track to top 10 million visitors and $4.8 billion in visitor spending. Aggressive destination marketing by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the NOTMC has helped to bring visitors back to the city. In 2014, 9.52 million visitors spent a record $6.8 billion, the highest spending in the city’s history.

Millions of volunteer hours also have aided in the city’s recovery. For example, Camp Restore in March welcomed its 25,000th post-Katrina volunteer. The New Orleans faith-based volunteer program connects people with more than 80 local nonprofits, churches, and schools. It has contributed more than 1 million volunteer hours to the greater New Orleans area.

The city of New Orleans will never forget Hurricane Katrina, but it refuses to be defined by it. For its many tourists, New Orleans is an experience. For its residents, it is home.

Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Okla.

July/August 2015 Issue


Resilience is the focus of Slidell’s Katrina event

On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina’s western eye wall passed directly over St. Tammany Parish. The storm surge impacted all 57 miles of St. Tammany’s coastline. Spans of Interstate 10 between Slidell and New Orleans East were severely damaged. More than 48,000 homes were damaged from floodwater, wind, or both.

An event to applaud the strength of parish residents and the community’s success at rebuilding after the storm is planned for the evening of Aug. 29, 2015. “Plus 10–A Decade of Resilience,” will be a collaboration between St. Tammany Parish, the City of Slidell, and other local agencies. At 7 p.m., the City of Slidell will hold a Katrina ceremony at the Municipal Auditorium. From 7:30–9:30 p.m., people are invited to experience a living, navigable exhibit throughout the streets of Olde Towne Slidell featuring brief personal accounts from residents. There will be exhibits by local visual artists and performances by local performing artists. Many of the shops of Olde Towne will be open for business.

For more information, call (985) 898-5243.


The Old Town Slidell Soda Shop was flooded during Hurricane Katrina but reopened in 2012. photo

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