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The Shame of America
The Rebirth of New Orleans
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

New Orleans Map
New York, NY - We all saw the images on TV and read the accounts in the newspapers. It was right there in front of us, hard to miss. On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina actually missed the city of New Orleans but the storm surge i its wake caused the entire levee system to break apart, a system that was, by all estimates, antiquated and certainly not capable of standing in the way of Mother Nature's angst. By August 31st 80% of New Orleans was flooded as the storm hit all along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi causing $81 billion worth of damage making it the costliest natural disaster in US history. It is difficult to fathom that 1,836 people lost their lives while over 90% of the residents of southeast Louisiana were evacuated. Compare that to the fact that, before Katrina, the city of New Orleans had a population of 485,000 and now, post-disaster, there are only 255,000 people living there. The problems face the city are monumental as it tries, desperately, top rebuild and gain a small semblance of its now gone and forgotten by most stature and glamour. Police, fire, sanitation, construction and others await staff replacements and increases in what was once known as the third best city in the world for "foodies" after Paris & New York.

This is not a political piece, nor would I consider going "there," but, rather, one about survival and rebirth. Who and what failed can be debated forever. Was it the Federal Government, the Corps of Engineers, state and local governments? Maybe all of them? Does it really matter right now? On a long Memorial Day weekend this year I spent six days in New Orleans looking for answers and reacquainting myself with what is versus what was. My destination was Harrah's New Orleans Casino & Hotel, the New Orleans Wine & Food Festival and I had the good fortune to be in the company of Bonnie Warren, who represented the famous Brennan's Restaurant. New Orleans was a long lost and seemingly forgotten date trying to resurrect the good times of periods past. It was an agonizing effort.

Abandoned Home
Just one of many abandoned homes found throughout the New Orleans area.
The May, 2007, issue of Basketball Times featured an article - "Going Back to New Orleans" by Jack Stycznski - where he asked, "So, in a post-Katrina world, should the Final Four come back to NO?" Considering all the devastation that Katrina had wrought for this still proud city, all a sports writer could see was college basketball. Interesting, perhaps even disappointing. I doubt that there is anyone on the planet, at least anyone in North America or most of the civilized sportsworld, that is not familiar with March Madness. It was last played here in 2003 in what has since become a football town, thanks to the Saints and a pretty fair, not great, response with average game attendance hovering at about 25,000. They play in the refurbished Superdome with a capacity of over 70,000 for football and 55,000 for basketball making that 25,000 sound a bit like failure. But, it is not and manages to pay some of the bills. The 2002 Super Bowl was played here and the LSU Tigers who call Baton Rouge home (about an hour drive) had an 11-2 football record in 2006; the basketball team was 17-15 and, in early 2007, a basketball sub-regional was held at the 18,500 seat New Orleans Arena next door to the Superdome but did not sell out. The New Orleans Hornets of the NBA (basketball) will play all their games in NO (They split their 2006-7 schedule with Oklahoma City) so some sports rejuvenation is happening. That same article attempted to address some of the good things happening in NO referring to "The Police Department graduated its first class of recruits since the hurricane. Habitat for Humanity will build 1,500 houses in SE Louisiana. Donald Trump is building a new tower in the Central Business District. The Superdome & Convention Center are completely restored. The French Quarter & most tourist favorites are fine. In 2008 the BCS football national collegiate championship & NBA All Star game will be in New Orleans." Nice cryptic attempt at salvation but I was not impressed.

Websites of Note:

  • www.nola.com
  • www.neworleansonline.com
  • www.neworleanscvb.com
  • www.brennansneworleans.com
  • www.harrahs.com
  • www.nowfe.com
  • www.auduboninstitute.org
  • www.graylineneworleans.com
  • www.steamboatnatchez.com
  • www.ogdenmuseum.org
  • www.ddaymuseum.org
  • www.noma.org
  • The May 31st issue of the New York Times had a story about Louisiana setting July 31st as the deadline for applicants for The Road Home, the grant program for homeowners who lost their homes to Katrina (and Rita). People could receive up to $150,000 to repair or rebuild their houses. National flood insurance paid out a good amount of dollars but many private insurers did not and, FYI, insurance benefits are generally subtracted from grants awarded by The Road Home. Welcome to bureaucracy. Adding to this deplorable situation, everyone under 65 years of age is required to live in the rebuilt houses for at least three years. I found that hard to believe. The Army Corps of Engineers has three major projects they are working on simultaneously, and doing so with limited funds: 1- Restore more than 300 miles of levees, floodwalls and gates. 2- Redesign and rebuild the hurricane protection system. 3- Protect the entire Louisiana coastline, including rebuilding the state's coastal wetlands and barrier islands. Maybe someone can explain why they have not been given unlimited funds? My guess is that a war we cannot win in Iraq is the answer. Unaccountable billions sent there while folks in our country are left to suffer. Presumably, residents of New Orleans do not pose a present danger to our country.

    Penny wise, pound foolish has achieved new meaning and prominence in Louisiana.

    When I visited the French Quarter, the Garden District, Arts District, Riverfront or the hotel zone where I stayed you don't see that much damage because commercial folks rebuild on their own to sustain their revenue flow and profit margins. Simple math. But walk up Canal Street and look at the water marks at five feet or the empty stores and you will start to rethink Katrina. Nice name, terrible attitude. Better yet, speaking of commercializing, take the three hour Katrina Tour given by Gray Line every day at 9AM and you will get the full picture. Capitalism reigns and profit is garnered out of tragedy by someone. The driver and guide are locals who lived through the disaster and are able to describe it with a bit of exaggeration, not much, tossed in for good measure. It was not just the Lower 9th Ward but thousands of homes in many neighborhoods that have been abandoned, with no place to shop for essentials for miles. We saw the levees that did not hold and are being rebuilt because the hurricane season was about to begin again but, if it comes, this is a wasted and ineffective effort. Prayer, maybe. Government, not a chance. Will we have a repeat of 2005? You must take the tour or just get in a taxi and tell the driver to show you all areas that were destroyed. No wonder almost half the population never returned. Mardi Gras 2007 drew over 800,000 people whereas pre-Katrina there was over one million. Call it a minor step in the right direction but a very small one.

    When seeking a place to stay in New Orleans, Harrah's NO Casino opened in October, 1999, as the largest land-based Vegas style casino in the south with 2,100 slots, 92 table games and a 23 table poker room. Step One. In September, 2006, Harrah's Hotel began to welcome visitors, located right across the street, with 450 rooms and 98 suites. Nothing in New Orleans can be considered less than pricey for most but other nearby options with which to compare are Windsor Court, the "W," Hilton NO Riverside, Loews NO & Hotel Monteleone. I would recommend any one of them, without hesitation.

    Houmas House
    The Royal Street Stroll during the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience.
    Getting hungry? This is not the place to visit when on a diet of any sort. That being said, take your choice...Cajun or Creole cuisine? Beignets, caf? au lait, gumbo, grilled oysters, flaming Banana's Foster, po-boys. Getting hungry? Sooner or later it comes down to how much you can savor in the course of one day, possibly many. Harrah's offers up dinner at John Besh's Steakhouse, which opened in the Casino, as opposed to the hotel, in 2006 when he was also named the 2006 James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast. Do not order, no matter what the temptation, the 38 oz steak unless your intention is to share but, even then, half of it is much too much. Bring a group.

    Another super star chef, Todd English, is close to being both the chef and staff at Riche, a Parisian Brasserie at Harrah's Hotel. That is how involved he gets. Coincidentally, and conveniently, I had my first meal there as part of the vintner's dinners for the NO Wine & Food Experience but, more on that later. If you can manage a reservation (and it is not easy) you will not have done NO without Breakfast at Brennan's. Second choice...lunch. Make the call weeks before you arrive instead of waiting until you are there. This Wine Spectator Grand Award winner wine list lost over $1 million of wine when they lost electricity for over one month. Major bummer.

    Emeril's, who seems to be just about everywhere you look these days, is the other Grand Award winner in town. Commercial? Yes. Worth a stop and meal? Yes. Fortunately, I had the occasion to enjoy another dinner at "7 on Fulton," a few blocks from Harrah's and, while unable to eat my way through the city, I would also recommend any of the following as symbolic of fine dining in The Big Easy - Galatoire's, Commanders Palace, Mr. B's Bistro, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Arnaud's, Antoine's and Broussard's. As a bit of trivia, did you know that the first cocktail, the Sazerac was invented here? Ditto Peychaud's Bitters, the Grasshopper and the Hurricane.

    OK, what else is there to do besides eat? I had previously mentioned the Gray Line Katrina Tour and suggest you take it but, when done, hop on the Steamboat Natchez (their box offices are next door) for a two hour water view of the city and set some time aside to visit the NO Museum of Art & Sculpture Garden, the premier art museum in the Gulf South; Ogden Museum of Southern Art, an affiliate of the Smithsonian and the largest collection of southern art in the world; National WW II Museum, which is next door to Ogden and contains many interactive displays of both the European & Asian battles; Audubon Aquarium of the Americas & Imax Theatre where the show is appropriately titled, "Hurricane on the Bayou. "

    This was the 16th year the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience and over $100,000 was raised for charities in the area. There were winemaker dinners, the Royal Street Stroll (an instant favorite that took us into antique stores where we were able to sample food and wine and, at the same time, check out the art and furnishings, wine, food and lifestyle seminars that constituted two Grand Tastings (2,000 people, 165 wineries, 800 wines and over 40 restaurants) inclusive of Vigola (high-end wines only) and culminated with "Bubbles & Brunch. "

    Houmas House
    The Houmas House is one of the South's oldest and most beautiful plantation estates.
    The last afternoon in N'awleans (work on that for awhile before getting there), all the folks in our group, mostly travel writers like myself, were driven about an hour (near Baton Rouge on the banks of the Mississippi) to Houmas House, one of the South's oldest and most beautiful plantation estates. Begun in 1770, with the present mansion built in 1820, history tells us that, in 1858, the new owner began accumulating sugar cane plantations and had over 300,000 acres when done, at which time he was dubbed "The Sugar Prince of Louisiana." All the furnishings were sold off in 2003 and the present owner, Kevin Kelly, purchased the 23-room mansion completely empty so he added the gardens, ponds, fountains, statuary, wine cellar (4,000 bottles), restaurants and all the interior furnishings. There are oak trees over 450 years old on the 32 acre property and Kevin lives on the second floor of the mansion, where his room/office is part of the public tour.

    Everywhere in America, cities, towns, hamlets, villages, neighborhoods can lay claim to famous sons and daughters and New Orleans is no exception - Tennessee Williams, Harry Connick Jr, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Paul Prudhomme, Wynton & Branford Marsalis, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and many, many more. For everything that anyone can do to help restore New Orleans to is pre-Katrina days, it is an unending process and could well take decades but the effort will be worth the result for a city that is a classic and must be saved.


    Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.