Tidewater Traveler - September 2007



George Sellers

   Like many thinking adults, I have abandoned network television newscasts as a reliable source of information regarding national and international events. From those legacy purveyors of intelligence I have come to expect exaggeration, half-truth and bias. So I was very pleased when I learned that my travel-planner consortium had announced the location of our annual national conference to be New Orleans.
    I had no doubt that the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina was very serious and debilitating to the region, but as politics became injected into news reporting, and as politics became the primary focus of the reporting, I found it difficult to distinguish the actual damage from the mudslinging and finger pointing.
    Before touchdown at Louis Armstrong International Airport I could see miles and miles of canals snaking through wetlands eventually leading to Lake Ponchatrain or to the Mississippi River network. Huge tracts of bayou with winding waterways leading to small, secluded, tree-lined ponds triggered memories of scenes from the paperback series by A.C. Andrew. From the air the area looks green, lush and pristine.
    Louis Armstrong Airport shows its age and it shows the marks of an embattled warrior. It’s difficult to nail down specifics, but walking through the airport, one does not get the impression of having just arrived in a vibrant, lively city. It is a tired facility.
    A small assemblage of young people blaring jazz (I think) on saxophones and brass horns were doing their best to welcome nearly 3,000 travel planners to the city. Airport acoustics did nothing to endear me to their renditions, but I applaud their enthusiasm.
    The shuttle ride to downtown New Orleans was a rough ride, even on the Interstate, and as I was fussing with myself for choosing this particular conveyance, I realized that I was passing by areas where flood victims would have been thrilled to have had such a comfortable ride as this to escape danger’s path in the days and weeks following August 29, 2005.
    I checked into the Sheraton Riverfront and went out for a walk. My initial reaction was that things looked pretty much as they had looked the last time I was in New Orleans about 8 years ago for a cruise on the Mississippi Queen. But a closer look led me to believe that things are different.
Like the condition of the airport, it is hard to offer real specifics, but as I walked I noticed that quite a few of the city buildings still appeared unoccupied.
    A stroll through two large riverfront shopping arcades showed that most, but not all, of the stores are open and ready for business. But actual shopping activity seemed nearly non-existent. The massive New Orleans Convention Center stands empty on the banks of the Mississippi.
    As I considered the state of New Orleans, two analogies came to mind. First, I liken the condition of the city to that of a giant who has been hit hard in the stomach. The giant is still on the ground, in pain and trying to regain his breath. I have no doubt that the giant will fully recover but for now breathing is labored and survival trumps everything else.
    Second, observing New Orleans and surrounding areas, I consider the cycle of life, destruction and rebirth that accompanies a forest fire. Not in appearance, but in spirit, it is like a devastating fire has swept through a vibrant and lively forest. There has been much destruction and wildlife has fled. But following a forest fire, new life begins to emerge – fresh, tender shoots take hold on the charred forest floor. Most of the giant trees bring forth life from their hearts where it has survived the inferno. Slowly wildlife returns, and eventually the day comes when one would never know the landscape had been demolished by a blaze.
    Signs of life and rebirth are appearing everywhere in and around New Orleans. Locals celebrate each time a tiny corner market or a service station reopens. There is rejoicing over something as basic as a section of a street getting resurfaced to cover the potholes and erase the evidence of damage caused by floodwaters and mud.
    Alive and well are the nightlife of Bourbon Street and the cha-ching of Harrah’s Casino. A stroll through the French Quarter, a pass through Jackson Square and a ride on the trolley are all reminders that the giant is starting to catch his breath. A major national conference at the Sheraton, the passing of a Carnival Cruise ship down the Mississippi, and yes, even random, impromptu jazz bands on the streets are sprouts of fresh greenery on the charred landscape.
    Interestingly, Vacation.com, the nation’s largest consortium of travel planners and suppliers, signed the contract for the 2007 summer convention two weeks before Katrina hit the Gulf coast. Presented with numerous opportunities to get out of the contract, the consortium leadership and travel planner advisory board stayed the course, understanding that tourism will be a vital element of the recovery process, and further understanding that travel planners nationwide will have a significant role encouraging visitors to return to the Big Easy.
    In the weeks leading up to my departure, dozens of folks said to me, “You’re going to New Orleans?!? Are they open yet?” Well, yes, indeed they are. At this point I would not hesitate to suggest N’Awlins as a vacation destination. Not only can you have an enjoyable time, but just being there as a tourist will make you a part of the rebuilding process.
    If you choose to do so, you can even take an active role in some very specific recovery and restoration activities. For example, early one morning dozens of conference attendees put on work clothes, boarded buses and spent the morning picking up flood debris and cleaning tombstones in one of New Orleans’ famous old cemeteries. It was a small feat, but still a part of the clean up and recovery process.
    New Orleans is still an active cruise ship embarkation port with cruises departing regularly for Mexico, the Caribbean and of course to quaint villages and plantations along the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s time again to think about a visit to N’Awlins.
    May all of your travels be happy and safe!

   George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel Web site www.sellerstravel.com