When Hurricane Katrina visited southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, it didn’t knock first. The wolf-wild winds huffed and puffed and destroyed more than 350,000 homes. Almost 2,000 people lost their lives in the hurricane and the subsequent floods. The city itself didn’t escape. Unlike the immovable house of bricks in the fairy tale, New Orleans’ metropolitan area was battered and then lost under fifteen feet of water, resulting in over 200,000 homes and apartments being damaged beyond repair.
Since then New Orleans has undergone a remarkable makeover. Streets and buildings have been cleaned and refurbished, hotels reopened, parks replanted and businesses reestablished. The Garden District is again blooming and families enjoy the exhibits in the Aquarium of the Americas and Audubon Zoo. On the fences surrounding Jackson Square, paintings have reappeared and the fortune tellers have been allowed back after taking a hit for not predicting the disaster. ‘It was impossible to strike a happy medium,’ a local artist told me, ‘so instead we told the unhappy ones to stay away. The rest are good for business.’
Hotels like the Maison Dupuy on the corner of Toulouse and Burgundy Streets continue to offer guests French Quarter luxury at affordable prices while the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau maintains the city’s enviable reputation for providing advice and generous assistance. Riverwalk, on the shores of the Mississippi, is popular with both tourists and locals. The shops and food hall are conveniently located in one building and assure good value. The unforgettable images that appear in and around the central courtyard are also guaranteed. I recall watching a pipe-puffing woman sitting on a bench with her back to Paul G. Allen’s 301-foot yacht ‘Tatoosh’. It was difficult to determine which of the two was the more mesmerizing.
Today, the city largely mirrors its former glory and its attraction is again strong. However, the real draw of New Orleans is not its constructs or culture, even though they are formidable. For me, the quality and spirit of a place is not measured by the architecture, art, music, food or fabled reputation. They are measured by those who create these elements – the people. The lifeblood of a place is in those who animate it, and in New Orleans, the blood type is universal and joyfully obvious – “B positive.”
If there is a single element that epitomizes the animated spirit of New Orleans it has to be its music. While Bourbon Street is the artery through which the beat and pulse constantly flow, Jazz Fest becomes the city’s heart once a year. For two weekends in April and May, the Fair Grounds Race Course literally throbs to the sounds of as many styles of music as there are smiles from the thousands of visitors who fill the various tents and stage areas. From 10 in the morning till 6 at night, people flow from one sound to the next as horns wail, hands wave and fans whistle. Every sound is featured; rhythm and blues, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk, Latin, rock, rap, country, bluegrass and of course jazz. Outside, every mound of grass is crammed with joyful music lovers, each one swept up and away by the cadence, colors, and impulse to dance. Like a fit of the giggles, it becomes irresistible and spreads quickly. There is no self-consciousness or hesitation. Singles, couples, groups; men, women, and children; the mood mellows and the mass moves. Uninhibited undulations under the Louisiana sun. It’s a sensational sight and an unforgettable experience.