Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

November 29, 2007 -

John Heald

One of the very best shows you will ever see on any cruise ship — or anywhere for that matter — is currently onboard the Carnival Freedom.  It’s called “The Big Easy” and is, of course, a tribute to the people and the city of New Orleans.

You know, when you mention the name of this incomparable city you obviously think of the terrible devastation and suffering that was caused by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina — and that’s normal of course. However, each cruise “The Big Easy” show is a reminder of New Orleans’ heritage and, in particular, its unique contribution to the world of music and entertainment. The show also shows how through faith and determination the city is on the rise once again. It is therefore an honour (spelt correctly) to introduce to you Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans.

1. Before we talk about the rejuvenation of your Great City can you describe your own personal feelings the morning after the storm when you surveyed the damage to the Port itself?
As Hurricane Katrina set her sights on New Orleans 30 hours before landfall, the view of the Mississippi River outside my office was a sight to behold. The Mississippi was emerald green, dotted with white caps, and flowing upriver. With all her force, Hurricane Katrina was pushing the Mississippi back toward its source with water from the Gulf of Mexico. I knew this storm was the mother lode and we were in for a long ride.

The storm forced my staff to evacuate; some never to return for months or at all. However, with a skeleton crew who remained, we were able to survey damages and begin the task of restarting operations at one of the nation’s busiest ports. 

New Orleans

We returned to find that our facilities on the Mississippi River, including the cruise facilities, received minor to moderate wind damage, but did not flood. But we lost a container terminal and most of our facilities on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal – about 30 percent of our cargo capacity.

Within 10 days after landfall, we worked our first ship, beating the early estimates of federal officials that indicated it would take six months to restart cargo operations in New Orleans.

New Orleans

I am happy to say the Port of New Orleans has returned to normal cargo levels – working 9.4 million tons in 2006 – up 4 percent compared to our five-year average pre-Katrina.

Getting back to normal was a tough task and the many workers that depend on Port operations faced myriad hardships. More than 1.5 million people evacuated from the New Orleans metropolitan area – the most successful evacuation in the nation’s history. The City of New Orleans suffered tremendous damage in the aftermath of the storm caused by levee failures along drainage canals north of the city, flooding 80 percent of the city.  Contrary to popular belief, the floodwaters did not come from the Mississippi River, which did not breach or overtop its levees, but from Lake Pontchartrain to the north.  Some areas had as much as 20 feet of water. The city was without electricity, potable water, gas and sewage services. Some parts of the city were without services for more than six months.  Fortunately, the tourism areas of the city, including the Port’s cruise facilities; the French Quarter and Garden District did not suffer flooding and were spared the brunt of the damages.

New Orleans

2. What were the immediate challenges the port faced in the direct aftermath of Katrina?
Keys to our recovery plan now include back-up communication. Port officials had cell phones, but the entire 504 area code was knocked out of operation, and over 900 cell towers were demolished by the storm. The few satellite phones the staff had did not work either. Without electricity, the Internet was non-existent, so no communication existed. We learned cell phones with out-of-state area codes and text messaging worked for sparse communication. Top managers now have emergency phones with Arkansas area codes that are activated during the hurricane season.

New Orleans

Housing workers in an evacuated city with no infrastructure working also topped our list of challenges.

I realized we needed a place for our people – from administrative staff to stevedores and truck drivers – to live.  More than half of the Port’s staff suffered water damage to their homes and about 30 percent lost their homes completely.

New Orleans

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) deployed military ready reserve fleet ships to a domestic disaster to provide housing and food for workers and to aid in power generation. The ships provided space for 1,000 workers for months following the storm. Today, the plan is standard operating procedure for MARAD to help restart port operations following a disaster.

In addition to the MARAD ships, cruise lines were requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide bids for cruise ships to house first responders in the City, and Carnival responded by contracting with FEMA to provide the Carnival Ecstasy and Carnival Sensation as hotel ships for New Orleans’ police, firefighters and other emergency response personnel whose homes had been destroyed by the wind and water from the hurricane. The ships arrived in New Orleans shortly after the storm and remained for six months. They served as a valuable asset to the recovery of the area.

New Orleans

3. Can you tell us then what work has been carried out to make New Orleans ready to receive cruise liners again?
For starters, the Port opened its new $37 million Erato Street Cruise Terminal and Parking Garage in October of 2006. The reviews of the Erato Street Terminal have been unbelievable, as industry executives have visited numerous times to see how it works and how it was built. It’s been called the easiest embarkation/disembarkation terminal in the industry and it is in downtown New Orleans just minutes from the French Quarter.

New Orleans

In addition, the City’s tourism industry and its infrastructure rebounded remarkably well. More than 100 percent of the gourmet restaurants that attracted visitors from throughout the world are open, renovated and better than ever. Also, more than 30,000 hotel rooms steps from the French Quarter are open. As I said before, the areas tourists frequent were spared from the floodwaters more than two years ago and are alive and thriving.

4. Now that the city and the port are on the rise again, what are the reasons that New Orleans is in your opinion a great place to take a cruise to and from?
The importance of the return of the cruise industry cannot be overstated. The cruise passengers returning to New Orleans see that the City’s historic beauty and charm are alive and well, and they return home to spread the word that New Orleans is still kicking.

New Orleans

The City realized record-breaking attendance during numerous festivals and events throughout 2007. Mardi Gras welcomed more than 800,000 revelers to area hotels, restaurants and music clubs. The annual French Quarter Festival attracted 425,000 visitors and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival drew 375,000 music fans, the most since 2003. New Orleans successfully hosted the AllState Sugar Bowl, New Orleans Saints NFC Division Championship playoff game, the PGA Zurich Classic, ArenaBowl and a host of other cultural and historic exhibits and events throughout the area.

Carnival Fantasy

The City prides itself on showing tourists a good time and there is no better place to be than New Orleans right now.

New Orleans

The Crescent City received numerous accolades, as well. The Los Angeles Times named New Orleans one of the world’s “Don’t Miss Destinations” and Travelocity named the City one of 2007’s top-10 “Favorite Gourmet Destinations in the World.”

New Orleans offers cruise passenger an extended vacation, more so than any other homeport.  America’s most interesting city combines just the right mixture of culture, history, food and fun to make it the most memorable port of call on the cruise. Whether it is visiting an antebellum plantation, a St. Charles Avenue mansion, the Aquarium of the Americas, the National World War II Museum, deep-sea fishing or a swamp tour, there is something for everyone in the family. Pick any one of our over 1,000 gourmet restaurants for some southern Creole cooking, stroll through the French Quarter for a look at the historical architecture, or amble down world famous Bourbon Street. Then take the entire family to one of dozens of first class music halls to experience live productions of jazz, blues and other genres of music that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. As we like to say, Caribbean rhythms resonate in New Orleans.

New Orleans

People want to cruise from New Orleans because it adds another interesting port city to their itinerary. They come for a day or two before their cruise or after their cruise. It’s like two vacations in one.

5. How many cruise ships cruise into and out of New Orleans and what are the port’s plans for the future?
The Port actually experienced its busiest cruise month in its history in December of 2006, when more than 95,000 passengers came through New Orleans on 23 cruise ship calls by seven different cruise ships.

Currently, the Carnival Fantasy sails four- and five-day Western Caribbean Cruises year-round from New Orleans and the Norwegian Spirit sails seven-day Western Caribbean itineraries from the Crescent City. In addition, Majestic America sails the Delta Queen and American Queen paddlewheel vessels on journeys from New Orleans throughout the inland river system and RiverBarge Excursions offer a hotel-on-barge cruise on the Mississippi River.

New Orleans

We are actively marketing New Orleans as a top cruise destination and working toward securing additional homeport vessels. We are working with Carnival executives to bring back the cruise line’s year-round seven-day product to New Orleans and hoping to attract new ships with a new facility at our Poland Avenue Wharf. We are in the engineering and design phase of constructing a permanent terminal at the site, which successfully hosted four ship calls by Princess Cruises’ Golden Princess last December. When completed, we will have the ability to host three of the cruise industry’s largest ships simultaneously on choice weekend slots.

6. The people of New Orleans are very special. What is it about the people that have enabled them to rise above all that have happened to them?

The main ingredient that makes New Orleans a top tourist destination is its people. With a majority population born and bred in the Crescent City for generations, New Orleans exudes ambiance and hospitality. Deep-rooted families create eclectic neighborhoods, host unique fairs and festivals and celebrate just about anything. Together, these ingredients create what’s been called “America’s Most Interesting City.” Our resolve cannot be overstated. New Orleans is home and no other city in the world offers what New Orleans has to offer. The music, the food, the culture – from Mardi Gras Indians to corner jazz musicians – there’s no other place like it. Just about every weekend there’s a parade or a festival somewhere in town – celebrating life and living.

New Orleans

7. Finally, I love the food…….your food is some of the best in the world. As someone who lives and breathes New Orleans everyday can you take us through your favourite local restaurants and food specialties?
To begin with, more restaurants are open now than prior to Hurricane Katrina. National chain restaurants don’t necessarily fare well in New Orleans. Neighborhood favorites and corner bars sometimes serve the best cuisine around. But all of the staples of New Orleans’ gourmet experiences are open and are better than ever. Many took a little time to reopen and performed extensive renovations they may have been putting off. Some of my favorites include Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s, Peristyle, NOLA, Mr. B’s, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse and Clancy’s. But it’s hard to find a bad meal in this city…

New Orleans

What a fantastic interview and having read this I am sure that everyone wishes continuing best wishes and fortune to the everyone in New Orleans. Personally, I can’t wait to go back……………………..especially to try out all the wonderful food.

Goodnight

Your Friends

John and Heidi

Hi, I’m John, and this is my blog. So please don’t mistake my opinions — or those of my dear friends, fans or commenters — for those of Carnival Cruise Line or Carnival Corporation. My apologies in advance for anything I may say that upsets you, but this disclaimer covers Carnival and puts the blame directly on me………….. bugger.