In this five-part series, bestselling author Chris Rose reflects on New Orleans’ growth since 2005. While his book, 1 Dead in Attic, provided a harrowing account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, these essays look forward as much as they look back, inspecting the resilience of the hospitality industry and sub-sectors like restaurants, retail, and arts and culture.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee collapse, I developed a greater appreciation for the New Orleans hotel industry than I had previously possessed.
Over the prior two decades during which I had lived in New Orleans, I saw the hotels here as good and necessary institutions which had very little to do with me. Well, except the bars. I love hotel bars.
And I really love New Orleans hotel bars.
But the only times I ever saw the inside of local hotel rooms was when my parents came to visit over the years. Each time, I would try to set them up in a new location providing a new atmosphere, a new experience, a new view and – not to be dismissed – a new room service menu. So, over the years they bounced from the Provincial to the Westin Canal Place to the Soniat House to the Royal Orleans and they loved them all.
Then I bought a house. Big mistake. They started staying with me.
After that, during my run as the celebrity columnist for The Times-Picayune, I would occasionally gain access to some of the finer suites around the city to interview the Hollywood It Girl of the moment, some hotshot author or some aging rock and roll star. But there would always be a publicist there and the rooms were all so fastidious and tidy and I always felt like they couldn’t wait until I finished with my dumb questions and left so they could break out the party supplies and get about the business of trashing the place.
The only other occasion I stayed in a New Orleans hotel room was the night of my bachelor party, when ten of us rented a suite at the Windsor Court, requested that two poker tables be set up and we all dressed in coats and ties and got down to the business of letting the cards and liquor flow.
No strippers and lap dances for this guy. My friends and I – we got class. Or so we thought.
Being the general low-rollers and rubes that we were back in our younger and more vulnerable years, we were puzzled that there were no ice machines on our floor. Nor on any floor, for that matter. What kind of hotel doesn’t have ice machines, we wondered. (Or a 13th floor? What’s that all about?)
Really nice ones, it turned out. We discovered we were in a place so dang refined that, when you wanted ice, you picked up the phone – there was even one in the bathroom! – to request prompt delivery of a tasteful ice bucket filled with identically shaped, glistening cubes of perfection.
An ice bucket. Ten guys. Bachelor party. Poker. New Orleans.
We were on the 10th floor, and we ran that poor guy from housekeeping ragged that night.
Ah, but all those innocent times past. All that frivolous fun. Our younger and more vulnerable years. Before The Thing.
Six days after the storm, I arrived back in New Orleans ready to get about the business of covering the mess of a city that was New Orleans. My house was intact but hot as hell, and my windows had no screens and not only were the mosquitos fiercely aggressive – after all, they had no hosts! – but we were all jolted by rumors abound of them biting dead people before they bit you and, as with everything else at that time: It was living terror.
Then, for a week, a dozen or so reporters and photographers who had found our way back to town – and found each other – martialed our limited resources together at a colleague’s house Uptown and set up a make-shift news bureau there. A hot, sweaty, stinking, crowded news bureau.
The great thing about such working conditions was that management was 70 miles away in Baton Rouge, so we could concentrate on just doing our work rather than having meetings, which newspaper managers really like to do. But when, about three weeks after the storm, some members of management decided to come into the city to take control of the rogue news operation we had established, our spirits were kept aloft only by one significant detail: Management don’t stink.
We were moving our news bureau into a hotel. Or, I should say: We were moving into the hotel. There was only one open at that point: The Sheraton on Canal Street. And they had air-conditioning. And having news meetings never felt so good.
Working with a barebones staff with barebones amenities, that hotel was a godsend to the working press at the time. A place to feel safe. To get clean. To work in relative comfort. Although, admittedly, with nearly a dozen of us crammed into each suite – and not for a night of poker, but to live and work 24/7 – our particular wing of the hotel had more the feel of Spring Break than anything else, what with bodies laid out sleeping on any available horizontal surface and piles of dirty clothes spontaneously amassing in the corners and more than a few empty beer cans strewn about in the morning.
But it was shelter. Shelter from the storm inside our heads. And from the real and growing storm outside: Several days after we moved in, Hurricane Rita was bearing down on south Louisiana. It was a situation so dire that all of the National Guard units that had come to New Orleans broke down their encampments and evacuated the city. The last of the native holdouts fled. It was literally the emptying of an American city.
There never was an official number established, but it was thought that – on the night Rita made landfall, mercifully West of New Orleans – there were between 500 and 1,000 people left in the city.
But the Sheraton was open. And I remember standing by myself late that night in that big open-air lobby – with the windows facing Canal Street that go up forever – watching the rain sheeting sideways into the empty, unlit street and feeling more alone than I ever had in my life.
Thankfully, I was able to go back up to my room and find a handful of sound sleeping and snoring colleagues and friends – warriors all – and push in alongside one of them in a queen bed and pull half the sheet over me and go to sleep remembering, “I am safe here. And we’re going to be OK.”
Things went fast after that. Well – first they went slow – but then they went fast. Our city came back to life. More hotels opened to house first responders and then to house contractors and then to house returning families. And then one day, checking in at the front desk: Visitors. Tourists. Conventioneers. Not people coming to help repair a broken city but coming to revel in it, celebrate it and simply… enjoy it.
Brought to you by the New Orleans hotel industry, 39,000 rooms strong – more than ever before. And in those rooms, in 2014, 9.52 million people laid down their heads to rest – more than ever before. And they spent a whole lot of money and kept a whole lot of people working, and I could quote you more numbers and statistics but…you get the point.
We’re back. Big time. That was made most clear in 2011 when, as a poignant bookend to the Sheraton being the first major hotel to reopen, the Hyatt Regency became the last. These two hotels, along with the Hilton Riverside and Canal Street Marriott, once comprised the “Big Four” downtown hotels that – decades ago – dominated the local convention business, prior to the opening of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the radical transformation of the Warehouse District and the CBD.
But the Hyatt was hit hard by Katrina, perhaps harder than any other hotel, and photos of its blown-out windows with their curtains flapping in the wind became some of the most powerful images of the storm. The building would lay dormant for six years while the city began re-blossoming around it. And then, in the fall of 2011, it reopened to spectacular review, fully remade and reimagined, unrecognizable from its former self, an eye-popping city unto itself once again standing proud overlooking that most hallowed piece of ground in this city – and its own former emblem of destruction and sorrow – the Superdome.
And something just all feels right with the world when Poydras Street and Loyola Avenue are jumping to life, teeming in black and gold on a Sunday afternoon and not only is the Hyatt back in business – but the whole damn city. And with that knowledge we all rest better in our beds at night. And we rest even better knowing that 39,000 of our closest friends and family – and even our parents – can also do the same. In a New Orleans hotel.