Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Hurricane Gustav struck the city on Sept. 1, testing the Crescent City's post-Katrina infrastructure and planning. Senior Editor Michelle Baran spoke with Kelly Schulz, vice president for communications and public relations at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, about how the city is faring.
Q: What damages has New Orleans suffered as a result of Gustav?
A: The hotels, the tourist areas, the streets are clean. They're dry. If there was damage, it was very minor. Our Superdome had very little damage. Our convention center never even lost power. That building is 100% secure. Our airport is open, and commercial air service has resumed. The biggest challenge is power outages throughout the city. And it's very hot in New Orleans right now. The Ninth Ward was an area hit very hard by Katrina, and there was no damage, no flooding [there from Gustav].
Q: What were some of the lessons learned from Katrina?
A: We developed a plan after Katrina. This was our first big test of that plan, and we passed. The mayor of New Orleans called for a mandatory evacuation; there was not the situation that you saw during Katrina, where the Superdome or convention center were used as shelters of last resort. During Katrina, the hotels were used as shelters, a vertical evacuation. That did not happen this time. All of the hotels were completely closed. There were a handful of hotels that stayed open for the national media and emergency personnel.
Q: How were visitors to New Orleans affected by Gustav?
A: Our new plan called for a visitor evacuation, which was separate from the resident evacuation. Starting on Saturday morning, we began a voluntary visitor evacuation. If you had an airline ticket, a rental car or a way out of the city, we encouraged visitors to begin to leave the city if they could. Sunday morning, the mandatory evacuation took effect. At that point, any visitors that were remaining had to leave. You were encouraged to go to two staging areas. One was the Sheraton Hotel, and the other was the Harrah's Casino and Hotel, [where] we had a shuttle getting visitors to the airport. There may have been a couple of glitches, but for the most part those glitches were fixed quickly. Sunday at 6 p.m. is when the airlines suspended flight service. Prior to that time, all of the visitors got out of the city.
Q: Obviously, the tourism industry is on hold right now. Are you expecting canceled trips and a slowdown in tourism?
A: I don't know if it's safe to say that it's on hold right now. There are many hotels and restaurants that are open. The ones that are not open are going to be open very soon. The airport is now open. All of the evacuation orders have been lifted. We do not expect any disruption whatsoever to our fall events calendar. We've assured all our customers on the meetings and conventions side that we do not expect any disruptions. We had a couple smaller events and meetings in the city this week that had to be canceled. In that regard, we'll take a hit financially. But our No. 1 concern was the safety of visitors and protecting our tourism assets.
Q: Do you anticipate being down in 2008 over 2007 in terms of visitor numbers?
A: Well, if it is, it's not going to be because of Gustav. A normal, healthy, good year for us prior to Katrina was 8.5 million.
Of course now, like every destination, there is the economy, and the situation with airlines, national factors. We certainly hope to maintain the 7.1 million [visitors in 2007] and get closer to the 8.5 million.