Courier December Courier - Page 76

AFTERWORDS After Katrina: Honesty and commitment LIKE MANY New Orleanians, I have a Katrina story. As the hurricane neared New Orleans in August of 2005, I planned on staying. I didn’t take it seri- ously. I didn’t leave town until the night before landfall, and I only went as far as Baton Rouge because my mom begged me to. Before I left, I packed a backpack with a change of shorts, two t-shirts and a toothbrush. In a couple of weeks, I would learn that those were among the only things I would keep from my little house in Broadmoor, the neighborhood in which I’d bought my first New Orleans home. I learned many inconvenient truths in the aftermath of Katrina, and the first was that Broadmoor was the area where uptowners fished in the late 1800s. That was obvious when I returned and pad- dled a canoe down Napoleon Avenue to find water still standing in my house. Everything inside was in shambles. My house took in seven feet of water and soaked for more than two weeks. It’s amazing what standing water can do to a home. Opening that door is something I’ll never forget. I had to hack it open with an axe because it was swollen shut. I wasn’t ready for what I found inside. Everything I’d accumulated was worth- less or gone; I’d been foolish to think that any of that stuff, including my house, was mine to keep. In the days that followed, I took stock and realized what was truly essential and what I could live without. There is a big differ- ence. I also realized how adaptable we all were to such hardships. In time I realized that I was pretty lucky. I survived, most of my friends sur- vived and I still had a job. At the time, I worked for Peter A. Mayer Advertising, and among many other accounts, we rep- resented the Louisiana Office of Tourism. We had work to do … lots of work. For months following Katrina, we saw terrible images of our devastated city. 72 December 2017 BY KRISTIAN SONNIER An iconic streetcar like this one was taken around the U.S. by the New Orleans CVB to highlight the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina. One of our most iconic buildings, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, became a symbol of despair and destruction. The world was watching us closely when we were at our worst. For a long time, the headlines were dreadful, and there was very little good news. During the months following the storm, people decided to stay or go— and deciding to stay was the harder path. New Orleans’ future was uncer- tain, and remaining there was a risky bet. Those who gambled on New Orleans worked extremely hard to ensure that the bet would pay off. At first, we were not sure how to overcome the unprecedented challenges that lay before us. There was nobody on earth who had experience with rebuild- ing a city in this condition, and the scale of it was overwhelming. In early 2007, the New Orleans CVB launched the Forever New Orleans cam- paign. We had to be honest about our condition: It was improving but it wasn’t back 100 percent. We were operating in uncharted territory, and the world under- stood that. But we knew we had to quickly repair our tourism product, or the city’s economy—and its recovery—would falter. We had to convince visitors that our city was healthy enough to host them and show them that the core of New Orleans was intact. The people of New Orleans were still here and working harder than ever before to reclaim our reputation as a world-class destination— even as many of us were also trying to rebuild our homes and personal lives. We simply invited people to come and be a part of rebuilding our city alongside us. In addition to our paid advertising campaign, the CVB launched an aggres- sive public relations campaign aimed at restoring the image of New Orleans as a premiere leisure and convention destina- tion. We did some interesting PR work in key markets. We commissioned an iconic New Orleans streetcar and took it around the country to use as a stage from which to tell about our comeback, drawing media attention everywhere we went. We simultaneously did a lot of inbound PR, inviting journalists from around the world to come and see for themselves how New Orleans was doing, resulting in positive media coverage. We are now 12 years beyond those hectic days, and in many ways, the city is better than it was in 2005. It took some time to find the right message after the destruction, but the message we found was universally understood. It was a message of honesty about our condition, and we backed it up with an indefatigable commitment to staying, rebuilding and being hospitable to any- one who wanted to come and help us. Kristian Sonnier is the vice president of communications and public relations of the New Orleans CVB.