Mardi Gras celebrations get under way in New Orleans this weekend,
although on a much smaller scale than in past years. The city is still
recovering from the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Katrina on August
29 of last year. Local spirits were boosted Friday by two important
Crowds have returned to the slot machines and gaming tables once again
at Harrah's casino in downtown New Orleans. The casino reopened Friday
with full services and close to 1,300 employees. Meanwhile, a few blocks
away, there was another important reopening, that of the New Orleans
Convention Center, which served as a temporary shelter for hundreds of
desperate people in the days following Katrina.
The first event at the Convention Center is a Gift and Jewelry Show
featuring 600 exhibits. Some 15,000 shoppers crowded the halls on Friday
and it was a happy scene for New Orleans Convention and Visitor's Bureau
President Stephen Perry.
"It is a really powerful national signal, all over the United States
but all over the world that New Orleans is back.It is already open and it
is ready for business."
The reopening of Harrah's casino represents an important source of
income for the cash-strapped city. The casino pays the city $925,000 a
year to operate here and also draws tens of thousands of tourists who
spend money at local hotels and restaurants.
Harrah's New Orleans' Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim
Hoskins tells VOA that this is a new beginning for the casino in this
"It is full entertainment, I mean, We have Masquerade, which is a bar
and night club, we have a theater where tonight local musician Alan
Touissant is playing. Tomorrow night is rocking Dob.? We offer a full
array of that type of experience. We offer all the normal experiences,
whether it is night club activity and first-class entertainment. We are
going to have some Broadway shows probably in the future and other types
Hoskins says one of the big challenges his company faced in reopening
the casino was finding places where the 1,300 employees could live. Most
of the residential areas in New Orleans were devastated by flooding and
are still uninhabitable. Hoskins says Harrah's hired two housing
coordinators to find places for employees to live.
"We had set up relief centers after the storm, so we knew if they
needed housing help," he said. "so what these two coordinators did was go
out and they are trying to facilitate with the community and find all
types of housing options. They have been really successful with that and
we are very happy about it."
Carnival parades and parties have begun in neighborhoods across New
Orleans, leading up to the grand celebration on February 28, known as
Mardi Gras. City leaders hope this will give New Orleans a further boost,
but it may be limited in impact. Fewer than half of the city's 3,000
pre-Katrina restaurants have reopened and hotel rooms are hard to find
anywhere near the city.
Only about a third of the city's former residents have returned and
many remain in hotels all across Louisiana and other states waiting to see
if it will be possible for them to return.