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Hurricane Katrina: This Bus for You?

Scott Vogel

The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, and with it an avalanche of press coverage emphasizing how far New Orleans has come and -- more often -- how far it's got to go. (Okay, Anderson, we get it: you're keeping them honest.) For a time, the media turned a seemingly inexhaustible eye to the glacial rebuilding efforts -- the half-collapsed houses still half-collapsing two years later, the boats still marooned on the lawns. But despite the attention (now shifting elsewhere with the speed at which it arrived), the Katrina tragedy remains something of an abstraction for many Americans.

Which is presumably what gave rise to certain tourist options in the Crescent City, both of them raising interesting questions about the fine line between entertainment and exploitation. Gray Line's Hurricane Katrina bus tour, equipped with the tabloid title "America's Worst Catastrophe," takes roughly 30-40 visitors on 3-hour tours of New Orleans' hardest hit areas -- Gentilly, Lakeview and the Ninth Ward among them -- twice daily. Another company, Tours by Isabelle, uses smaller buses (maximum number of passengers: 13) whose size supposedly allows visitors the opportunity to explore narrower streets in the affected areas. A city ordinance has declared some areas of the Ninth Ward off-limits to buses, but enough is accessible to give visitors a fair idea of what Katrina hath wrought.


Does a bus tour of Katrina-ravaged Louisiana hit a little too close to home? (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Portions of the Gray Line proceeds are earmarked for charity, and by all accounts the tours are presented with sensitivity and tact. And yet ... you've got to wonder how odd this spectacle must look from the standpoint of struggling New Orleans residents, who now, in addition to trying to save their neighborhoods, must also contend with mobs of tourists snapping photos from a comfortable Plexiglass distance. And the popularity of these drive-bys is only growing: the buzz among travelers is that no visit to New Orleans these days is complete without a Katrina tour of some sort.

And so, inevitably, some are now wondering if New Orleans isn't missing the boat by not further exploiting public interest in the hurricane's aftermath. After all, giving people another "attraction" to visit can only help the city's struggling tourism industry, which can only aid in the rebuilding effort, which ... might one day make the "America's Worst Catastrophe" tour obsolete. Or so the thinking goes.

Still, the heart cries out for something less convoluted, like -- oh, I dunno -- stopping the bus, opening the doors, and asking the tourists to put some actual muscle into the recovery effort.

Anyway, that's my take on things. What's yours?

By Scott Vogel |  September 19, 2007; 7:02 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel
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Tacky tacky tacky. These bus tours are in very poor taste. The residents of the 9th Ward are not side show freaks nor animals at the zoo. To take pictures of their suffering in insensitive and for anyone to capitalize on that suffering is also wrong.

Posted by: Disgusted | September 19, 2007 9:55 AM

I suppose it's no tackier than people selling souvineers at Ground Zero...

Posted by: BxNY | September 19, 2007 10:05 AM

You might think that these tours are tacky, but try visiting New Orleans now and not taking a trip "out to the affected areas." (Sounds like a line from a Zombie movie.) People are often condesending if you just stayed in the French Quarter. Like you didn't think about the aftermath from Katrina if you didn't go look at a half-collapsed house or visit the Ninth Ward.

Posted by: Love NOLA | September 19, 2007 10:46 AM

While this concept is so tasteless that I can't even imagine someone doing it, New Orleans does need the tourism. That said, you can hardly miss the damage when you just drive into the city so I'm not sure that bus tours are necessary. One can't help noticing the missing street cars or the spray paint on the doors. It is sobering every time I visit and I go almost monthly. Ultimately, negative press like that horrible show KVille will do much more damage to the city and it's people than those few tourists who are in New Orleans for the Katrina related sensationalism.

Posted by: Help NOLA | September 19, 2007 11:11 AM


How in the heck can you write a story about Katrina and fail to even mention the Mississippi Gulf Coast? 10s of thousands of homes were destroyed here and many more damaged, not to mention the horrible loss of life. The Gulf Coast suffered terrible damage, but the media acts as if the man made flood in NOLA was the only result of Katrina. I had 175 mph winds on my street, and it drives me around the bend for you to ignore the continued suffering here.

Posted by: Julian Brunt | September 19, 2007 11:50 AM

As a native Louisianian and former New Orleanian now living in the DC area (We got out the day before), and as a former N.O. tour guide, I do understand the mixed feelings about these tours.

If I were standing in my former residence as the tour bus passed I'd have mixed feelings.

I know some of the people giving these tours and, because of tourists staying away from New Orleans, for whatever reasons, these companies are holding on by the skin of their teeth.

The famous traditionnal jazz clubs such as Preservation Hall and The Palm Court, as well as world-class historical sites, are all in the same boat. If tourism doesn't increase dramatically, and soon, they will all be gone.

I believe it is important for tourists who go and visit New Orleans for the food the music and the history to also see "the affected areas", as they've been called, in order to see with their own eyes the effects of the destruction. It's important because neither TV nor photography can reveal the breadth of destruction of the storm.

People from elsewhere need to see this so that, just possibly, they might imagine what would happen if such a cataclysmic event struck their hometowns, be it flood, earthquake, terrorist attack, tornado...

Would they still be fighting with insurance companies, the state government, the federal government, the city government, and living in a city worthy of sideshow-like tours, 2 years after the calamity? Would Baltimore, Boston, or any major east coast city be in this shape 2 years after the storm?

Posted by: DoUKnowWhatItMeans | September 19, 2007 12:11 PM

wow, some really insightful responses. With regard to the man from Mississippi, I'm wondering if you've noticed whether bus tours are being conducted of Mississippi's affected areas? The story was about where bus tours are being conducted, which is why I failed to mention the other areas devastated by Katrina.

Posted by: scottvogel | September 19, 2007 12:25 PM

To me this seems comparable to heading down to Ground Zero while visiting Manhattan. Any thoughts on that comparison?

Posted by: boston liz | September 19, 2007 12:29 PM

The difference between the tragic loss in NYC and the loss in New Orleans is that there are no people struggling to rebuild their homes at Ground Zero and the fate of the city does not hang in the balance.

The fate of the people who work in the tourism industry, New Orleans' primary economic engine, will pretty much mirror the future of the city.

Perhaps we should just put the city up for sale on eBay, as someone just did with Belgium. Then when an interested party offers a vast sum of money, as happened for Belgium, Americans will realize what the loss of this jewel of a city would mean to the country.

Posted by: DoUKnowWhatItMeans | September 19, 2007 12:42 PM

In response to the man from Miss: I feel your pain. I was in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss. the weekend before the storm, enjoying the restaurants and shopping. Most all of those places are gone now.

New Orleanians and tourists from New Orleans made up quite a few of the diners and shoppers I saw that weekend on the Miss. Gulf Coast, thus the fate of the tourism industry in New Orleans and the regrowth of that area are linked, even if they are not doing bus tours of your city.

The casinos along the Miss. Gulf Coast will be more successful if New Orleanians return to the city and spend their weekends there.

We, in this region, are all suffering from the slow rebuilding and re-population of the area.

Posted by: DoUKnowWhatItMeans | September 19, 2007 12:59 PM

Isn't capitalism wonderful?

Posted by: Mickey | September 19, 2007 1:12 PM

Having lived through a MUCH less devastating hurricane on Long Island a number of years ago, I can tell you it made me furious when carload of people would drive through my neighborhood and roll down their windows to yell (with big smiles), "Wow! This is the worst damege we've seen!" It was as if they thought my husband and I should be PROUD to have lost so much. ***holes!

Posted by: Get off the bus! | September 19, 2007 1:25 PM

People just want to see it for themselves - with so much govt censorship at all levels in the last few years, and the press doing a lame job as the 4th branch, we don't see actual footage on tv or in newspapers or magazines anymore. We saw the same few pictures over and over, with lame excuses from media that the govts were telling them that pictures of people trapped or roofs or victims floating in the city or abandoned on streets were "inappropriate" - bull$#@! - it was inappropriate that our govt failed during this catastrophe and inappropriate that the media covered it up for them. Let the buses take caring and generous people out to the streets to see for themselves how to help. The bus drivers, ticket sellers, gasoline sellers and tour guides for those buses are earning a living to help them rebuild.

Posted by: Tucson Mom | September 19, 2007 1:27 PM

But work in New Orleans. I have not seen any tours of the Missississippi Gulf Coast. But there have certainly enough "tourists" drive by my house in the past 2 years.

I do not see this (the tours) as disrespecful at all. If it increases awareness and leads people taking the tours to help out, this is a good thing.

The comment about putting the people in the 9th ward on display does irk me a bit. As stated in the article, the tours include Gentily and Lakeview. But the national press seemed fixated on just the destruction in the 9th Ward rather than telling the whole story about the Mississippi Coast, Chalmette, Lakeview, Gentily etc.

Posted by: I live in Bay St. Louis | September 19, 2007 1:35 PM

Boston Liz, I agree. There are a lot of parallels between these trips and ground zero tourism. You can go support New Orleans and its recovery just by visiting the city - you don't have to go and gawk at the destruction. People died in these neighborhoods - just as they died in NY - and it just seems so disrespectful to go there and snap pictures of what is one part rebuilding, one part wasteland, and one part burial ground. I understand that visitors feel the need to have an emotional connection with tragedies like this, and I don't judge people who come to visit us in the city and make a pilgrimage to ground zero - but I'm not going to go to ground zero with them, and I'm not going to go on one of these ghoulish tours when I go to NO.

(All of this said, I do agree that NO is different from NY in that NO still needs a lot of attention and help to rebuild - are there any current NO-residents out there who welcome these tours because they want to keep the public focused on the lack of progress with rebuilding?)

Posted by: manhattanite | September 19, 2007 1:40 PM

While these tours may seem tacky or insensitive, they serve an important role in informing the public about the breadth and severity of the damage and the problems that still face New Orleans. Try as they might (and they've done excellent work), the Anderson Coopers and Spike Lees of this world will never be able to fully capture the devastation wrought by Katrina and the feelings of despair and hopelessness that emanate from the city's ruins. Firsthand tours of the affected areas may not educate perfectly, but they will go a long way to helping people understand the plight of the city and its people. And in that respect, all New Orleanians will profit from the tours.

Posted by: I Do Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans | September 19, 2007 2:21 PM

While it may seem tasteless, if I take a trip to New Orleans any time soon I think I woudl take one of the bus tours, maybe the small one. Even better would be a bus tour that includes organized stops with the neighborhood councils or whoever is ding clean up and rebuilding work to help clear debris. Even a small bus of people could get alot of work done in a couple of hours. As long as no one acts like they're at Disney World.

It is important to see what happened so you never forget it.

Posted by: EricS | September 19, 2007 5:06 PM

I think Katrina tours are the most effective method of conveying what happened here. I have taken many visiting family members and friends on my own tours of the city. The most common reaction is "I can't believe how large the devastated area is. TV does not do it justice". I am very careful to be respectful of the people I see in these neighborhoods. I hear a wide range of people's attitudes regarding tourists --from those who wish no one visits the devasted areas to those who welcome any and all. One way of being respectful is eating at the restaurants that have reopened, such as Mandina's in mid-city, Jazzy's in the upper ninth ward, Rocky and Carlo's in Chalmette, Voicinovich's in New Orleans East, the Hong Kong market on Chef Mentour in New Orleans East.

Posted by: Metairie, LA | September 19, 2007 10:00 PM

My husband and I took the 3-hour Grey Line tour when we were in New Orleans in April and believe me, no one on that bus was taking any ghoulish delight in seeing the destruction. We all felt like the news coverage had been inadequate and it was impossible to understand what happened to New Orleans and how much still needs to be done unless you've gone and seen it for yourself. Incidentally many of the residents who were out working on rebuilding their homes waved to us and not in a nasty manner. I think New Orleanians who are bravely trying to make a go of it against incredibly trying conditions are mostly glad that out-of-towners will understand and not forget New Orleans, and not think that somehow it is all getting so much better than it is.

Posted by: DianaM | September 23, 2007 3:46 PM

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