Archive for the ‘New Orleans’ Category

Land of ducks

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway decided to head south from Piggott, where he was visiting his in-laws, in order to hunt ducks along the lower White River in southeast Arkansas in late 1932.

Hemingway was accompanied by Max Perkins, the legendary book editor known for discovering and nurturing authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

I had the pleasure of quail hunting in Clay County earlier this year with Perkins’ granddaughter, and she gave me a copy of a letter her grandfather wrote on Christmas Day in 1932.

Perkins wrote: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.”

I quoted from this letter in the previous post. My favorite part by far was Perkins’ description of the men who lived along the lower White and Arkansas rivers, making their living hunting, fishing, gathering mussel shells and trapping: “We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.”

A few such men can still be found living on houseboats on the rivers of east Arkansas — the Arkansas, White, Cache and Black — but much of what you will now find during duck season are well-heeled people from across the country who come to this mecca of mallards.

East Arkansas long has attracted the rich and famous during duck season. Vice presidents, former presidents, ambassadors, movie stars, well-known musicians, professional athletes and titans of industry descend on our state in search of ducks.

They say that if you were to stake out the Stuttgart airport during the 60-day duck season, you would be shocked by the number of faces you recognize.

Given that rich tradition, I shouldn’t have been surprised last month when I found myself at a duck club near DeWitt as dinner was being prepared by Dickie Brennan from the Brennan family of New Orleans, one of the best-known restaurant families in the world. Brennan is an avid duck hunter and was spending several days at a duck club known as Little Siberia before heading east for another hunt in Mississippi.

Brennan drove to the Arkansas Delta from the Crescent City and brought food with him — lots of food.

We started with cobia (also known as lemon fish) from the Gulf of Mexico, which was sliced paper thin as sashimi. That was followed by grilled wild boar sausages, turtle soup, fried oysters, a crab dip on French bread, a salad and prime rib. I didn’t bother to ask if there was dessert.

Brennan was born in 1960 in New Orleans and lived a block away from the historic Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace, where his father Dick Sr., his uncle John and his aunts Adelaide, Ella and Dottie ran the show. He began working in the kitchen there as a teenager under the tutelage of chef Paul Prudhomme.

After helping his family open Mr. B’s in the French Quarter in 1979, Brennan worked under chefs in Mexico City, New York and France. He became the general manager of the family’s Brennan’s of Houston in 1986 before moving back to New Orleans in 1990 to open the Palace Café in the old Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street.

Dickie Brennan has since opened three additional restaurants in the French Quarter — Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, Bourbon House and Tableau.

It was a magical night at Little Siberia that combined many of my favorite things — the Delta, ducks, hunting clubs with a long history, good food, fascinating people and intelligent conversation. There also was a touch of melancholy since the men who built the current Little Siberia lodge in 1983 are selling the club this month to George Dunklin Jr. of Stuttgart, the immediate past president of Ducks Unlimited who founded the Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart. Dunklin, who served for seven years on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, was in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame, which was inducted in December.

The Little Siberia lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir that covers almost 700 acres and is adjacent to Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44.

It was warm for late January, the kind of day when club members often pull large crappie from the reservoir. The door was left open so there could be a roaring fire in the lodge’s fireplace. Veteran club members told stories of the other duck clubs in this area of the state and the colorful characters who inhabit them each season.

On the bookshelf in the lodge was a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, the collection of waterfowling stories contains a piece about a Thanksgiving trip Russell made to Arkansas one year. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field his first morning in Arkansas. It was even slower the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain in the back of Buerkle Drug Store on Main Street in Stuttgart, he promised to take the visitor “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia. Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after Hancock’s death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west, which allowed us to watch a glorious winter sunset as Dickie Brennan prepared dinner.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak,” Max Perkins wrote back in 1932. “I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time.”

Another Arkansas duck season has ended, but the memories will linger for the thousands of people who found their way to the fields and flooded timber of east Arkansas.

From Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Carter to Dick Cheney to Dickie Brennan, famous Americans have been lured to Arkansas for decades by its duck hunting culture.

Lenten thoughts on NOLA

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

For years, the New Orleans Police Department has made it a big production: A motorcade clears Bourbon Street of revelers when the clock strikes midnight on Fat Tuesday.

In one of the nation’s most Catholic cities, it’s supposed to symbolize the end of Carnival and the start of Lent.

Though thousands of people attended Ash Wednesday masses in the Crescent City this week, that motorcade is largely for show. The television cameramen love it. You can bet that the restaurants and bars were still going strong Wednesday.

In a Fat Tuesday post on this blog, I talked about the things that have happened in the decade since Hurricane Katrina. I outlined some of the billions of dollars in construction now taking place in the city and admitted that I had been among those who doubted New Orleans could bounce back from the flood.

The goal now must be to ensure that those things that make New Orleans attractive to visitors aren’t lost in the rush to build apartment complexes, medical centers, hotels and the like. I’ve long been fascinated with the history of the American South. So obviously I’m attracted to New Orleans, which for so long stood as the most important city in the region.

I renewed my love affair with New Orleans during a visit two weeks ago.

I stayed at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. It’s not particularly old — having been built in 1964 — but it sits at the corner of Orleans and Bourbon, a historic intersection.

“The Orleans Theatre opened its doors in 1815,” the hotel’s website states. “The French-provincial building rivaled in grandeur and luxury the old theaters of Europe, but arson brought its glory to ash one year after its debut. John Davis, a New Orleans entrepreneur, quickly rebuilt Theatre d’Orleans and added a grand ballroom known as Salle d’Orleans. The theater was a masterpiece of classic architecture with its lower story of Roman Doric order and upper columns fashioned with ornate Corinthian flutes and elaborate capitals. Creole society flocked to Theatre d’Orleans and Salle d’Orleans. Ladies in full evening costume and men of taste enjoyed performances in the French language.”

In 1881, the Sisters of the Holy Family purchased the site and, in the words of the hotel website, “transformed a former place of vice into a sacred edifice of virtue. The ballroom became the sisterhood’s motherhouse as well as the first Catholic secondary school for colored girls in New Orleans, St. Mary’s Academy. Its atmosphere was no longer that of waltzing Parisian gowns and coquettish young blades of old New Orleans but instead a dedication of women to the cause of religion and charity.”

By the early 1960s, a larger building in a more convenient location (have you ever tried driving around the French Quarter?) was needed. The site was sold to the Bourbon Kings Hotel Corp., and constructions began on the Bourbon Orleans.

During the first night of my visit, I made the short walk from the hotel to Antoine’s to meet Marc Becker, the director of sales and marketing for the New Orleans Hotel Collection, which owns the Bourbon Orleans.

Before going into the 175-year-old restaurant, we met in the Hermes Bar, one of the expansions engineered by Rick Bount, the fifth generation of the family to operate Antoine’s. Blount worked at Antoine’s as a teenager and college student. He managed and owned businesses in Louisiana and Texas before returning to his family business at the urging of his mother, Yvonne Alicatore Blount, in March 2005.

Katrina did massive damage to the building housing Antoine’s. Rick Blount, though, saw it as an opportunity to update the building while at the same time preserving its history. He added the Hermes Bar and the small European-style café on Royal Street known as Antoine’s Annex. He came up with a modern marketing plan. It’s safe to say that Blount has made more changes in the past decade than had been made in the previous century.

Before the storm, Antoine’s was resting on its laurels and living in the past.

The food coming out of the kitchen is better than ever these days with executive chef Michael Regua, whose mother was an Antoine’s cook, directing operations. The younger Regua began work as a prep cook at Antoine’s in 1972.

Antoine’s lost its wine collection in the storm, but beverage manager Matthew Ousset, who started at the restaurant as a waiter and has worked there more than three decades, now oversees a wine cellar of more than 18,000 bottles.

After arriving in this country from his native France, Antoine Alciatore stopped in New York and then came south to New Orleans. French was spoken widely in New Orleans in 1840, and Alciatore felt at home in America’s most European city.

A history of the restaurant posted on the Antoine’s website picks up the story from there: “After a brief period in the kitchen of the grand St. Charles Hotel, Antoine opened a pension, a boarding house and restaurant. It was then that he made arrangements for his fiancée to join him from New York. She came to New Orleans with her sister, and she and Antoine were married. Together they worked to build up their pension with culinary emphasis. New Orleans’ gentility was so taken with the restaurant that it soon outgrew its small quarters, and Antoine’s moved down the block and eventually, in 1868, to the spot on St. Louis Street where the restaurant stands today.

“In 1874, Antoine, being in ill health, took leave of his family with the management of the restaurant in his wife’s hands. He felt he had not much longer to live and wished to die and be buried in his birthplace in France. He told his wife he did not want her to watch him deteriorate and said as he left: ‘As I take the boat for Marseilles, we will not meet again on earth.’ He died within the year. After Antoine’s death, his son Jules served as apprentice under his mother’s tutelage for six years before she sent him to France, where he served in the great kitchens of Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles. He returned to New Orleans and became chef of the famous Pickwick Club in 1887 before his mother summoned him to head the house of Antoine.”

It was Jules who invented oysters Rockefeller. He married Althea Roy, the daughter of a southwest Louisiana planter, and they had three children — Roy, Jules Jr. and Mary Louise. Roy led the restaurant for almost 40 years until his death in 1972.

Mary Louise married William Guste. Their sons William Jr. (a former Louisiana attorney general) and Roy Guste Sr. became the fourth generation of the family to head the restaurant.

Roy Guste Jr. led Antoine’s from 1975-84. William Jr.’s son, Bernard “Randy” Guste, then managed Antoine’s through 2004.

Blount had worked as the restaurant’s assistant night manager while studying finance at Loyola University. His uncles, William Jr. (known as Billy) and Roy Sr., told him he wouldn’t be a good fit at the restaurant.

“If you had asked me this in my 30s, I would have said that I was discriminated against because my name wasn’t Guste,” Blount told the Times-Picayune last year. “But today I would tell you that I probably was a bull in a china shop. I had this absolute righteousness about me that I knew what was right. That restaurant was a novelty to us and quite honestly it wasn’t that attractive to us as kids. It was very formal. You had to be quiet.”

Blount’s father was a marine surveyor. The family lived far from the restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans and usually only showed up to eat during Mardi Gras.

“There was pride that we belonged to that family, but there was no economic advantage,” Blount told the newspaper. “We didn’t get to drive a Corvette. We struggled to figure out if we could get new shoes.”

Blount’s first business after college repaired boats for blue marlin fishing. When the shareholders selected Blount to run the restaurant in 2005, his family decided to buy the half stake it didn’t already own.

“There was rampant nepotism everywhere,” Blount told the Times-Picayune. “Everyone was related to everyone. Everyone dated everyone. I thought: ‘How does anyone manage under these conditions?’ It’s just crazy. I thought we needed an operating handbook. We needed service standards. We needed recipe files. What we had were rituals, and I thought we needed laws. I was wrong.”

In the more casual society in which we live, Blount relaxed the Antoine’s dress code and worked hard to attract younger customers to the Hermes Bar, hoping they later would become patrons of the restaurant.

“I think I’ve been a good defender,” he said. “I’ve changed things to allow me to keep things. I think we’re a work in progress. I think we always will be.”

Just around the corner from Antoine’s, there’s an equally refreshed version of Brennan’s. A family feud left the restaurant closed and tied up in the courts before it was bought by Ralph Brennan (who is from another branch of the Brennan family tree) and business partner Terry White. After purchasing the famous salmon-colored structure on Royal Street in 2014, they spent an estimated $20 million (that’s right — $20 million on a restaurant) and hired one of the city’s favorite chefs, Slade Rushing, who has done a spectacular job updating the old Brennan’s classics while adding new dishes to the menu.

Along with the rebirth of traditional New Orleans restaurants such as Antoine’s and Brennan’s, there are the scores of new restaurants gaining attention in all parts of the city. In fact, New Orleans now has almost 600 more restaurants than were operating prior to Katrina.

The January edition of Biz New Orleans magazine featured a story on brothers Marviani, Zeid and Richy Ammari, whose company Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts operates a dozen full-service restaurants with more on the way. The restaurant lineup includes such well-known names in the French Quarter as Broussard’s, The Bombay Club and Café Maspero.

Zeid told the magazine: “The city is growing at an unbelievable speed. … The business community is feeling a tremendous growth, and you have to react to that.”

While he was in college in 1989, Marviani took over his first daiquiri store. In addition to the full-service restaurants, the brothers now operate a number of Big Easy Daiquiri locations.

“I love driving downtown, even on a Sunday morning, to touch the buildings, maybe stop at one of the restaurants for a cup of coffee, see the managers,” Marviani told the magazine. “We truly live in the best city in the world. I love what I do.”

The brothers, who now have more than 1,000 employees, bought their first full-service restaurant — the Chartres House — in 2003. They thought about moving their operations to Houston after Katrina, but Marviani finally told his relatives: “I’m not a gambler, but I’m going to put all my money on New Orleans.”

The bet paid off.

The brothers recently turned a former Arby’s location on Canal Street into Creole House Restaurant & Oyster Bar.

On Royal Street, they’re adding what they describe as a rustic Louisiana bistro.

In 2006, the first full year after Katrina, New Orleans had an estimated 3.7 million visitors. There were more than 9.5 million visitors last year.

Diana Schwam, who writes the Frommer’s guide for New Orleans, said of the city: “The post-Katrina energy that has emerged is insane. It’s just really fun and exciting.”

The population has dropped from 460,000 before the storm to about 380,000, but annual hotel revenue has grown from about $1 billion before the storm to more than $1.4 billion now. Total visitor spending is estimated at more than $6 billion. More than 80,000 jobs in the New Orleans area are linked to the hospitality sector. There also were more than 125 permitted festivals in the city last year.

In an article last fall, this is how The New York Times summed up what New Orleans has become in the decade since Katrina: “Old-school Southern men of commerce can still be found here heading to work in seersucker suits in the heat of the hurricane months. They still swap gossip at the private Boston Club and sip Friday-afternoon sazeracs at Galatoire’s, the white-tablecloth grande dame of Creole cooking, just across Canal Street in the fabled French Quarter.

“But in the post-Katrina reality of the Central Business District, these proud and timeless creatures co-exist with a small band of entrepreneurs and techies who lounge, in the glow of laptops, on Swedish-style furniture. They swap irregularly shaped business cards at Capdeville, a gastropub where a riff on red beans and rice is served with a green onion aioli. They make deals at the Pulp & Grind coffee shop, where a flier on a bulletin board recently announced, ‘Cloud developers unite!’ The start-up scene here is, to a great extent, a deliberate construct, built by a small, aggressive group of boosters who believe that this city, so careful to honor its past, must innovate its way to a future that isn’t so reliant on the old standbys of the oil, gas and hospitality industries.”

It’s the new New Orleans.

And it’s worth a visit.

Fat Tuesday musings

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

I write this on Fat Tuesday.

When your name is Rex, it’s a requirement that you like Mardi Gras.

They got an early start today in New Orleans.

The Krewe of Zulu rolled this morning at 8 a.m. in Uptown, followed by the Krewe of Rex at 10 a.m. The Krewe of Elks Orleans and the Krewe of Crescent City followed.

Out in Metairie, the Krewe of Argus rolled at 10 a.m., followed by the Krewe of Elks Jefferson and the Krewe of Jefferson.

North of the lake in Covington, the Krewe of Lyra rolled at 10 a.m.

I’m not in New Orleans, mind you. I’m home in Little Rock. But I was in the Crescent City two weeks ago, and I was struck at every turn with how wrong I was 10 years ago when I was going there on a regular basis in my role as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authoirty.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved New Orleans.

In my days as a sportswriter, I covered four Sugar Bowls and a Super Bowl there. The Saints are my favorite NFL team. I spent my honeymoon there in 1989. Yet it’s time for a confession: I was among those who doubted that the city could ever recover from Hurricane Katrina. I never dreamed that so many talented young people would see opportunity where others only saw destruction. I guess it was the skeptical former journalist in me.

There are problems to be sure.

High crime rates.

Struggling schools.

They’re the same kinds of problems one finds in so many of the country’s urban areas. Even in the face of such challenges, there has been the influx of what Forbes described as “YURPS, or Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals — urbanists, environmentalists and social workers who headed south to work in the recovery efforts, in nonprofits and government programs, seeking to be part of something important. After that came a wave of well-educated professionals, who saw personal opportunity in the city’s rebuilding economy. Along with them … have come a fair number of artists, musicians and creative types seeking to join in what they perceived to be an undiscovered bohemia in the lower faubourgs of New Orleans.”

Even the airline I flew in a direct flight from Little Rock to New Orleans — GLO — is the work of an entrepreneur.

Here’s how Forbes put it last fall: “They say necessity is the mother of invention. So what happens when New Orleans loses a few important, direct flights to nearby cities along the Mid-South region post-Katrina? Some travelers were relegated to creating long, more arduous travel itineraries that included multiple flights or longer drives. New Orleans entrepreneur Trey Fayard, however, didn’t just create a new flight schedule; he founded an air carrier.”

GLO began daily direct flights between New Orleans and Little Rock, Memphis and Shreveport in November.

“Up until now, many professionals were left with new challenges when flights were discontinued after Hurricane Katrina,” the magazine reported. “It wasn’t just business travelers from New Orleans who were inconvenienced but those who traveled to New Orleans from around the underserved Southern region as well. Short one-hour flights turned into grueling travel itineraries with layovers. One-day business trips turned into extended overnight stays. For some, those interactive, face-to-face meetings turned into conference calls in an effort to avoid the complicated travel.”

Little Rock’s Mike Maulden, the director of business and economic development for Entergy Arkansas, told the magazine: “This is the single biggest opportunity for Entergy. For us, there will be an increase of productivity and decreased expenses.”

GLO operates 30-passenger Saab 340B aircraft that I found quite comfortable.

Fayard is an attorney who works with the shipping and oil and gas industries. He also began organizing chartered business trips along the way.

“I was basically acting as a de facto charter broker for my buddies and friends and people I didn’t even know,” he told Forbes. “I figured if other people were struggling as much as I was to get around the Gulf States and Mid-South, there must be an opportunity there. … It was a very daunting process, but I had a huge fear of waking up at 50 years old and seeing that someone else had my same idea and the willingness to go for it. That was a motivating factor.”

Michael Hecht, the president of the economic development agency Greater New Orleans Inc., said New Orleans has become “one of the most entrepreneurial regions in America.”

He added that the city “attracted some of the best and most passionate people in the world after Katrina to help rebuild. You just had a talent influx. A lot of people saw New Orleans as the Peace Corps with better food.”

There has, of course, been a massive infusion of public funds to complement the private investment.

FEMA’s assistance to Louisiana for rebuilding infrastructure and hazard mitigation grants since Katrina and Rita in 2005 is almost $14 billion and will continue to grow. The federal government has agreed to pay New Orleans another $2 billion to fix streets and water pipes. The Times-Picayune described it as “welcome news to a city where the potholes and water leaks outnumber the beignets and sazeracs.”

It’s especially impressive to see the amount of work being done in the Central Business District, the Warehouse District and the French Quarter.

The Times-Picayune reported late last year: “Dozens of worn hotels have shed their skins through multimillion-dollar refurbishments. Old shells of historic office buildings now boast reclaimed wood ceilings, marble countertops and high-end rents. Stores and shops have sprouted up where parking lots once stood. New residents flock to the city’s historic core, living in alcoves and lofts that a century ago housed cotton, grain and coffee.

“At least $3 billion in private money has been pumped into real estate projects in the Downtown Development District, bordered by Claiborne Avenue, Canal and Calliope streets and the Mississippi River. And from the looks of things, there is much more to come.”

The number of people living in downtown New Orleans has doubled in the decade since Katrina. The occupancy rate of high-end apartments in the neighborhood is 98 percent.

Developer Pres Kabacoff told the newspaper: “Right now, the CBD is flourishing. The Warehouse District is flourishing. One of the reasons it’s flourishing is because people do want to return to the city, live in those old, walkable neighborhoods, and that’s a great advantage that we have. You need to keep that momentum going.”

In the words of one commercial mortgage banker: “We’ve sort of crossed a threshold where there’s a lot of money from outside the region that doesn’t mind coming here to invest now that would not have done that before.”

Success begets success, and developers across the country consider New Orleans a wise investment for the first time in decades.

Developer Michael Valentino told the Times-Picayune that a decade after the real storm, it’s kind of the perfect economic development storm for New Orleans.

“Certainly you can’t discount the billions of post-storm recovery dollars, the billions of BP spill dollars that have injected this huge amount of infrastructure that never would have come to a community our size,” he said. “And you prime the pump for investment and confidence. So you put those ingredients together and combine that with a relatively stable national economy, and you season it with difficulties traveling abroad that are driving more Americans to domestic locations. … We’ve got all the sun and moons and stars right now aligned in the right direction.”

An example: Kabacoff’s company is spending $63 million to turn the Hibernia Bank building, which was the tallest in the city from 1921-64, into apartments.

Architect and developer Marcel Wisznia told the Times-Picayune: “When you look at the number of buildings that are being renovated, when you look at the parking lots that are now being built upon, you see a belief in downtown unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

Developers are set to spend a whopping $364 million to transform the former World Trade Center into a mixed-used development that will include a Four Seasons Hotel.

The Domain Cos., which was started by two Tulane University graduates, will transform what was a barren area of parking lots near Loyola Avenue into what’s known as the South Market District. There are plans for 700 apartments, retail shops, restaurants and a hotel.

A $2 billion medical complex is taking shape nearby.

“There has never been a period like the period we’re experiencing right now,” Valentino said. “It’s exciting and it’s scary at the same time because it’s happening so fast.”

New Orleans is being called everything from “Brooklyn on the Bayou” (because so many hipsters are moving to the city) to “America’s Lazarus city.” Since 2007, the city has attracted a higher percentage of college-educated millennials than any other urban area.

We all stayed glued to the cable news networks in those late-summer days of 2005 and watched a unique American city drown. As noted, I was among those who doubted that New Orleans would ever recover, especially as I began to make regular business trips for the DRA and truly came to understand the depth of the despair.

Yet in the words of urban historian Kevin Lynch: “A city is hard to kill.”

Especially one with the heart and soul of a New Orleans.

Because so many of the oil and gas jobs have migrated to Houston since the 1970s, New Orleans won’t be hurt as badly by the current oil bust as some other cities in the region. More than ever, tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg for the Crescent City, and those numbers are outstanding.

Hotel developers have taken note. Just consider a few of the projects already completed or in motion:

— The Portland-based, super-hip Ace brand is moving into an art deco building along with Stumptown Coffee.

— Virgin Hotels is planning a facility at the corner of Baronne and Lafayette. The New Orleans City Council overrode a New Orleans Planning Commission vote and approved construction of the 14-story Virgin, which will cost $55 million. Council members said they hope billionaire Richard Branson also will bring his Virgin Airlines to New Orleans.

— An Atlanta-based development group is turning an old Quality Inn into one of Marriott’s new Moxy brand hotels. The first Moxy Hotel is in Milan, Italy. Other planned U.S. locations are New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle.

— A Maryland-based company is transforming the 14-story Oil & Gas Building into one of Hilton’s new Canopy Hotels, which are geared toward younger travelers.

— In November 2014, the 220-room AC Hotel opened in a former bank building. It’s the brand’s first property in this country.

— In March 2015, a 188-room Aloft Hotel opened as part of a downtown mixed-use complex.

— Also in March 2015, a $29 million conversion of a former W Hotel into a 410-room Le Meridien was completed.

— The old Ambassador Hotel was transformed into a 167-room boutique property known as the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery. USA Today named it as one of the 10 best new hotels in the country.

— The Hyatt House opened in November, bringing 194 extended-stay hotel rooms to the downtown area.

There already are almost 40,000 hotel rooms available in the New Orleans area.

The dining scene also is exploding.

Besh Restaurant Group will reopen the famed Caribbean Room restaurant in the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue later this year following a $10 million renovation of the hotel. The restaurant originally opened in 1948 and long was considered one of the city’s finest.

John Besh also announced that his company will reopen the city’s Silver Whistle coffee shop along with a new rooftop bar. The Pontchartrain opened in 1927 and was long a favorite of the likes of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra.

We’re talking about all this progress in a city that Joel Garreau once described as a “marvelous collection of sleaziness and peeling paint.”

Wisznia, the architect and developer, looked back on those days after Katrina when so many of us were doubting New Orleans could recover and said: “It took me about a week to get from the point of thinking that there was no hope to realizing there was great opportunity, that we have an opportunity to rebuild our city in ways we couldn’t have done before this hurricane.”

On this Fat Tuesday, that’s something to celebrate for those of us who know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Presqu’ile: Almost an island

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Presqu’ile is a Creole word meaning “almost an island.”

For decades, it was the name of a gathering spot for the Murphy family of El Dorado at Henderson’s Point on the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Pass Christian.

Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005 and wiped Henderson’s Point clean.

In honor of that part of their family heritage, the Murphy family named a winery in the Santa Maria Valley of California after the Gulf Coast compound.

Many of those who attend the Nov. 21 Arkansas food and wine gala at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock will be sampling Presqu’ile wines for the first time. The event will raise money for the new Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Those desiring more information should call (501) 661-9911 or email

A bit of background on the Murphy family and Henderson’s Point is in order.

First, the Murphy family.

Charles Murphy Sr. already had extensive timber and banking interests in south Arkansas when oil was discovered in 1907 in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport.

“Murphy decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered, noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development,” John Ragsdale wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and production risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interests in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by the Lion Oil Refining Co., which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field for Murphy.”

Charles Murphy Sr. had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, he owned 13 banks. He built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and later established a railroad to supply the mill with timber from north Louisiana and south Arkansas.

Charles Murphy Jr. took over the family businesses in 1941 at the age of just 21 after his father suffered a stroke. Murphy Jr. had attended Gulf Coast Military Academy at Gulfport, Miss., at age 16 and had learned to love yachting. Much later in life, he would write two books on the sport, “Yachting Smart” and “Yachting Far.” He received expert tutoring, especially in French. Murphy Jr. graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and got married in October of that year.

Murphy Jr. spent three years in the Army during World War II. In 1946, he and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their interests to form C.H. Murphy & Co. In 1950, that company was transformed into the Murphy Corp., with Murphy Jr. as its president. He would serve as president until 1972 and as chairman of the board until 1994.

Murphy Corp., which had gone public in 1956, became Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. The first foreign exploration for the company occurred in Venezuela in 1957. That was followed by production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea and Libya in 1969, Spain in 1979, Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988. Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. Deltic is the developer of the Chenal neighborhood in west Little Rock and has timber holdings in Arkansas and Louisiana. Earlier this year, the Murphy USA subsidiary was spun off to form a company that focuses on retail sales, primarily at stores associated with Walmart.

Murphy Jr., an erudite man, served on the state Board of Higher Education and on the boards of Hendrix College at Conway and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. He established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans. He died at his home in El Dorado in March 2002.

Murphy Jr.’s son Madison would go on to become chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission.

Next, Pass Christian and Henderson’s Point.

Henderson’s Point on the Gulf Coast was named for John Henderson Sr., a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1839-45. Along with several partners, Henderson acquired 15,000 acres and developed the coastal community of Pass Christian. He died in 1857. In 1903, descendants of Henderson formed the Mexican Gulf Land Co. to promote Henderson’s Point as a planned community. It was advertised to wealthy New Orleans residents as the only remaining undeveloped tract between New Orleans and Mobile with easy access to rail transportation. There would be parks, big lots and a streetcar line to Gulfport and Biloxi. Located at the western tip of the Pass Christian peninsula, Henderson’s Point had homeowners who were known for fighting annexation to Pass Christian, and the area thus remained unincorporated.

U.S. Highway 90 west of Pass Christian now separates Henderson Point from the Pass Christian Iles, a 1,400-acre development that began in 1926. Seven miles of canals and lagoons were dug while the marsh areas were filled with the dredged material. The Isles are totally residential while Henderson’s Point has a small commercial district.

The Murphy family compound consisted of 14 acres that stretched in the shape of an isthmus.

The family bought almost 200 acres in California in 2007 to establish the Presqu’ile Winery. The first estate grapes were planted in 2008. A San Francisco architectural firm was hired to design the winery and tasting room, which are connected by a cave that was built into a hillside.

“That the Murphy family’s new Santa Maria property is shaped a lot like an isthmus smacks of serendipity,” Gabe Saglie wrote last year in the Santa Barbara News-Press. “‘We were looking for a great piece of pinot noir-growing land with a little bit of soul,’ says vinter Matt Murphy with a distinct Southern inflection. His family find off East Clark Avenue in 2007, which came after a year’s worth of hunting through pinot hot spots like Carneros and Lompoc’s Santa Rita Hills, fit the bill for clear viticultural reasons. The plot’s pervasive sand-like soil drains extremely well, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (the Murphy’s property is the second western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley) creates ideal maritime growing conditions.”

Matt Murphy, the son of Madison and Suzanne Murphy of El Dorado, says of the Mississippi compound: “It was home to us. And it will never be the same.”

The family compound in Mississippi was given its name by Charles Murphy Jr., who loved to use his French. It’s pronounced “press-keel” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

“Presqu’ile is led by president Matt Murphy, and features his wife, Amanda; his brother, Jonathan, and his wife, Lindsey; his sister Anna; and their parents, who still reside in Arkansas,” Laurie Jervis wrote in the Santa Maria Times. “Matt Murphy and winemaker Dieter Cronje, a native of South Africa, lead the winemaking and are vocal believers in the potential of the Santa Maria Valley to lead the West Coast in terroir-driven wines.”

The new tasting room opened in June.

In addition to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and now the California Pacific Coast, the Murphy family long has had close ties to New Orleans.

“New Orleans is, in essence, our second home,” Madison Murphy said recently. “This place is special to us.”

So it’s natural that the Murphy family — and its winery — is playing a leading role in the Nov. 21 Little Rock event to fund an Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Matt Murphy moved to California to learn the wine business.

“During the wine grape harvest of 2006, Matt found himself working at Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country,” Saglie wrote. “He’d already spent previous vintages in Napa, learning the business of growing grapes and selling wine. This was the year he’d get to know an increasingly renowned region called Santa Maria.

“The 2006 harvest had also brought Dieter Cronje to Bien Nacido. He’d already been trying his hand at winemaking for four years in his native South Africa and had developed a zeal for pinot noir. ‘I love to make it because it’s tough to make,’ he says with a Southern accent of a totally different kind. To stretch his wings, ‘it was either Burgundy or the United States for me, and since I knew my lack of French would make Burgundy tough, I came to the United States,’ he says with a laugh. The weather helped set his sights on Central California instead of Oregon.

“When Matt and Dieter met at the height of the grape-picking season, the unlikely duo quickly realized they shared a passion. And not just for pinot noir. The two will tell you they are fiercely focused on making wines that are balanced, not just big.”

The land purchased by the Murphy family in 2007 previously was being used to grow gladiolas.

Saglie wrote: “The promise for growing great grapes was palpable. And the fact it looked a heck of a lot like an isthmus was good fortune at least. They named their new property, for purely sentimental reasons, Presqu’ile.”

Matt and Amanda built a home on the property.

“Presqu’ile’s new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building — connected by a unique cave system — and the nearby residences could easily grace the pages of Architectural Digest,” Wendy Thies Sell wrote in the Santa Maria Sun. “The award-winning, San Francisco-based architectural firm Taylor Lombardo Architects designed the project. The design aesthetic is contemporary, sleek and elegant, incorporating stone, wood, concrete, glass and metal. Interesting modern art adorns the walls. They paid attention to every detail — just as Presqu’ile does in winemaking. Many of the building materials are sustainable and sourced from the West Coast. The sandstone used for the exterior and interior of the winery complex were harvested from a quarry in Lompoc. A local artisan labored for seven months hand-cutting and laying each stone.”

The newspaper describe Cronje as “a wine rock star — literally. Cronje not only handcrafts vibrant, complex wines, but he actually has a rock band, The Tepusquet Tornadoes, made up of wine industry friends.”

“We really do want it to be an easy rapport and a place where people can interact,” Madison Murphy said of the winery. “As they say on the Gulf Coast, ‘pass a good time.”’

From the pine woods and the oil patch of south Arkansas and north Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to New Orleans and now to the Pacific Coast, the Murphy family of El Dorado has made its mark.

It all comes together on the evening of Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

The decline and fall of Brennan’s

Monday, July 1st, 2013

My love of New Orleans is such that I had determined at a young age that if I ever got married, the honeymoon would be in the Crescent City.

Fortunately, I was able to convince Melissa of just such a honeymoon in the fall of 1989.

We ate our way across the city for a week. While the restaurant is viewed by some as a place for tourists, the famous breakfast at Brennan’s was de rigueur.

Through the years, I would take Gov. Mike Huckabee and other friends to their first breakfasts at Brennan’s. Melissa and I took our two sons there following Sunday morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina hit just two weeks later.

It’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant closed last week as a long-running family feud continues to play out.

“The thing that gets me most about it is that when the brothers took over from their aunts and uncles in 1973, Brennan’s was the most profitable restaurant in the world,” Tom Fitzmorris writes in his online New Orleans Menu Daily. “It has never done badly. A waiter told me that the place had a thousand people on the reservation books for this past weekend. At its lofty prices (the highest in town, except perhaps for tasting menus at places like Stella!), open seven days a week from morning through night, Brennan’s was a money machine. What the hell happened?”

The current management of the restaurant was evicted from the Royal Street property at 2:15 p.m. last Thursday by the corporation that had purchased the building at auction in May. The most recent manager of the restaurant was Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr., the son of founder Owen Brennan Sr.

It was learned Friday that one of Pip’s cousins, Ralph Brennan, is a partner in the company that now owns the property.

Ralph Brennan said in a statement: “The closure of Brennan’s restaurant is regrettable and sad but could have been averted many times over the past two years. For the last two years, I have been in repeated contact with my cousins in an effort to help avert the financial crisis that Brennan’s Inc. finds itself in today. Several offers to inject capital into the company were made and rejected.”

Ralph Brennan said that he and business partner Terry White “look forward to bringing the building back into commerce soon.”

Employees weren’t informed of the impending closure. Some arrived late Thursday in uniform to find the doors locked and everything turned off, even the gas light out front.

The restaurant’s roots date back to 1943 when Owen Brennan Sr. bought the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. He opened Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre three years later. The elder Brennan died suddenly at age 45. Following his death, the family moved the restaurant to 417 Royal St. in the 1950s and renamed it Brennan’s.

Owen Brennan Sr.’s sons — Ted, Pip and Jimmy — would run the restaurant. Jimmy Brennan died in 2010.

In early June, Pip overthrew Ted as manager in a contentious shareholder vote. Ted and daughter Bridget Brennan Tyrrell had run the restaurant since 2006, when they had ousted Pip.

Are you following all of this? It’s, at best, byzantine.

On Friday evening, Ted Brennan issued a statement saying that if he and Bridget had not been ousted, they might have been able to avoid eviction.

“Despite the defamatory statements made by others about my family’s management, we have built this restaurant from the ground up since Katrina, only for their encroachment eight years later,” Ted Brennan said. “Times have been tough, but we always put our employees first. We are sick that the staff was not told of the eviction notice Pip and his sons received. Our efforts to communicate with our employees the past three weeks have been prohibited by Pip and his agents.”

An April 26 board meeting at the restaurant, orchestrated by Pip Brennan to unseat his brother and niece, ended when the police were called.

The shareholder meeting last month at which Pip and his sons — Blake and Clark — took over was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. The late Jimmy Brennan’s daughters and Pip Brennan combined their votes to unseat Ted Brennan as Brennan Inc.’s board president and restaurant manager.

The Brennan family tree is a large one.

“In the years before all of this legal action, the Brennan brothers were suing their cousin Dickie Brennan over whether he had the right to use his name on his steakhouse,” Fitzmorris writes. “It was another eruption of the long-running feud between the Brennans on Royal Street and the Brennans of all the other restaurants (including, confusingly enough, Brennan’s in Houston).

“The expense of litigating that matter was not insubstantial and that may have triggered the cash issues at Brennan’s. It’s one of many ironies that have come to light.”

And what about cousin Ralph Brennan, who already owns five restaurants in the New Orleans area?

“Ralph’s presence in this mix give a good idea of where all this is headed,” Fitzmorris writes. “Ralph is not only an astute restaurateur but a well-trained businessman. He was a CPA before joining the family’s restaurant business. And unless more surprises come out, there shortly will be a new restaurant in the superb location that has been Brennan’s since 1955.

“In order to go on, Pip and Ted Brennan will now have to find a new location pronto or somehow make a deal with the building’s owners. They also have to come to an understanding between themselves. None of this will be easy.”

Fitzmorris, who does a three-hour daily radio show on food (only in New Orleans would that much radio time be devoted to food), says this could be the restaurant story of the decade in New Orleans.

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Ralph Brennan, was asked by The Times-Picayune if Ralph planned to reopen Brennan’s.

The spokesman answered: “Not the same restaurant. But it’s safe to say that a new restaurant is high on the list of possibilities.”

He said the eviction gives “the new ownership a clean opportunity to create a profitable, productive enterprise that continues to do justice to that iconic location.”

I head to New Orleans early next month. I had hoped to dine in the famous pink building on Royal Street one morning, enjoying oysters Benedict and bananas Foster.

The courts aren’t known for acting quickly. I have a feeling that breakfast will have to be eaten elsewhere.

New Orleans roars back

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

College basketball teams will continue to battle tonight, Saturday and Sunday for the right to head to New Orleans for the Final Four.

As the Crescent City prepares to host college basketball’s premier event, there’s a remarkable story that needs to be told. It’s the story of New Orleans’ recovery just more than six years after Hurricane Katrina delivered a blow that many Americans thought would permanently cripple the city.

Writing in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Douglas McCollam noted: “Katrina certainly gave New Orleans the opening to remake its failed institutions. Today about 80 percent of the city’s public schools, formerly among the nation’s worst, are charter schools competing on performance to attract students. The city’s antiquated Charity Hospital will soon be replaced by a state-of-the-art medical center, part of a larger, 2.4-square-mile medical corridor anchored by a new cancer research facility and BioInnovation Center.

“Thanks to aggressive tax incentives, this year New Orleans is on pace to supplant New York as the biggest feature-filmmaking center outside of Los Angeles, a successful model the city is seeking to replicate in both music and software design.

“These and other initiatives are changing the city’s commercial culture. Once viewed almost exclusively as a booze-soaked destination for debauchery, New Orleans was tabbed last year by Forbes as the No. 1 brain magnet in the country for college graduates, and Inc. magazine dubbed it the ‘coolest start-up city in America.’

“Last month the city beat out a dozen rivals for a new GE Capital technology center that will bring about 300 high-end tech jobs.”

I was on vacation with my family at Mexico Beach in Florida when I received a call from the White House on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005. I was informed that I had been appointed by President Bush to the regional economic development organization known as the Delta Regional Authority.

On the way back to Arkansas, we spent two nights in New Orleans. Melissa and I took our boys to mass at St. Louis Cathedral on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 14, followed by breakfast at Brennan’s. It was a wonderful day.

As we pulled out the following morning, we had no way of knowing that two weeks later, Katrina would hit, the levees would fail and 80 percent of New Orleans would be flooded.

I began my work for the DRA soon after the storm — our area included land on both sides of the Mississippi River down to its mouth in Plaquemines Parish — and made a number of business-related trips to New Orleans during the next four years.

I vividly remember those early days after the storm when the few restaurants that were open were devoid of tourists. One night, Chef Paul Prudhomme sat on the sidewalk outside his K. Paul’s in the French Quarter just to thank people for being in the city.

For those of us who love New Orleans, those were sad days in late 2005. I already could sense the change in the city by the time I left government service in 2009. Young entrepreneurs were flocking to New Orleans by then. They were attracted by the city’s food, music and other aspects of its culture. They also were attracted by the idea of being a part of the rebirth of one of the world’s unique port cities.

For decades, NOLA’s stale, cliquish business leadership had watched as other Southern cities took off — Houston, Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte and others.

New Orleans stagnated. New people and new ideas simply weren’t welcome. In New Orleans, you literally needed to be a member of the club.

In “Rising Tide,” his classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry writes: “As exclusive as the Carnival balls were, membership in the clubs of New Orleans marked the real insiders, for the krewes had a larger membership than the clubs.

“The city’s first club was formed in 1832, four years before New York’s Union Club. In 1842, the Boston Club, named after a card game, was founded, and several men, including Louisiana senators John Slidell and Judah P. Benjamin, subsequently a Confederate cabinet officer and then adviser to Queen Victoria, belonged to both the Boston and Union clubs.

“Then came the Pickwick Club and the Louisiana Club. All were exclusive, but the Louisiana Club has been called the most exclusive club in the country; only members were allowed within its walls.

“In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt visited New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. It was an act of heroism that won the city’s heart — in the preceding century, the disease had killed 175,000 people in Louisiana alone — and the Louisiana Club gave a luncheon in his honor. But before even the president, himself from one of the nation’s grandest families, could enter the club, he had first to be made an honorary member.”

Now, the once inbred business culture of New Orleans pulses with energy.

And Americans are taking note of what’s happening there. In addition to hosting the Final Four, New Orleans hosted college football’s national championship game earlier this year. Next year, the Super Bowl is in what’s now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“New Orleans will be front and center on the world stage for much of the next decade, hosting a series of national and international sporting events,” says James Carville, who has turned into the city’s most high-profile booster. “In 2015, the nation will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. And in 2018, New Orleans’ tricentenary will focus not only on the founding of New Orleans but also its successful rebirth 300 years later.

“You see, the effort to rebuild and recover has been not just an engineering feat to save a city, an entire culture has been at stake. We have our own cuisine, music, architecture, funeral traditions, literature and cultural structure. And as of late, it looks like it will be preserved. More restaurants are in operation than before the hurricane. … As challenging a decade as the 2000s were for New Orleans, the 2010s may prove to be the brightest time in the city’s nearly 300-year history.

“The momentum is building. New Orleans is not just coming back and not just on its way back. New Orleans is storming back.”

The development of the medical corridor, officially known as BioDistrict New Orleans, is among the largest current construction projects in the world. The 1,500-acre district in downtown and Mid-City neighborhoods is expected to create up to 22,000 jobs during the next decade.

The developments in the corridor include:

— The Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Last month, contractors began unloading sand at the construction site to push water out of the ground. That’s the last major step before construction crews start driving piles and putting up buildings. The $995 million project will create 1,100 jobs.

— The University Medical Center. State lawmakers approved funding for the $1.09 billion project in September. The medical center will cover 34 acres and will have the only Level 1 trauma center in south Louisiana. It’s expected to create or save 5,280 jobs during its first five years.

— The Louisiana Cancer Research Center. The 10-story facility is being developed at a cost of $90 million by a consortium that includes the LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane University, Xavier University and Ochsner Health System.

— The New Orleans BioInnovation Center. Completed last June, the $47 million structure houses biotech and life sciences entrepreneurs while supporting research at four area universities. At full capacity, up to 80 start-up companies will call the center home.

Other developments are taking place down the street near the Superdome, as those who attended the recent Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena can tell you.

Last week, the New Orleans Hornets and the state of Louisiana reached an agreement that will keep the NBA club in the New Orleans Arena through 2024 and pump almost $50 million in improvements into the facility. The agreement includes a provision for the NBA to award New Orleans an NBA All-Star Game.

Next door at the Superdome, more than $336 million has been spent since 2006. From January through June of last year, an $85 million renovation expanded the concourse, added restrooms and concession areas, provided two premium clubs at field level for big spenders, added high-speed elevators and put in an additional 3,100 seats.

An outdoor entertainment area known as Champions Square has been built adjacent to the Superdome. Brick pavers, stages, trees and benches have been installed to create a place for concerts, corporate parties and other special events.

The owner of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Benson (at least the NFL can’t suspend an owner), bought the old Dominion Tower in 2009 and has transformed it into the gleaming Benson Tower. Ochsner Health System is relocating 750 employees to the top four floors of the 26-story building, meaning it’s now more than 90 percent leased.

Also in the neighborhood, the Hyatt Regency became the last major New Orleans hotel to reopen last October. It now serves as an anchor for Champions Square and the downtown sports district. The Hyatt Regency renovation cost $275 million.

The reopening of the Hyatt Regency with its 1,193 guest rooms brought the city’s hotel room inventory to almost 36,500 rooms. Prior to Katrina, the city had 39,525 hotel rooms.

Well-known chef John Besh has opened a restaurant named Borgne in the hotel, and it’s receiving rave reviews. If you want a touch of Arkansas, the hotel even has a Whole Hog Cafe.

From the medical corridor to the sports district, there’s construction and progress.

“We’re not going to be like Atlanta or Houston,” says Michael Hecht, the president of the business development group Greater New Orleans Inc. “But in the long run that’s a competitive advantage.”

McCollam writes in the Journal: “In its focus on building a creative economy, New Orleans sees its competition not in buttoned-down regional rivals but in San Francisco, Austin, Boston — other offbeat cities focusing more on home-grown job creation than on Fortune 500 benefactors.”

For once, I find myself in agreement with James Carville. New Orleans is storming back.

Tide vs. the Tigers in NOLA

Monday, January 9th, 2012

For those of us who love Southern football and its history, it doesn’t get much better than tonight: Two of the region’s traditional powers meeting for all the marbles. And they’re doing it in New Orleans, not in some outpost outside the region.

Last week, Ted Lewis of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans (which still does as good a job covering sports as any newspaper in America) had a fascinating story on how the state of Alabama’s self-image was closely tied to the Crimson Tide during the civil rights era.

“To the white citizens of the state, Bear Bryant’s undefeated 1961 national champions, his first of six at his alma mater and the school’s first in 20 years, were a source of esteem and self-respect in ways that went far beyond what transpired on the football field,” Lewis wrote.

Of course, the same was true across much of the South in those days.

Consider the 22-game winning streak posted by the Arkansas Razorbacks that included several versions of the national championship in 1964 and an undefeated regular season in 1965. Many of you have seen the film footage that KATV sometimes shows of the end of the Jan. 1, 1965, Cotton Bowl victory over Nebraska.

An Arkansas fan is on the field waving a large flag.

It’s not an Arkansas state flag.

It’s not a flag with a Razorback on it.

It’s a Confederate battle flag.

In his story, Lewis quoted from a letter Congressman Frank Boykin of Mobile wrote to Bryant the day after Alabama concluded its 1961 season with a 10-3 victory over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl: “The Alabama football team showed the world, the whole wide world, what our men could do. There was so much joy, there was so much pleasure that you gave all of the home folks and people all over the South, and people all over the nation that want us to keep some part of our way of life.”

“Our way of life”: We know what that was code for.

U.W. Clemon, a retired federal judge from Birmingham and a civil rights activist, told Lewis: “Black teams didn’t get a chance to play at Legion Field, and it was located right in the middle of the black community. That stadium and the Alabama football team were symbols of segregation, and you would have to say they were very bitterly resented.”

Lewis wrote: “Just in that spring of 1961, the Freedom Riders had been attacked in Anniston, Ala., and Birmingham en route to their planned ultimate destination of New Orleans. State troopers and the National Guard were required to escort the buses to the Mississippi state line where most of the Freedom Riders were arrested, never making it to New Orleans. And fairly or not, events like that, as it turned out, contributed to the reasons why Alabama’s season ended in Louisiana instead of California and the Rose Bowl, where a rare opportunity for the Tide’s participation had occurred. Unfortunately for the Tide, that opportunity coincided with a time when the national perception of the state couldn’t have been much worse.”

Alabama has played six times in the Rose Bowl, more than any school outside of the Big Ten or what’s now the PAC 12. It was, in fact, Alabama’s success in the Rose Bowl that first put the Crimson Tide — and to a certain extent Southern college football — on the national radar screen.

On Jan. 1, 1926, Alabama shocked Washington, 20-19, in the Rose Bowl.

The Crimson Tide returned a year later and tied Stanford, 7-7.

On Jan. 1, 1931, Alabama defeated Washington State, 24-0, in the Rose Bowl.

The Crimson Tide was back on Jan. 1, 1935, to defeat Stanford, 29-13.

Alabama fell to California, 13-0, in the 1938 Rose Bowl.

The Tide won the 1946 Rose Bowl, 34-14, over USC, making them 4-1-1 in the game.

In 1961, the faculty council at Ohio State voted 28-25 against allowing the Big Ten champion Buckeyes to play in the Rose Bowl. Sports Illustrated headlined the story in its Dec. 11, 1961, issue this way: “Agony Instead of Roses in Columbus.”

Here’s how the story began: “Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes did not hear the news until he arrived at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland to make a speech. When reporters told him, he dropped his bag and walked out. For an hour and a half, he roamed the Cleveland streets, trying to compose himself. But back on the campus, the Ohio State students were making no such effort to count to 10. They burned members of the faculty in effigy, snake-danced down the main street, surrounded the Capitol building, broke windows, besieged and insulted their professors and generally raised the most hell that has been raised in Columbus since V-J day. Over what? Over a faculty decision not to permit the football team to go to the Rose Bowl.

“Such matters are not taken lightly in the capital city of Ohio and the home of the finest grind-it-out college football team in business. The local TV and radio stations, without exception, joined in denunciation of the anti-Rose Bowl faculty members, some of them in violent terms. The Columbus Dispatch, in an act of dubious public service, printed a list of those professors voting against the joyous trip to California, complete with addresses, salaries and amounts of money spent this year on out-of-state travel at state expense. The result was that the offending professors were jeered, scowled at, browbeaten, telephoned day and night and greeted with messages in Anglo-Saxon monosyllables on blackboards all over the campus.”

The story went on to note that Ohio State was “ripped and torn by an internal battle over football, a battle which has been going on for several years and will most likely continue for many more years. Ultimate control of the athletic program rests, by Big Ten law, with the faculty, and more and more the faculty has become exercised.”

Faculty members felt football had become the tail wagging the dog at Ohio State.

This created a rare opportunity for Alabama to return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1946. Bryant, as a lanky kid out of Fordyce High School, had played on Alabama’s 1935 Rose Bowl team. He always considered it a highlight of his playing career.

He began to lobby hard to secure an invitation for the Crimson Tide.

But lobbying just as hard against him was one of the nation’s top sports columnists, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times.

“The University of Alabama just about wrapped up the all-white championship of the cotton picking world,” Murray wrote after Alabama beat Georgia Tech during the regular season.

He also wrote this: “In Alabama, evening wear is a hood with eyeholes.”

Students at UCLA, which would be the Rose Bowl opponent, planned a massive protest if the all-white Alabama team were invited. Bryant decided not to subject his players to such criticism, choosing to go to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

The Alabama president, Frank Rose, explained that “the boys voted to go to the Sugar Bowl.”

Lewis wrote, “Uncharacteristically, Bryant had no comment, but a half-century later, Paul Bryant Jr., said: ‘I think he kind of told them how to vote.’ So Sugar Bowl president George Schneider, former president Sam Corenswet and his son, Sam Corenswet Jr., who was the bowl treasurer that year, attended the Alabama-Auburn game at Legion Field in Birmingham to make the official invitation after the Tide’s 34-0 Iron Bowl victory.”

Alabama and LSU had not played each other during the regular season that year. Sugar Bowl representatives wanted No. 4 LSU to battle No. 1 Alabama. There was a problem: The LSU coach, Paul Dietzel, was still bitter about being forced into a Sugar Bowl rematch with Ole Miss two years earlier. He decided that the Tigers would instead go to the Orange Bowl to play No. 7 Colorado.

Dietzel told LSU athletic director Jim Corbett: “If you want this team to play in the Sugar Bowl, you’re going to have to take ’em.”

With LSU out, members of the Sugar Bowl committee wanted to invite No. 5 Ole Miss, which had lost to LSU, 10-7. Rebel Coach Johnny Vaught, who had taken teams to the Sugar Bowl the previous two seasons, instead decided to play No. 3 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

“The remaining choices were limited,” Lewis wrote. “In 1956, the Louisiana Legislature, over the opposition of the Sugar Bowl, had banned racially mixed sporting events. That severely limited the Sugar Bowl’s options, and Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl, plus the new Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, with no such restrictions, were challenging the Sugar Bowl’s primacy.

“It was another three years before the Supreme Court, in a case argued by future New Orleans Mayor Dutch Morial, would declare the Louisiana law unconstitutional. In 1973, Morial became one of the Sugar Bowl’s first African-American members. No. 9 Arkansas, the most attractive available team, got the invite.”

Though the Razorbacks lost 10-3, they scored the first points on Alabama in six games. The Tide had given up just 25 points all season.

Jim Murray called the Sugar Bowl “the Syrupy Sweet White Supremacy Bowl.”

He had praised the UCLA students for “announcing that under no circumstances that they were willing to waive the Emancipation Proclamation for a single New Year’s afternoon. … This hit as hard as Fort Sumter as if Sumter had retured fire after all these years.”

Minnesota ended up with the Rose Bowl invitation and defeated UCLA, 21-3.

Meanwhile, Bryant would bring Alabama teams to the Sugar Bowl seven more times, winning six of those games. Among those wins was a game against Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1980, that secured the Tide’s second consecutive national championship.

Tonight, the Tide is back in New Orleans.

Though it’s just an hour from the LSU campus, it’s a city that has played an important role in Alabama’s football history and the football history of the South.

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

I’ve found a book for my December reading pleasure that fits my interests perfectly.

I love New Orleans.

I love Hot Springs.

I love food.

I love thoroughbred racing.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was hanging out at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., when he came across a copy of “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak” by Randy Fertel. The book was released earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

Skip invited Randy to be a part of the Clinton School’s lecture series, and the author showed up on the final night of November to speak. I’ve been engrossed in his book ever since.

My friend John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, described the book this way: “His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.”

Randy’s mother is the Ruth in the Ruth’s Chris chain of upscale steak houses.

His father launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 on the promise that he would get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo. He received only about 300 votes.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket shows Randy’s parents during a visit to Hot Springs. The year was 1948. My father graduated from college in Arkadelphia that year. My parents were frequent visitors to Hot Springs. For all I know, they unknowingly crossed paths with the Fertels on Central Avenue.

On a visit to Hershey, Pa., this summer, I learned that Milton Hershey honeymooned in Hot Springs. It was once quite the destination for young couples.

Here’s how the first chapter of the book begins: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up.”

Ruth was 21 when that photo was taken.

Rodney was 27.

A decade later, Ruth was speeding down Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans on her way to the Fair Grounds (she was the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana) when she was pulled over by police officer Salvador J. “Joe” DeMatteo.

Soon, Ruth and Joe were an item.

By May 1958, Ruth and Rodney were separated.

Ruth married Joe in 1964.

“Joe was dark and wiry, a man’s man, a grunt who had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, a motorcycle cop, small plane pilot and gas station owner,” Randy writes. “Like him, Mom began to smoke filterless cigarettes, Pall Malls. In Joe’s presence, I heard curse words from my mother’s mouth for the first time. Surely not her first, they bothered me and I imagined Joe was their cause.”

Randy, who has a doctorate from Harvard, has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of New Orleans. He’s a lover of food and fine wine who once was the marketing director for the Ruth’s Chris chain.

A March 2007 New York Times feature on his wedding to Bernadette Murray began this way: “The chatter among the 175 guests gathered under the live oaks of Audubon Park in New Orleans for the wedding of Bernadette Murray and Randy Fertel was upbeat but also circumspect. They gushed about the setting and marveled about the beauty of the bride. And barely a word about the tough times the couple had just been through.

“Less measured were the bride’s grade-school-age nephews: ‘Don’t tell,’ one said in a stage whisper. ‘Aunt Bernadette is wearing a wig!’

“Aunt Bernadette has been wearing a wig since shortly after she began treatment in May 2005 for acute myeloid leukemia, several months after Ms. Murray began dating Mr. Fertel.

“Early on, Ms. Murray tried to let Mr. Fertel off the hook, telling him that she didn’t expect him to endure what appeared to be a long illness. Mr. Fertel responded by returning to the hospital with a big diamond ring in a blue Tiffany box.”

Randy, who was 56 at the time of the wedding, met his wife in late 2004 when he was working at the New School in New York as an adjunct instructor who specialized in the literature of the Vietnam War. They met through a dating website. She’s eight years younger.

In an October story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Judy Walker wrote: “The eccentric streak in Rodney Fertel ran deep. In the Rampart Street community of Orthodox Jews, where the Fertels owned a pawnshop and property, the Fertels were by any measure an unusual family. Rodney Fertel’s mother, Annie, shoplifted so regularly that store detectives in D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche were detailed to follow her around; later, her accountant would quietly pay her debts. Family members also sued each other repeatedly.”

Randy told the newspaper writer: “My dad enjoyed a grudge. My family left a trail. They were litigious people; that was very helpful” in researching the book.

Randy ends the foreward of his own book this way: “The Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring. Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth’s Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved. I must confess that I was among them.”

When Ruth saw a for-sale ad for a steak house at 1100 Broad St. in New Orleans, she took it as a good sign that the restaurant had been established on her birthday — Feb. 5, 1927.

She bought Chris’ Steak House in 1965 after borrowing $22,000. Almost a dozen years later, fire destroyed the original restaurant. She reopened a few blocks away at the intersection of Broad and Orleans and called the place Ruth’s Chris. It became the top political hangout in New Orleans.

Ruth sold the chain in 1999. In 2002, she died of cancer. By then, there were more than 80 restaurants in the chain.

In her will, Ruth made Randy the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. Among its projects, the foundation is working to establish the Fertel Culinary Arts Center at Nicholls State University. Randy put his own money into the Fertel Foundation, which focuses on education and the arts.

As someone who has long been fascinated with the history of Hot Springs, I’m drawn back to the first of the book and Randy’s description of the Spa City: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and ‘the Strip’ still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents: no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its diamond jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her throughbred trainer’s license.”

In one photo from that 1948 visit, there’s a sign for a Hot Springs restaurant. Randy writes of the sign: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises One Day Out of the Ocean, meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.”

Rodney would live for a time in Hot Springs at 359 Whittington Ave.

Randy said he once asked Ruth why she married Rodney.

She replied: “He had horses. I was a country girl and a tomboy. I was at LSU. Your dad owned a stable. When I first met him, I thought he was a stable boy. We ran off and got married, honeymooned in Hot Springs, then took a trip around the world.”

Randy writes: “Which means my first sibling rivals were racehorses. Later Dad would add two gorillas to the list and Mom a restaurant.”

Louisiana oysters, Cajuns and the flood

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Man tries his best to assert control.

In the end, though, nature triumphs.

We learn that lesson anew as the Great Flood of 2011 continues to roll south.

If we watch, listen and study, there’s much we can learn during and after a historic flood such as this one.

Take Louisiana oysters, for instance, without a doubt one of my favorite things to consume (how I wish I was sitting at the oyster bar at Pascal’s Manale — circa 1913 — in uptown New Orleans on this spring Friday).

Bob Marshall of New Orleans is among the nation’s finest outdoors writers. In 1997, Marshall was a member of a three-person team at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that examined the plight of the world’s fisheries.

Marshall’s 2005 investigations into the Corps of Engineers’ work on New Orleans levees and floodwalls was part of a package that won the newspaper yet another Pulitzer Prize.

Marshall also is an expert on Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis.

In an article in Thursday’s Times-Picayune, Marshall outlined the effect on Louisiana oysters from the opening of the Morganza Floodway (which will begin Saturday) and the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

“When the planet acts in ways that prompt humans to claim natural disaster, ecologists calmly point out there are no disasters in nature, only events,” Marshall wrote. “Louisiana’s oyster industry is about to be the next example.

“Opening spillways to divert the rising floods of the Mississippi River away from cities and across local wetlands will almost certainly kill a significant portion of the nation’s richest oyster grounds, bringing immediate financial disaster to fishing families from Lake Borgne to Vermilion Bay still recovering from the BP oil spill, state biologists said.

“But the event is also good long-term news for the oysters, beginning as early as this fall.”

Here’s what Patrick Banks, the biologist in charge of the oyster program for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told Marshall: “This will be a terrible blow to the industry, to the fishermen, no question. But we know from records that these large freshwater events usually result in greatly improved conditions for production in the future.

“You have to remember that floods of water from the rivers originally were part of the natural cycle that helped Louisiana develop the incredible oyster resource it has. The impact of every opening is different and depends largely on the length of the opening and the (stage of an oyster’s life cycle) that they occur. Judging from these other events, we could see 100 percent mortality in some of these oysters.”

In other words, it’s going to be hard to find Louisiana oysters this summer, just as was the case last summer following the BP spill. The 2010 Louisiana oyster harvest was down 50 percent from 2009.

Marshall, however, supplies the rest of the story: “Louisiana’s oyster resource evolved not only to handle these frequent river floods but to prosper from them, thanks to a two-tiered population of estuary reefs, which grow inside the bays, and intertidal reefs, which grow along and just inside the coast.

“Estuary reefs killed by the fresh water open their shells, which become ideal attachment points for the next crop of spawn — which is provided by those intertidal reefs that are not affected by the flood.”

Banks put it this way: “The experience has been reefs that suffer mortality from these openings come back stronger than ever. The impact on the fishermen is not good, but the long-term impact for the animals is actually a positive.”

The Corps will open the Morganza Floodway north of Baton Rouge this weekend for the first time since 1973, relieving pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans but flooding large parts of the Cajun country of south Louisiana.

“Some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned. … Opening the gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin’s swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous,” The Associated Press reported today. “Several thousand homes will be at risk of flooding. … No one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.”

The story described a public meeting Thursday at the volunteer fire department at Butte LaRose.

Col. Ed Fleming, the head of the Corps’ New Orleans District, warned of a wall of water 15 feet high.

“From the ground?” one resident asked incredulously.

“From the ground,” Fleming immediately replied.

In “Rising Tide,” the classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry described the fight to save a levee on the east bank of the Atchafalaya at McCrea, a town that no longer exists.

“Now 2,500 men worked at McCrea in shifts,” he wrote. “They used every technique, shielding the levee with lumber, backing it up with sandbags, revetting it with rocks. Repeatedly, some small part of the levee crumbled into the river, but each time hundreds of men rushed to the spot with timber, rocks and sandbags.

“‘They are soldiers, every one, heroes, too,’ Herbert Hoover said of them. But at 3:30 in the morning of May 24, muddy water suddenly appeared behind the levee. A few moments later a stretch of levee 700 feet long crashed into the river. The river had just ripped open the last crevasse of the 1927 flood.

“The current near the crevasse roared past at 30 miles an hour. An Associated Press report said: ‘A wall of water 40 feet high and almost 20 miles wide tonight was … cutting a path of desolation across the length of Louisiana. … Immediately behind the advancing waters scores of residents of the lower Atchafalya were being rescued by tiny boats, which ploughed precariously through the raging current to remove them from housetops. … Further back, along the Bayou des Glaises sector, only the swishing of the water could be heard.’

“The image of a 20-mile-wide, 40-foot-high wall of water was hyperbole, but the Atchafalaya had breached levees on both its banks and was spreading still another sea across central Louisiana. The flood rose to 42 feet above sea level, while the land through which it flowed had an elevation of less than 10 feet. Another 150,000 people became refugees.”

Fast forward to 2011.

Today’s AP story described how a man named Maxim Doucet in Butte LaRose has deployed a team to erect a six-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya. Doucet owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers.

“I figured I’d give Mother Nature a run for her money,” he said.

Down the street, Russell Calais sipped on a beer as his children loaded his possessions into trucks.

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to leave,” he said. “After I sat down and drank about 10 or 12 Coors, I said, ‘Well, it’s time.'”

The AP story noted, “Water may drive these families out of their homes, but it’s also what will bring them back to repair and rebuild. Five generations of Pamela Guidry’s family have called Butte LaRose home. Her father was a commercial fisherman. Her brothers catch crawfish for money. She worked at a seafood-packing business.

“‘I didn’t want my kids growing up in a city. I wanted them to learn how to live the hard way,’ she said. ‘They had to learn how to survive on their own down here. Once you’re out of Butte LaRose, you’re out in society, out of our own little world.’

“Guidry said her family weathered the 1973 floods and the Great Flood of 1927 without any thought of leaving town for good.

“‘The water receded. They cleaned up. Their lives went on,’ she said.”

Indeed, in the summer that lies ahead, the waters from the Great Flood of 2011 will recede.

People from Illinois to Missouri to Tennessee to Arkansas to Mississippi to Louisiana will rebuild.

Yes, even the oysters will come back strong.

The Corps will make repairs.

And then we’ll wait. We’ll wait for the next great Mississippi River flood that inevitably will come in our lifetime, our children’s lifetimes or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

The rampage of the mighty Mississippi

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Delta Council in Mississippi is a venerable (and powerful) institution.

Wealthy Delta planters organized the group in 1935 with a focus on three areas — agriculture, flood control and transportation.

During the years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I attended the annual meeting of the Delta Council each spring on the campus of Delta State University at Cleveland, Miss.

If you want to see a lot of people wearing seersucker suits, I direct you to two places — the downstairs dining room of Galatoire’s in New Orleans on a summer Friday and the annual Delta Council meeting in Cleveland.

Jim Barksdale, the Mississippi-born businessman who rose to the top of Netscape prior to its merger with AOL, was scheduled to speak Friday at the Delta Council annual meeting.

At the 1947 Delta Council meeting, Dean Acheson unveiled the outline for the Marshall Plan.

In 1952, William Faulkner spoke.

Other speakers through the years have included David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Werner von Braun.

Changing the speaker for the annual meeting at the last minute isn’t something the tradition-bound Delta Council does lightly.

But that’s just what happened last week for the 76th annual meeting. The day still ended, as it always does, with a catfish fry outside, but Barksdale was asked to come back another year. That’s so a flood update could be given by officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rare change in plans is a testament to the historic nature of the Great Flood of 2011.

The Delta Council president, Cass Pennington, said: “At a time when so many of our citizens and businesses are facing the greatest flood threat of their lifetime and their property and safety are compromised, it is imperative that we allow all members of the public to hear a thorough briefing from the Corps of Engineers and the emergency management agencies.”

Do you need another example of just how massive this flood is?

Consider this fact: Later this week, the Corps likely will open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for the first time since 1973, diverting huge amounts of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza Spillway is north of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Corps began opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway just north of New Orleans for the first time in three years.

Louisiana officials are even planning to move inmates from the famous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Here’s how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put it today: “If you got wet in 1973, you’ll get wet this time. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you’ll probably get wet this time.”

The governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist people from Vidalia south to the mouth of the Atchafalaya near Morgan City.

Once the floodway is opened, large parts of Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Iberville, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes will be covered with water. Five to even 25 feet of water will rush into some areas.

This flood leaves the Corps with little choice. If the spillway isn’t opened, the river could top the floodwalls that protect New Orleans and immense pressure could cause levees to break, resulting in a repeat of the floods we saw following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I spent part of the weekend reading a lengthy (almost 50,000 words) piece that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker back in February 1987.

That story — which led to a 1989 McPhee book titled “The Control of Nature” — chronicled the Corps’ efforts to keep the Atchafalaya from capturing the flow of the Mississippi.

“By the 1950s, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it,” McPhee wrote. “By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was 145 miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

“For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississsippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah.”

The Corps’ efforts to prevent this from happening are centered at Old River near Simmesport. The Corps dammed Old River back in 1963 to limit the flow of water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya.

“The Corps would have to build something that could give the Atchafalaya a portion of the Mississippi and at the same time prevent it from taking all,” McPhee wrote. “In effect, the Corps would have to build a Fort Laramie: a place where the natives could buy flour and firearms but where the gates could be closed if they attacked.”

The Atchafalaya had already captured the Red River, which had once flowed into the Mississippi, in the 1940s.

Would the Big Muddy be next?

There remain those who believe the day will come when despite all of the federal government’s efforts, the Mississippi will have its way during a flood such as this one and change course.

Bonnet Carre (pronounced Bonny Carey in south Louisiana) was the first of the major spillways constructed after the Great Flood of 1927. It was completed in 1931 and designed to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain.

What’s known as the Old River Control Structure upstream is constantly in operation to allow 30 percent of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya.

The Morganza Spillway, completed in 1954, extends for 20 miles  and is designed to be used far less frequently than the Bonnet Carre. The Morganza is for extreme emergencies. And this appears to be an extreme emergency.

Here’s how the news release put out by the Corps on Friday night stated it: “As floodwaters progress through the Morganza Floodway to the Gulf of Mexico, the height of the water could reach between 5 and upwards of 25 feet above ground elevation, causing widespread flooding and inundation.”

The head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said residents should expect to see bears, deer, wild hogs and other wildlife fleeing the dense Atchafalaya swamps.

“It’s like hurricane season,” Jindal said. “You hope for the best, prepare for the worst. We haven’t seen flooding like this in quite awhile. The water will be higher and the duration will be longer.”

John Barry, the author of “Rising Tide,” an account of the Great Flood of 1927, is now the vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

In a piece last month for The Wall Street Journal, Barry wrote: “If recent events in Japan were not enough, the news of the past week has reminded us that nature can make our efforts to control it seem like nothing more than hubris. A historic swath of tornadoes has ripped across the South, and now a potentially major Mississippi River flood is gathering. The tornadoes have done their damage already. The rising waters of the Mississippi are about to test human judgment and engineering anew.”

Barry wrote his essay just before the Corps chose to blow up a levee at Birds Point, Mo., and flood much of the Bootheel in order to protect residents on the other side of the river at Cairo, Ill.

Barry called plans to dynamite the levee “one small piece of a carefully thought-out and engineered plan to control the immense forces of the Mississippi. The river drains 31 states and stretches from Olean, N.Y., to the Rockies, from North Carolina to Taos, N.M.”

This water from much of the nation eventually finds its way to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“A great flood can easily fill the entire 35,000-square-mile area with water,” Barry wrote. “The last time the Mississippi did so was in 1927. … The problem of protecting against river floods is complex. It requires a broad view of the river system as a whole, a narrow focus on local protection and constant maintenance and monitoring down to almost infinitesimal detail.

“Nature is perfect; engineers are not. As recent experience in Japan demonstrates, if humans make a mistake against nature, nature will find and exploit it.”

It’s evident that the Mississippi desperately wants a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico — the Atchafalaya.

Will the works of man keep the Old River Control Structure in place and thus keep the river flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans?

A major test lies ahead.