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Ten Years After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Coastal Louisiana Shares Its Recovery Stories

Louisiana Coast, August 2015 – There are certain names that elicit chills when they’re uttered. Along the coast of Louisiana, “Katrina” and “Rita,” two devastating hurricanes that forever altered this region during the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, fall into that category, immediately conjuring memories of sadness and destruction. But survey the people responsible for keeping the coast’s tourism industry alive, and they’re quick to explain that though the hurricanes are an undeniable part of their history – and, oh, do they have stories to tell – the images of utter destruction that the world saw 10 years ago are no longer accurate portrayals of what’s been happening along the Louisiana coast. A more up-to-date visual would be one that depicts the hope, courage and resiliency of the people who call this region home, and who are eager to ensure that the traveling public has a clear view of what the coast looks like today.

It’s important to note that though a tremendous amount of media attention was focused on New Orleans and its recovery, other parts of Louisiana were severely impacted by Katrina … and by Rita, a shockingly more powerful storm that many Americans don’t even recall. It’s also worth mentioning that as coastal Louisiana was busy recovering from these natural disasters, a disaster of the manmade variety – the BP oil spill in April 2010 – again put the region’s resiliency to the test. The Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition (LTCC) was created in the wake of the oil spill, and its 11 member parishes work together to educate politicians, environmentalists and the traveling public about all the ways this fascinating part of the state has found to get through this past decade and emerge better for it.

First, a quick history lesson: Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in late August 2005, holds the record for being the most costly natural disaster in American history, exceeding the $100 billion mark. It was also one of the deadliest U.S. storms, claiming more than 1,800 lives along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas … with more than 1,500 of those deaths occurring in Louisiana. Along the state’s coast, in LTCC member parishes like Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany, it’s estimated that 75 percent of all homes were affected. Katrina was the strongest hurricane to ever hit the Gulf region … until Rita came along about a month later, in late September.

Hurricane Rita itself was terrible, but the fact that it came on the heels of Katrina, worsening flooding and other effects from the previous hurricane, made things even more dire. Southwest Louisiana was especially affected, with parts of LTCC member Cameron Parish being totally destroyed; it’s estimated that the parish lost 95 percent of its homes, businesses and infrastructure. Rita’s economic impact and death toll weren’t as high as Katrina’s, but in part that’s because the second hurricane hit a much less populated area of the coast. In a truly ironic twist, many residents of the parishes near New Orleans had temporarily relocated to areas on Southwest Louisiana, only to have to uproot again when Hurricane Rita hit. But it wasn’t just humans that were affected by the storms; the brunt of the burden was borne by the region’s natural resources. It’s estimated that more than 550 square kilometers of wetlands were destroyed in 2005, forever altering the Louisiana coast.

The effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were so devastating that the names were retired by the World Meteorological Organization. It’s the hope of LTCC that the media and general public will now retire those outdated images of a region under water 10 years ago and replace them with updated stories and images that demonstrate how well the coast has bounced back.

There are stories of businesses being established, from a new casino in Lake Charles in Southwest Louisiana, which was ripped apart by Hurricane Rita, to award-winning restaurants that have opened in St. Tammany Parish, where chefs from neighboring New Orleans decided to set up shop away from the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There are stories of favorite coastal spots re-establishing themselves thanks to the determination of communities and the support of locals and visitors – places like the Port of Delcambre, which was completely destroyed in 2005 but is now home to Delcambre Direct, a program that allows food lovers to buy seafood straight from the fishermen who make their living on the Gulf. And just like the human residents that have found their way back from the devastating effects of the hurricanes, the coast’s animal population – alligators, turtles, butterflies and birds (locals says that one of the most eerie things after the hurricanes was the utter absence of birdsong, which usually fills the air here) – are back in abundance.

One of the most anticipated new additions to the region is the National Hurricane Museum & Science Center (NHMSC), which is scheduled to break ground in Lake Charles in Southwest Louisiana late next year following a 10-year planning process. The original vision for this project, prior to that fateful 2005 hurricane season, was that it would be a traveling exhibit that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Audrey, which in 1957 took the lives of more than 500 people and devastated Cameron Parish. After the hurricane season of 2005, however, it was determined that the proposed facility should become a national museum focusing on STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education. The center, now set to open in late 2018 or early 2019, will feature a variety of state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and serve as a hub in a digital learning network. It’s a place where visitors can go to learn more about the power of Mother Nature … and man’s ability to not just survive, but to thrive. In summary, Louisiana’s coastal communities are open for business. Their hotels, restaurants, attractions, parks and other tourism partners are fully equipped to welcome visitors eager to discover the beauty, nature, recreational opportunities, cultural experiences and delicious dining opportunities all along the coast. For more information, visit www.visitlouisianacoast.com.

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