How we rebuilt New Orleans

New Orleans is in the midst of a study-worthy renaissance, from its thriving economy and continuous growth of critical industries to the progressive community relations efforts and enhanced quality of life. This revitalization of our great American city has not been by chance, but by design. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city's political and business leaders were tasked with the rare feat of having to rebuild without a blueprint. As catastrophic and devastating as that 2005 disaster was, I think we all realized that we had the unique opportunity to not only revive, but to reimagine everything that New Orleans could be. We allowed ourselves to build a case for change and took the opportunity to innovate with purpose and efficiencies to create a new New Orleans. Ten years later, I believe we have accomplished many of our goals.

Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.
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Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

One of the first items on the agenda in the aftermath of the disaster was to reconfigure the infrastructure for flood and storm protection. Thanks to the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city is now surrounded by a $14.5 billion hurricane and storm damage risk-reduction system. With this system in place, which has been designed with expansive flood barriers and the largest drainage system on earth, I feel more confident than ever that this city is able to withstand even a 500-year storm. While we certainly hope we will not be testing its capabilities anytime soon, I think this structure has provided a sense of security and sustainability that has made way for the significant investments and developments that have occurred in New Orleans over the past decade.

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In my opinion, the downtown neighborhood is one of the most inspiring stories of revival in New Orleans. Before Katrina, people worked in the Central Business District (CBD) and then migrated back to one of the city's 73 neighborhoods to their homes. Today, we have seen an urban explosion in the CBD with the addition of residences, grocery stores, restaurants, retail spaces and infrastructures to support a metropolitan lifestyle. In addition, there have been major enhancements to the sports and entertainment district, a $285 million renovation of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, and the addition of the Loyola Street Car line that opened in January 2013. This transit system has revitalized the area by offering easy access to the city's key destinations including the Amtrak train station, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, French Quarter, Garden District, City Hall, and the advancing medical district. With these more cosmopolitan offerings, we have seen an influx of Millennials moving into the inner city.

Along with these developments, we are poised to connect the city to the world with our new $825 million expansion project underway at Louis Armstrong International Airport. In the past 25 years, the portal to New Orleans has come through Dallas, Houston, Orlando and Atlanta, which combined have invested billions of dollars into their facilities. The addition of a new terminal, inspired by famed architect César Pelli, will open New Orleans up to South America and Europe, while also improving lift into the city domestically. This is a critical part of economic development, above and beyond tourism. In addition, the master planning includes light rail from the airport into the city, which provides another critical component for sustainability as a world-class destination.

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Another sign of recovery is the substantial growth of the all-important restaurant industry, which has expanded from around 850 establishments before Katrina to over 1400 today – making New Orleans a food mecca. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many of us learned the significance of our city's inimitable music, food, art and culture. In celebration of this, the city currently hosts 129 festivals annually, from local events like Jazz Fest and of course, Mardi Gras, to major world-class events like the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Weekend. With such a thriving marketplace, we are excited see the city's economy continually trending upward, and tourism has certainly played a critical part in this growth. More than 9.5 million visited the city in 2014, a gain of 2.6 percent compared with 2013, while spending hit a record $6.81 billion.

These economic advancements have contributed to an overall improvement in the quality of life in New Orleans. But I believe that education has been the equalizer that has helped to progress the city fundamentally. Local universities including Tulane, Xavier, Dillard and the University of New Orleans are thriving with top-tier applicants and higher graduation rates. In a marketplace with more and more opportunities developing, these graduates are opting to remain in New Orleans. With more college graduates and hundreds relocating through education-based programs like Teach for America, the residential environment in New Orleans has undoubtedly been enhanced. And it's not only secondary education that has improved. There has been a strategic reform on K-12 education, leading to a 73 percent high school graduation rate, up from 19 percent since 2005, along with a 60-percent increase in students attending college in the ten-year span.

Meanwhile, crime has hit record lows and the city has implemented progressive initiatives like mentoring program NOLA For Life and the race and and reconciliation program Welcome Table New Orleans to offset violent crime and improve community relations. Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu has taken a strong stand, which I admire, on race reconciliation by providing platforms to discuss race-based issues including recent discussions on removing Confederate statues. I am a supporter of these strategies and know that if they are successful, the benefits can be far reaching and long lasting.

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As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I think we can all take pride in the vast progress that has been made over past decade. The performance stats are true measures of progress and the combined success of tourism, healthcare and education have made New Orleans a premiere locale to work, live and visit. As we look toward the future, we can mark this past decade as a pivotal era in the New Orleans' 300-year history. With so many accomplishments in the last 10 years, I am excited about the future and I look forward to being a part of the city's continued renaissance in the next decade.

Commentary by Michael O. Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.