Todd Whalley, the director of sales for Louisiana’s Northshore Tourist & Convention Commission, was in Atlanta in February for a PYM event and gave us an update on New Orleans. He also told us a touching story from MPI’s Professional Education Conference (PEC) in New Orleans, Jan. 20-24, 2007, and we asked him if we could share it with our readers. Here it is…
A little trip to the 9th Ward
I had signed up for the PEC President Elect leadership program on Saturday morning and it included a trip to do some work at the Habitat Musicians Village. Most of us on the Gulf Coast have been living this to one level or another — and I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I hadn’t been down to the 9th Ward since relatively soon after the storms — and their double flooding. First time, I was reminded of 1945 Berlin, a history channel flashback of sorts.
When we arrived, I was in the presence of 75 of the most impressive meeting planners in the business. They came from around the world to help us while helping themselves to education and some very fun networking — both of which we were known for, before the storms. Now, I was hoping we were still known for it but we have had our self doubts. Crime, political embarrassments and stupid sound bytes have hurt our reputation as the city that care forgot. As we were traveling, I was pressed into service as a step-on guide (being the only president elect on board that would know) to discuss what the spray paint markings on the homes meant, and about how high the water was at different places. I was amazed at how much I had forgotten in 18 months, and how hard it was to explain that if the levees had held, none of this would’ve happened. Block after block.
After arriving, I was surprised that it wouldn’t be a photo op with these VIP — the staff said hello, discussed safety, and handed us shovels and wheelbarrows. We started digging post holes for the backyard fences for the row of homes everyone has seen on TV. The Habitat Homes stood in a row at attention — in a rainbow of colors that would have made the Vieux Carre Commission need a sedative or an “old fashioned” or both.
We worked for a few hours, and these representatives from Fortune 500 companies that plan their multi-million dollar meetings struggled to dig a hole that was three feet deep in the clay of the Upper 9th Ward, before the water turned it into little swimming pools. They busted their butts.
As their reward, we drove over to the Lower 9th Ward afterwards. To my eyes, it looked much better. The street lights worked. There were no cars, refrigerators, or even houses and boats in the road — it was surprisingly clean. There were even a couple of stores open — even one sports store with Saints gear! Of course, the houses looked about the same, but you have to get used to lower expectations these days. When the escorts suggested I say something, and I turned around to address the folks, they were all tearing up. I know how much they had sacrificed to be here — and how important their visit was to our city.
I knew they deserved to see the truth — that we have two stories and two cities. One basically untouched and ready to host citywide conventions tomorrow, while the other will most likely never be the same.
I didn’t make excuses. I told them that this was the flip side of the coin, and the best thing they could do was bring their meetings here. We are ready in the CBD and the French Quarter, but we all OWN the other areas, too. It’s hard to not forget that people still live here — or dream about coming back to this.
Then I told them a couple of true, frank and mildly amusing anecdotes from my own family’s experiences. I didn’t want to change the subject or gloss over the destruction — everyone deserves the truth — but they deserve to smile a bit, too. And they did.
What I didn’t realize is if we forgot to care, no one else had. These companies and people care a lot. We have a lot of people pulling for us. And not just for the Saints.
— Todd Whalley