New Orleans Battens Down for Big Game

Something about the Big Easy seems too easy this Super Bowl week.

As in: too easy to make a dinner reservation, too easy to hail a taxicab in a rainstorm, too easy to push through the crowd on Bourbon Street at 1 in the morning.

Perhaps the soldiers patrolling the streets in camouflage are putting a damper on the usual Super Bowl bacchanalia in the French Quarter.

"Oh my God, it looks like Beirut," one shocked pedestrian said Friday morning as he strolled down Poydras Street and looked at the tanks and National Guardsmen surrounding the Superdome.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this year's Super Bowl is unlike any other, and certainly nothing reminiscent of the previous eight in this party town where the unofficial motto is "Laissez les bon temps rouler," or "Let the good times roll."

The game has been designated a National Security Special Event. The Secret Service and FBI are in charge of security. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has deemed security the No. 1 priority, and he is spending millions more than ever to show how serious he is.

"I have a very high degree of confidence that security will not only be unprecedented, but it will be world-class and very, very effective," Tagliabue said.

The game will pit the St. Louis Rams against the New England Patriots, although at times this week, their matchup has come off as only a subplot to all the flag-waving and security checks going on.

"We've got security guards guarding security guards," Rams safety Kim Herring said, only half-jokingly.

The prevailing presence in the Crescent City has been the hundreds of NFL security guards wearing their trademark yellow shirts and the military personnel in uniform. But the security has come at a price.

"It's more like a feel-bad measure to me," said New Orleans resident Charlie Heuer. "You see all these soldiers out there with M-16s and it makes you think they might have a reason to use them. It's a little unnerving."

Earlier in the week, it was still possible to get a hotel room in downtown New Orleans.

Michael Reiss, chairman of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said most hotels are requiring a four-night minimum stay. But he said many people were paying for four nights and only coming for two or three.

"I walked around Thursday night, and lots of restaurants said their business was soft," Reiss said.

Parts of the French Quarter were deserted. Taxi drivers complained about slow business. And there was no problem finding a table at 11 p.m. at the touristy Pat O'Brien's bar.

"I expected it to be a lot better," said Jeffrey Farr, who drives a carriage in Jackson Square. "In years past, a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, the French Quarter has been jammed. I mean, you can look around. It's like a ghost town."

Still, Reiss figures about 100,000 people will fill downtown on Saturday and Sunday.

The emphasis on security is not the only theory floating around. The slowing economy is another. So is the switch in the date of the game. The championship was originally scheduled for Jan. 27, but had to be delayed a week because of the terrorist attacks. That involved a huge swapping of dates, hotels and venues.

Of course, if there's any place that can produce a good time, it's New Orleans.

Local resident Susan Sachitana walked around downtown and told her friends it was "a little disconcerting" to see all the soldiers.

"But in New Orleans, it takes a lot to make people upset and stop partying," she said.