Tight security gives Crescent City unusual calm

Saturday, February 2, 2002

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

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

Perhaps there's something about soldiers trolling the streets in camouflage that doesn't really lend itself to carefree debauchery 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 military trucks 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 that have been held in this party town.

The game has been designated a National Security Special Event. The Secret Service and FBI are in charge of the security detail. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has deemed security the No. 1 priority, and he's 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.

By the way, 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.

He's only half kidding.

More than Mardi Gras beads or the scantily clad women who seek them on the balconies of Bourbon Street, the prevailing presence in the Crescent City has been the hundreds of NFL security guards wearing their trademark yellow shirts.

They and the military personnel scattered about the city in uniform have given New Orleans a secure feel. It's all part of NFL Vice President of Security Milt Ahlerich's promise to make New Orleans the safest place in America on Sunday.

But the bunker mentality 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, although the supply is drying up.

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 with reservations were paying for four nights but only coming for two or three.

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

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