The Rampart Street We Watched: The Hard Rock Hotel Crane Explosion

Veronika Lee, Entertainment Editor

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Botched.

 

That’s typically not the word one would want associated with the construction of a chintzy hotel franchise but, alas, after last week’s literal structural nightmare involving the developing Hard Rock Hotel on Canal Street, it’s all we can seem to think of. 

 

Before Saturday, Oct. 11, the French Quarter’s skyline was mostly quaint. Some church spires could be seen here and there, slate roofs dappled by palm trees. Canal Street on the outskirts in modern memory has been home to the more aesthetically obtrusive structures — like the Hard Rock. When the incomplete hotel fell, it caused 3 fatalities and a dozen injuries. In the week following, New Orleans’ officials were truly put to the test — especially when it comes to disseminating information in a post-Katrina climate. 

 

Construction was originally scheduled for Friday, Oct. 18, but after a cool $5 million was required to be paid in full by the developers, the demo was postponed for “weather” reasons until Saturday. According to reports from 4WWWL, the development group led by Mohan Kailas of Kailas Companies, was required to pay up the full amount to the demolition project’s only contract option, a team comprised of D.H. Wrecking Co. of Greensboro, N.C. and Lemoine Disaster Recovery of Lafayette. Typically these kinds of contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, but the 11th-hour situation called for drastic measures. This does imply the question of why this is not a part of emergency preparedness that should be in contingency plans of both developers and franchises as large as Hard Rock when city construction contracts are awarded. 

 

The Hard Rock released a statement on Sunday stating: “We were contacted Friday afternoon to provide urgently needed financial support for the safe removal of the two cranes. We immediately authorized the funds from an escrow account to allow the Kailas Companies to fulfill its obligation.”

 

As of Saturday morning, the ever-popular Krewe of Boo Halloween parade was canceled due to plans to demolish the cranes still dangling atop the broken hotel. But by mid-afternoon, the parade insisted the show must go on and city officials rescheduled for Sunday at noon. 

 

By Sunday morning the French Quarter was business as usual — albeit with NOLA PD softly attempting to tell tourists and some residents where to go. News outlets and the city’s own Twitter feed (which was only posting sporadically, sometimes hours apart) reported that at 12 noon the cranes would be exploded. Despite warnings and the increased police presence, diverse groups of people flocked to the corners of Rampart Street to try and catch a glimpse. Hundreds posted up outside Louis Armstrong Park with phones in hand to chronicle the demo and others parked their vehicles and sat on top. Many seemed clueless about the warnings not to go near the site and others just didn’t seem to care. Maybe some just didn’t get the message at all.

 

Thomas Eugene, in town for a conference was staying at the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street. When asked if he had been told anything by hotel staff before he left to attend proceedings at the Convention Center, he remarked: “[I heard nothing] when I left this morning … maybe I am in the safe zone!” The Marriott is less than a half mile from the Canal Site so the New Orleans visitor was most certainly not in the safe zone.

 

Phones started to be put away and crowds seemed to disperse after about 15 minutes. Residents who had signed up for text message updates were again sporadically informed. At 2:40 p.m., without a pre-emptive text or tweet, the cranes were blown up and did not inspire the confidence city officials had hoped for. The noise was massive and some New Orleans residents claim to have heard explosions as far as Gentilly. 

 

This doesn’t look like the saga has ended. As of press time, one crane is dangling over Canal Street while the other is speared into Rampart. None of this seems to concern city officials. 

 

Chief of the New Orleans Fire Department, Timothy McConnell, said during a news conference after the demolition, that he thought the demolition went perfectly. “We’re way better than we were.”

 

Interestingly, Kalais Companies are no strangers to controversy. Prior to this incident, company developer Praveen Kalais, son of Mohan, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for embezzling funds intended to help Katrina victims rebuild their homes. 

 

What remains concerning, along with the wellbeing of those affected by this tragedy, is what this may end up costing taxpayers if Kalais Company’s insurance doesn’t pay up. So far, nearby businesses, especially those that see upscale business trickle in from the Saenger Theatre, are being affected — the theater which stands near the Hard Rock site and has been operating since 1927 has canceled this week’s performances of “Wicked.” Additionally, police presence has been amped up in this specific area of the city. 

 

According to the company’s website, Mohan directly oversees the development of all new projects and related business of Kailas Companies, focusing on controlling expenses and increasing profitability — maximizing return on investment.

 

In the aftermath, some New Orleans residents maintained a sense of keeping calm and carrying on. When asked via Twitter how the mules, famous for their daily treks through French Quarter, fared after the explosion, carriage driver Charlotte Jones responded: “I think they jumped like everyone else and then went about their business.”

 

Motorists and pedestrians post up by Louis Armstrong Park to watch the impact of the crane explosions on Sunday, Oct. 20. Photo by Veronika Lee.

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