Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast six years ago. I had recently attended a heart meeting in New Orleans and was transfixed by the scenes of homeless and desperate people filling the Convention Center. I could trace my steps through the water on Canal Street, remembering a tour guide who warned that if the levees ever broke, water could reach second story windows across downtown. It seemed fantastic; now it was real.
I’ve been to New Orleans many times, from band trips in college through business trips to Tulane. The city is filled with memories, beignets from Café du Monde, oysters from Acme, the voodoo shop at the end of Bourbon Street, riding streetcars to see where the lines end. Karen had never been,so we decided to celebrate her birthday with a pilgrimage and and some fine dining (dinner at Bayona was superb).
Some cities were much worse hit – we stopped in Biloxi to find…nothing remaining. There were city blocks along the waterfront, borders of trees and cracked driveway pads to mark addresses, but no buildings. Not even “For Sale” signs. The casinos had returned, along with some of the shrimp boats, but, apart from a few damaged civic buildings, there was very little left. It may not all be Katrina, I think that casinos exert toxic effects on the surrounding town economies, whatever the promise of new jobs and tourism.
The outskirts of New Orleans were still damaged, roofs and siding torn from houses, tarps covering window holes. The downtown core is better, wash marks visible but the reconstruction complete. Bourbon Street is unchanged. The big news was that the Hyatt Hotel, blown out during the storm, was reopening after six years of renovation.
But the city retains a lot of charm and friendliness, the music playing late and the coffee served early. From a base at the Royal Sonesta, we enjoyed two days of food, drinks, and music. Krystal is still serving small, square classic gut bombs; Pat O’Briens pours bright pink Hurricanes (with no irony), the Café is still enveloped in a haze of chicory coffee and powdered sugar (we opted for a quiet bench in Jackson Square). The Funky Pirate hosted wonderful blues, the superlative “Big” underestimates both Big Al’s size and his Blues Masters group’s music.
The cheapest drinks along the strip are shots, delivered in test tubes and running about $2. Beers ran up towards $5 and mixed were above that, hustlers promised ever bigger glasses and higher proofs for half-price or less. Our running favorite was Everclear, served with a cherry and cheerfully illegal in 19 states.
The Louisiana State Museum has a good exhibit remembering Katrina – it’s frank about the scale of the disaster and the inadequacy of the response. The overriding theme is We can do better next time. Upstairs is a history of Carnival, interesting to contrast it with the Maastricht equivalent (nowhere mentioned on the list of worldwide celebrations). The musical organization and heritage is different; there is an emphasis to floats over costumes. But the spirit is the same (and the beads, still flying overhead even out-of-season).
I don’t think New Orleans will ever “come back”; it will endure and move on. I compared it to Yellowstone Park after the fires: The landmarks are still there, but it is otherwise smaller and humbler than it was, yet more rooted to its unique characteristics and heritage. With the tourists going elsewhere, there’s less need to be what people expect, more of a chance to be who you are. New Orleans is small discoveries in restaurants and shops, a slightly skewed French heritage jumbled with Southern gentility, and authentic music and relaxation.