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Lessons From Katrina: How Restaurants Can Be Beacons In A Catastrophe

Betsy's Pancake House on Canal Street in New Orleans announces its return to business after Hurricane Katrina.
Ian McNulty
Betsy's Pancake House on Canal Street in New Orleans announces its return to business after Hurricane Katrina.

After Hurricane Harvey, it was no surprise that restaurants in New Orleans quickly became a hub for many local efforts to help.

In the long haul, though, it is restaurants in the very areas hard-hit by Harvey that will be their own sources of community self-help.

That's one lesson from New Orleans' experience after Hurricane Katrina, and it's one that translates to others facing monumental loss. It's the way restaurants, fancy and modest alike, become beacons, and how the principle of service reaches beyond hot meals and cold drinks.

First, though, those restaurants have to get back open. Restaurateurs have to find the means, and they also have to make the decision to do it. That's not always as simple as it sounds.

A restaurant meal can be seen as recreational, as discretionary, even as an indulgence. How does that square when people all around are suffering, when basic needs boil down to any kind of food, clean water and clothing that hasn't been through the slog?

Restaurants often function as their own first responders after disaster, dispensing food and whatever else they can and worrying about the cost later. That is heroic. But at what point can a restaurant responsibly get back to the pragmatic, to the business of doing business?

The answer, from my own Katrina experience, is: as soon as possible.

Any kind of business reopening is a win, but restaurants — with one foot in the economic realm, the other in the cultural — answer a particular need for social fabric.

That doesn't arrive in a truck bed with donated supplies, and it can't be written into insurance checks. It has to come from the interaction of the people who make up their community. Restaurants, with their open doors, their embedded personal traditions and neighborhood stories, are looms for that social fabric.

That is one reason why, as New Orleans began its long, halting recovery, its restaurant scene became a center of attention. To the outside world, it served as a barometer for the pace of rebuilding and a lens on changes wrought along the way. Within the community, it was an anchor, a respite and an inspiration. It was determination made as tangible as the meal on the table.

Harvey and Katrina are different catastrophes, hitting different communities and bringing different aftermaths. But hurricanes are no abstraction in our region; they bring an empathy here that bridges the divide of distance and demographics.

If New Orleans feels it can relate to the anguish of suddenly upturned lives and homes, it also understands that on the long climb back up, every handhold helps. Sometimes you find them around a table, on a plate or over a glass.

In the good times, restaurants do more than furnish meals. They provide social nourishment, help establish a sense of place and serve as gathering spots to bring people together.

As Louisiana knows all too well, that's precisely what makes restaurants so vital during the worst of times, too.

Ian McNulty is a regular contributor to and covers food culture and dining for the dailyNew Orleans Advocate . He is the author of A Season of Night , a chronicle of the first months in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

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Ian McNulty