Thursday, October 8, 2009

AFJ 2009: Katrina’s Unknown Stories

James O’Byrne, director of content at, offered a presentation on Katrina. It’s impossible to understand the magnitude of Katrina if you weren’t here and his slide show only conveyed part of the story. 250,000 people were displaced from southeastern Louisiana, an area seven times the size of Manhattan was underwater and more than 150,000 homes were destroyed. Most of the damage was due to a failure of the levee system, for which the Army Corps of Engineers has officially apologized.

Following the heartbreaking slide show was a panel that featured Brett Anderson, Ashley Graham, Louisiana director of Share Our Strength, chef Donald Link (Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher) and Cindy Mandina, fourth generation owner of Mandina’s in Mid-City. Anderson (not pictured since he is a restaurant critic) says you may not see this in the Central Business District, but the recovery is ongoing. Anderson thinks people are sick of hearing about Katrina outside of Louisiana, but it’s important to see how far things have come and how.

After Katrina, Anderson found Link at Herbsaint drawing up a menu with duck confit and soft-shell crab because the staff was tired of hamburgers and boneless chicken breasts. He then went to Mandina’s and met the feisty founder and they were meeting to see if they were going to demolish the building. Anderson talked to Graham on the phone about housing for restaurant workers since there were jobs but no housing. Dickie Brennan was trying to get dormitory space for people, and Anderson’s reporting brought him to Graham.

Link evacuated the Saturday before the storm hit Monday. He was watching the storm tracker, and gets a call that plumbing is backing up. He went to the restaurant and the streets were empty. Link thought it was weird. No evacuation order was given, but Link decided to go and shut his place down. Other restaurateurs didn’t see a big deal. Link went to St. Charles, and then heard from chefs who were trying to leave Sunday. Link called a neighbor who said the water was at the bottom of the door. Two hours later, it was over the roof. Link says it was his “oh shit” moment since his house was four feet off the ground. Link learned how to text as his employees were calling to figure out what to do. Their homes had also been wiped out. Link got shin splits from pacing. He agreed to pay his core staff for three to six months.

Mandina was flying to Pensacola that Friday. She called her mother who said it was going to be a direct hit. She lived in Lakeview (as did Link) and called her neighbor and asked him to move her car off the street. Her dad wanted to ride it out, but ended up spending 14 hours driving to Destin. The insurance adjuster came to renew their insurance and suggested an increase in business interruption coverage. First thing she did on Monday was to call to see if the check cleared. It had, but payment went to mediation.

Graham had been with Share Our Strength for 17 years. She had been planning a 20th anniversary event, and was a regular at Jazzfest. Graham and her staff were watching TV and figuring out what they could do. The event became a fundraiser. They also created a Dine Out event to raise money for Gulf Coast restaurants. A third of the proceeds went to those people.

Link was trying to figure out how to reopen his restaurant. People were saying it would be three to six months before they could return. Link fabricated a pass and came back into the city. Link’s goal was to get the meat out of the walk-in. Cleaning out was the most disgusting thing he had done. His uncle said he would have electricity in three weeks. He thought the water was OK, even though it was advised not to shower in it. They reopened on Oct. 5, the day the water was declared safe to drink.

Mandina said their two buildings sustained serious damage, including one sans roof. There was six to eight feet of water in the restaurant. The looters took no alcohol, but took a bag of coins. Mandina’s dad did not want to reopen. Cindy wanted to reopen and did after 18 months. The ruin stank and it was hot. The architect said to knock it down. They gutted it and redid it, which was an adventure. Fittings were expensive, and were often stolen during building. Mandina said some of her staff scattered and they even thought some were dead until they heard from them. The business has been better since the storm.

Graham said when she stayed at a local hotel, the woman who served her breakfast had lost the house she was selling, the house she was going to buy and her mother. Graham said she drew from that strength and the humor. Graham also brought corporate donors down and raised another $2 million from those trips.

Link said his customers were mostly locals who were delighted with the signs of normalcy that the restaurant being open indicated. Graham said dining out was a civic duty. Link said he’s done his best business since Katrina.

Although I was busy taking this down, I had to thank panelists for digging in when most people would have cut and run. New Orleans is a worldwide cultural treasure and its comeback needs to belong to all of us. Enough blatant editorializing. It's awards night and we're hungry. Winners will be posted on the AFJ site.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

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