- September 3, 2021
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Volunteers and neighbors with the Committee for a Better New Orleans serve food in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, two days after Hurricane Ida. World Central Kitchen along with local restaurants helped coordinate food distribution.
A person holds various boxed waters and military field rations at Treme Recreation Community Center in New Orleans on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 as power outages continue due to the impacts of Hurricane Ida.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida people lining up for food and ice at a distribution center Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in New Orleans, La.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida people line up for food and ice at a distribution center Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in New Orleans, La. Louisiana residents still reeling from flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Ida are scrambling for food, gas, water and relief from the oppressive heat.
Power returns to a section of Bourbon street three days after Hurricane Ida Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 in New Orleans. The majority of the City of New Orleans is still dark.
The National Guard outside the iconic Brennan’s restaurant, 417 Royal, in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana as a Category 4 storm.
Doris Metropolitan was the most popular restaurant in storm-damaged New Orleans on Wednesday. The fine dining steakhouse in the French Quarter wasn’t open — the entire city was still without power — but the restaurant needed to divest itself of all its Prime and Japanese wagyu steaks before they went bad. The owners put out calls to locals and posted on social media that theywould be handing out steaks to first responders, neighbors, anyone in need.
In little more than an hour, Doris Metropolitan gave away tens of thousands of dollars of the best beef in the country. “It was all gone very fast. We were happy to help whoever we could,” said Itai Ben Eli, an owner/partner of Doris Metropolitan in New Orleans and its sister location in Houston. “It was a good moment in all of this uncertainty. Now the question is what do we do now? How do we operate? What are the next steps?”
On HoustonChronicle.com: Here is how you can help Hurricane Ida relief efforts
New Orleans’ $10-billion-per-year hospitality industry, the economic force in a city that survives on tourism, was left with uninhabitable hotels and non-functioning restaurants, and a workforce, already depleted by Louisiana’s struggle with the pandemic and COVID-19’s Delta variant, scattered to the winds. The city’s restaurants and hotels, frequented by Houstonians who account for a sizeable chunk of spending, are looking at weeks before they can begin reopening.
Hurricane Ida was yet another blow to the hospitality industry on a roller coaster since the beginning of the pandemic. Just weeks before the hurricane, the city imposed a plan that required everyone over 12 proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours at most indoor venues (including restaurants) in Orleans Parish and outdoor events of more than 500.
The region’s inability to control the growth of new COVID cases led to the cancellation in early August of the 2021 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival set for October. That was followed by the scuttling of the French Quarter Festival Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. The tourism industry employed 89,000 people before the pandemic.
“We started to get a little heartbeat back in the city, but then the cancellations came,” said Monique Rodrigue Ricci, director of marketing for Acme Oyster House, the popular New Orleans restaurant that in April opened its first Houston restaurant in Montrose. “We were really looking forward to the fall to get the events back. I feel like we’re constantly dodging what’s next to come.”
While unsure about when they could reopen, New Orleans hospitality professionals agreed about one thing: Ida was not a repeat of Katrina.
Ida was a catastrophic storm, but it wasn’t the horrific killer that the August 2005 hurricane was, responsible for 1,833 deaths and displacing millions in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Nor did Ida bring the cataclysmic flooding that followed Katrina and swallowed the city — a testament to the upgrading of New Orleans’ flood protection system. The levees and floodwalls held.
“This was not a Katrina for New Orleans. But there are so many people around our region, particularly the south, that saw devastation and they’re suffering,” said Mark Romig, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for New Orleans & Company, the marketing and sales organization for the city’s tourism industry. “Our immediate challenge is getting power restored.”
Until then, the city’s 1,200 restaurants and 26,000 hotel rooms will largely remain closed.
“We have no idea when we can resume operations,” said Katy Casbarian, whose family owns the iconic Arnaud’s restaurant in the French Quarter. “You can’t make a plan without power and we’re not getting clear information about when it will be restored. It could take weeks.”
The much-anticipated Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, the city’s grandest new hotel property, had less than two weeks under its belt before Ida shut it down. Situated at the base of Canal Street at the Mississippi River, the luxury hotel and its hot new restaurant Miss River, is waiting for a functioning power grid.
“Once we can get a stable line of power, we can provide some kind of opening within 24 hours,” said Mali Carow, general manager. When it does, though, the Four Seasons intends to house first responders as the city gets back on its feet before accepting paying guests.
Throughout the city restaurateurs have either cooked off their food inventory for neighbors or donated it to star chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, which has set up three kitchens in Louisiana, providing tens of thousands of meals daily. Makeshift kitchens have popped up throughout the Greater New Orleans area as community hubs for feeding those in need.
Restaurateur Michael Gulotta, owner of MoPho, organized food distribution at his Maypop restaurant in Central Business District, as did Pal’s Lounge in Mid City, which worked with restaurants and bars to give away meals. Free food distributions were quickly set up at a number of churches and community centers.
Days after the hurricane, the hospitality industry remains in assessment mode.
“There’s no power, no water, no AT&T,” said Ti Martin, co-owner of Commander’s Palace in the Garden District. “These are things we’re going to get over, but when you can’t communicate you don’t know a lot.”
Industry professionals echoed a familiar sentiment in a city accustomed to adversity: The city will come back strong as soon as possible.
“We’re going to claw our way back. We always do. That’s something special that makes New Orleans different than any other city,” Acme’s Ricci said. “The people who live here love this city. We live here because it is New Orleans. We’re going to back, it’s just a matter of when.”
Ralph Brennan, president of Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group that operates five restaurants in the city including the famed Brennan’s and Napoleon House, agreed with Ricci.
“We know how to recover. We’ve done it enough times,” said Brennan, whose restaurants employ 300 workers. “We’ll get the city up and running as fast as we can.”
But he also voiced an all-too-familiar sentiment: The city is never far from another hurricane.
“The hurricane season goes into October. We continue to watch what’s going on; it’s something you do in New Orleans. You keep your eye on the weather,” he said. “It’s not over.”
Greg Morago was a features editor and reporter for The Hartford Courant for 25 years before joining the Houston Chronicle as food editor in 2009. He writes about food, restaurants, spirits, travel, fashion and beauty. He is a native Arizonan and member of the Pima tribe of the Gila River Indian Community.