Angelo Brocato’s, which had just celebrated its hundredth anniversary when Katrina hit and inundated it with seven feet of water, reopened to long lines of locals more than a year later, on September 23, 2006.
We reclaim. After a bad break-up, we reclaim our social space and our friends with a pint of ice cream or a pint of beer, or both. After a flu, we reclaim our health with a large meal of the foods we couldn’t keep down while we were sick. After any bad event—insignificant or catastrophic—we heal by reclaiming.
I’ve been trying to reclaim August 29 for seven years now. I hesitate to say “I” when so many people lost so much more than me on that day, but in the beginning August 29 was my day. On August 29, 1992, I met and had my first date with the woman who would be my wife. It became a magic day in our shared personal mythology. The half-year anniversary counterparts every February 29 were so precious they only happened every leap year.
On the thirteenth anniversary of my first date with Nicole, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made its second and third landfalls in southeastern Louisiana and on the Mississippi coast. Three days earlier, when the forecast track still had a then-Category-One storm heading for Apalachicola, we took our two-year-old son and unworriedly left our cats and our house back in a New Orleans suburb and headed for a weekend retreat in San Destin.
The author and his sons, waiting for Isaac at Casey’s snowballs.
August 29, 2012, was the twentieth anniversary of our first date, and seventh anniversary of Katrina, and I knew it would be no ordinary anniversary as the winds of a slow-moving new storm, Isaac, came in. Enough with my attempts to reclaim the date merely by sending flowers to my wife and posting the U2 quote on my Facebook page, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we’re stealin’ it back.” Isaac could be an anniversary gift, showing us that our new levees, new floodwalls, and new pumps could keep us safe. We could reclaim the hurricane experiences from pre-Katrina days, when Category One and Two storms meant nothing more dramatic than a communal hunkering, a summer camp of ferocious wind and rain and the commiserating heat and darkness of power outages, and then coming together to clean up when the storm passed. No longer would we greet the arrival of every August 29 or the close call of a tropical system with the shared post-traumatic stress of a community the rest of the country had left for dead.
On August 27, as Isaac inched closer to the coast, my two boys and I tried to reclaim the experience first with food, sitting on the curb at Casey’s Snowballs. Melting ice dyed with garish pink, red, purple, and blue syrups dripped onto our legs while we watched the long lines at the gas station across the street. On August 28, we drove the short distance from our house to the Lake Pontchartrain levee. A neighborhood block party had sprung up on the crown of the levee. At the top, the winds were already hitting us at forty miles per hour. The lake was stirred up brown and frothy, clawing toward the toe of the levee. Max, my six-year-old, didn’t like it, so we turned and headed back to the car as the first spitty rain began to fall.
Throughout that night, as the winds crept past sixty and seventy miles per hour, I watched my Twitter feed as friends in various neighborhoods began to post word of power outages, their locations slowly marching upriver toward our neighborhood. Isaac made landfall in the night, and when we woke on the morning of August 29 Isaac had stalled to the south, near Houma. The winds wouldn’t stop piling water into the communities to either side of the federal-levee-protected main New Orleans metro region—or blowing down power lines—for two more days before finally moving far enough inland for clean-up to begin.
While in the levee-protected metro area we were sweating and bemoaning our discomfort, whole neighborhoods and subdivisions and towns in Slidell, Braithwaite, and LaPlace were going under water. Dams and locks on the Tangipahoa River and the Pearl River north and east of Lake Pontchartrain were threatening to bust from holding back a week’s worth of tropical rain, which could inundate more communities.
And yet we reclaimed, immediately. Whether it was flood waters encroaching on a restaurant in the Old Towne neighborhood of Slidell, or numerous restaurants in power-outage-darkened New Orleans, as soon as the winds diminished in the slightest joints were opening and we were on the prowl to reclaim food and community. The urge to reclaim was so great that it did not escape notice, or scorn.
While the waters still rose and the winds were barely dying down, the Assholes of Isaac Tumblr page appeared with the tagline: Because when people are being rescued from rooftops, the most pressing issue is where you can find ceviche. In ten posts on August 31, Assholes of Isaac posted screenshots of a variety of tweets and Facebook posts regarding whether various shops and eateries were reopened, with one-liner rejoinders below each. One captured tweet posted, “Buying a generator with @BaruTapas. Relieved my ceviche hankerings will be allayed. Open tonight!” to which the tumblr proprietor retorted, “Hunkering leads to hankering. For ceviche. News at 11.” Another captured tweet posted, “Hoshun on St. Charles taking cash only for sushi,” to which Assholes of Isaac rejoined, “Cash only? The horror!” Apparently, if your thoughts turned to anything other than communities still dealing with flooding and storm damage, especially something as frivolous as eating out, then you, too, were an “asshole of Isaac.”
Ten posts on August 31, 2012, collected on the “Assholes of Isaac” Tumblr page.
Did the Assholes of Isaac page have a point? Is the choice between recovery and reclaiming a zero-sum choice, where either we’re rescuing and cleaning up and rebuilding housing and services, or we’re eating and drinking and passing a good time? Are the two really mutually exclusive, or was this more of the same line of challenge we faced after Katrina when New Orleans dared to host a Carnival season in 2006, hold its first post-storm Jazz Fest, or reopen the Superdome? To approach these questions, I traveled three hundred miles northeast from New Orleans, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
In June 2012, the almost-rebuilt Krispy Kreme on McFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, in front of a still-devastated neighborhood.
When my wife and I were first engaged in the mid-’90s, we lived in Tuscaloosa. Her apartment was in a quiet complex in the Cedar Crest neighborhood, nestled between busy Fifteenth Street and Paul Bryant Drive. On Saturdays, we often grabbed lunch at the old Horne’s Barbecue that sat in front of the Forest Lake neighborhood. We’d get our doughnut fix at the Krispy Kreme on McFarland, walking distance from her apartment. Many evenings we’d get Chinese food from China Fun on University Boulevard before visiting our best friends in the Alberta City neighborhood.
On the afternoon of April 27, 2011, most of these places and neighborhoods were leveled by an EF-4 long-track tornado with winds up to one hundred and ninety miles per hour, which bulldozed a path eighty miles long and up to a mile and a half wide, cutting diagonally across Tuscaloosa.
As another line of storms moved through town earlier that day, Leah Bromley, an online marketing and advertising entrepreneur then living in New York City, received a text from her mom in her house off Hargrove Road in Tuscaloosa: “We’re in the basement. I love you.” After those earlier storms knocked out her family’s power, Leah kept an eye on the television and called her family to warn them that more storms were on their way and to get back to shelter.
After she found out her family was safe, Leah went to work, with the help of her mom, organizing fundraising events, setting up an online disaster relief apparel shop, and organizing it all from the Rebuild Tuscaloosa Facebook page. Leah was starting her senior year at Loyola University in New Orleans when Katrina hit, so she had a sense what the immediate needs would be and how best to use her work experience to help out her hometown. Rebuild Tuscaloosa evolved with the recovery needs of the community, first acting as a source of information for the community on such issues as where to bring supplies or where to pick up tarps, then moving on to covering recovery zoning and rebuilding efforts. Lately, the page has been a clearinghouse for information and photos documenting the reopening of various restaurants and businesses in the stricken neighborhoods.
When I went back to Tuscaloosa in September 2011 to attend a tornado-relief fundraiser and final ABALABIP! concert put on by The Oxford American at the Bama Theater, I drove through some of my old neighborhoods where it looked like the tornado passed only days or weeks before. The inertia of the damage reminded me of the long clean-up process after Katrina, before any rebuilding could really get going.
In June 2012, more than a year after the tornado, I visited again. This time many of the stricken neighborhoods were cleared of debris but were largely still treeless, houseless landscapes. Along the McFarland Boulevard border of the Cedar Crest neighborhood, however, workers were busy finishing the almost-rebuilt Krispy Kreme and Full Moon Bar-B-Que. This contrast—the neighborhood families hadn’t yet moved back yet but restaurants were being quickly rebuilt—came back to me a couple months later when I read the Assholes of Isaac blog.
So I asked Leah Bromley about this question of seeking out and celebrating restaurants when people are still not back in their houses. When Krispy Kreme reopened on August 21, 2012, Rebuild Tuscaloosa posted photos of the long lines of cars stretching down McFarland as good news of the recovery. “Watching businesses come back and seeing your neighbors rebuild is very therapeutic for a community. It’s important to celebrate each reopening because it provides a source of hope and shows people that we are coming back,” Leah says. “Also, we’re in the South, where any problem can be fixed with a good casserole, so I think food naturally plays a role in comforting the community.”
After interviewing Leah, I had a conversation with Rebecca Todd Minder and Jack Roberts. Rebecca is the digital media editor for Alabama Heritage magazine, and Jack is an executive editor at Randall-Reilly Business Media. In the mid-’90s, the three of us worked together on the editorial staff of a trade magazine published in Tuscaloosa. Rebecca and Jack grew up in Tuscaloosa and both still live in the area.
Jack lives in Northport, across the Black Warrior River in a neighborhood where, he says, “you’d never know there was a tornado, at my house.” Rebecca and her family lost their house to the tornado. But both agree with Leah that the reopening of restaurants even as people are still waiting to get back into their homes and neighborhoods is an important step in the recovery. Jack says that the restaurant reopenings are a “very important part of getting things back to ‘normal.’ I’ve never heard any gripe that a restaurant was open and houses were still being built. It’s all a process. People understand that.”
Rebecca brings an even more personal take to the question: “My family and I lived in three temporary housing situations after the tornado, and we had to live mainly off of restaurants. It was a difficult situation for us, and we did not have our routines—morning coffee, knowing where the snacks are, etc. You are just lost. So having some type of normalcy, such as a favorite restaurant to go to, where they treat you well and wait on you, and allow you to ‘forget’ for a while, that is very important!”
Even though much of the Tuscaloosa recovery has been marked by celebrations of the reopening of chain restaurants, Rebecca and Jack don’t dismiss the importance to the community. Jack notes that a lot of the restaurants, though chains, had been in the community for decades, were “icons.” “It is iconic,” agrees Rebecca, “Krispy Kreme has been around forever. So it wasn’t that folks necessarily wanted a doughnut, but they wanted to see T-Town return to its glory. Folks want everything back to ‘normal.’”
I asked Jack and Rebecca where they would rank the reopening of restaurants, the reclaiming of a community’s food traditions, in a list of what’s paramount to overall recovery. Neither hesitated in saying that food is at the top of the list. “Families break bread together,” Rebecca says, “and with other families and friends. Having that absence is difficult.”
Jack agrees. “Food is essential in a crisis for obvious reasons. But comfort and normalcy cannot be overstated. Food is part of what makes a town, even if it’s fast-food chains. There’s the shock of seeing familiar places wiped out. Then plug in the emotional connection, the memories, and things get pretty powerful pretty quick.”
Speckled trout amandine, onion rings, and a sazerac at Mandina’s, which reopened on February 7, 2007, almost eighteen months after taking on six feet of water after Katrina.
So Tuscaloosa moves forward with reclaiming. And Joplin after its tornadoes. And Nashville after its floods. And every community after every tragedy and every disaster. We continue with post-Katrina reclaiming, still, in New Orleans. It’s not difficult to find broken houses still marked with the spray-painted “X” of the search-and-rescue teams from seven years ago. Seven years later, and everybody still hasn’t come home. Isaac didn’t erase any of this, but only gave nearby communities a reason to start their own reclaiming of August 29. It takes more time than we think it should, but we do move forward, reclaiming ground and identity.
On September 25, 2005, my little family first made it back to our house, and I blogged some of my observations from a drive around town: “The bookstores are still closed, but the daiquiri shops all appear to be open.” On October 9, 2005: “Saw a lady with a card table set up on the sidewalk of St. Charles Avenue today, kind of like a kid’s lemonade stand, but instead of lemonade there were five or six bottles of flavored syrup and several coolers of shaved ice and a homemade sign reading ‘SNO-BALLS.’ More and more bars and restaurants opening. Saints lost 52-3. I really, really, really want a Hubig’s Pie. At least I can get a sidewalk sno-ball.” Then on October 14: “More and more coming back to life. Our favorite little pizza and pasta joint, Slice, has reopened. Went there last night and had great pizza, good wine, and excellent punk rock music pumping through the sound system. Eli [our then-two-year-old son] was rocking out, playing drums on the table and bobbing his head back and forth. First time home that almost felt like a normal night out, and best meal out that I’ve had in at least two months.” On October 20, one sentence: “Clancy’s is open!” This is how we reclaim.
When Lee’s Hamburgers was one of the only burger joints reopened for many months after the storm, all the fast food chains still determining the corporate efficacy of coming back, we didn’t mind the new normal of waiting forty-five minutes for a paper basket with a burger and some greasy onion rings. At least we were waiting together, all of us dirty, maybe, from sheetrock dust or moldy carpet lint, out of our houses or FEMA trailers. As each place reopened, the relief on the faces of the waiters increased exponentially. Gradually, the new normal looked bit by bit like the old normal.
I marked the first couple years awaiting food reappearances. Hubig’s (whose reopening we again await after a devastating fire this summer). Angelo Brocato’s. Mandina’s. Acropolis. Taquero’s. Galatoire’s. Commander’s. When each one came back, it came back with a long line of locals and lovers, lumps in throats, and a mixture of sadness at what and who had been lost and happiness at what had been regained and retained. Not all of them made it back, and some that reopened found that too many of their old customers had left and ended up closing their doors again. Many new restaurants have opened and thrived and become new traditions.
These are the ways we reclaim. And in this, no one is an asshole.