New Orleans

We’ve all been watching the news for a week. We’ve witnessed the disaster, the destruction, the desperation and chaos; we’ve felt sympathy, horror and revulsion. One week ago today Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast – nobody imagined it would be this bad, but at the same time everybody knew it very well could be.

The news of the sheer scale of the destruction hit me like a ton of bricks, surprising me with the powerful mix of conflicting emotions that it brought to the surface. While I sat glued to the television watching the first reports of the crisis, I couldn’t help but project myself backwards in time to analyze my own reactions when a very similar crisis threatened. Just about exactly seven years ago an identical scenario was on the brink of playing itself out: a major hurricane was threatening the Gulf Coast, its projected path was taking it right over New Orleans, and voices from every corner were warning about the potential catastrophic damage a powerful storm surge would cause. The only difference was that I was living there, and like many other residents, I didn’t take the warnings too seriously. I was a poor student at the time, far away from any family and lacking transportation and money to put myself up in a hotel somewhere, so I hunkered down and decided to ride it out. My housemates were staying too, and between us we came up with many rationalizations as to why it wasn’t necessary to evacuate: the city had been through hurricanes before, our house was old and sturdy and likewise had survived previous storms, if it was really necessary for everyone to evacuate they would have made sure we all had a way out… My housemates and I boarded up the windows and bought some canned food (enough cold beans and clam chowder for about three days) and filled the bathtub with water. Then we just sat and waited. The power went out as the winds picked up, we went to bed with candles and our mattresses pushed as far from the windows as possible, and hoped we would be able to sleep when the storm hit in the dead of night. But it never did – we all woke up to sunny skies, the hurricane having made a last-minute turn eastward and hitting the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama instead. We breathed a sigh of relief, patted ourselves on the back for having decided to stick it out, and went back to our normal lives. I berate myself now for having been so foolish to stay, but we, like the tens of thousands of lower-income people in the city, didn’t really have another option, and anyway we assumed the city would have relief on hand should we need it. Luckily we didn’t have the chance to find out if that was true. Unfortunately this time people weren’t so lucky.

The aftermath of the hurricane that finally hit has in many ways been worse than even the most dire forecasts. The meteorologists and engineers could concoct as many scenarios as they liked about water levels rising, levees breaking and whole neighborhoods drowning. What they couldn’t predict was the human element: the lawlessness and anarchy, the misery and desperation, the complete lack of coordination and the snail’s pace of relief that has undoubtedly caused far more trauma and death than there need have been. The worse the reports get, the more difficulty I have swallowing them. I try to picture the streets I know so well, leafy boulevards lined with stately homes and neighborhoods of aging shotgun houses that always had someone friendly sitting on the porch, and I absolutely can’t imagine what they look like today. What does my own former street look like half-submerged in fetid water, the sounds of gunshots piercing the background as armed gangs run unbridled through the streets, looting and terrorizing? What do downtown and the French Quarter look like ransacked and empty, like some kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare? I absolutely can’t imagine it, nor can I imagine what a living hell it must have been for those who were there, whether they stayed home or sought shelter in places like the woefully underequipped Superdome. No one should have had to endure these things even if they did choose to stay – and it was only the luck of the draw that this was the storm for which all the worst-case scenarios came true.

Now that the cleanup and damage assessment has begun, the thing that I find the most distressing are the speculations from various sources that New Orleans might not survive this disaster – that the South’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan city should be abandoned and forgotten instead of rebuilt. I know how difficult restoring the city will be, but I simply cannot accept that this might be allowed to happen. Despite the precarious environmental situation that surrounds it, and despite the often difficult conditions locals have to endure to live there, New Orleans is a city that is so fiercely loved by residents and visitors alike, and has so much to offer in terms of ideas, culture and cuisine that it deserves the right to be rebuilt – whatever the cost. Of course careful planning must go into its reconstruction, and comprehensive plans must be made for evacuating and responding to future hurricanes (the lack of which strongly contributed to the human tragedy of this one), but there’s no reason that shouldn’t be possible. After all, generations more people deserve to have the experience of sitting on an Uptown balcony in the soft humid night air surrounded by the sweet scent of night-blooming jasmine; they deserve to be able to catch Mardi Gras beads and have crawfish boils and spend lazy spring days listening to world-class music at Jazzfest. And certainly the phenomenal cuisine – many say the country’s best – that has been refined over centuries by the many cultures to inhabit New Orleans, deserves the right to continue thriving on its native soil.

So while we donate and pray that people find their loved ones and manage to pull their lives back together, I’ll leave you with a recipe reminder of just how sweet and delicious life can be in New Orleans. For those of you who have been there or live there, hopefully it will bring back a memory or two of wonderful meals and happier times. And for all of you who have never been to the Big Easy, consider it a preview of all the amazing things you will taste when one day you make it to this magnificent city.

If you haven’t already, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross or America’s Second Harvest. You can see a tally of all the funds raised by bloggers over this past weekend as part of the Blog for Relief Weekend by clicking here. Also, don’t forget to prepare yourself for a potential disaster, as Louisa wisely reminds us.

Bananas Foster
Source: inspired by Emeril’s recipe here (The original Bananas Foster comes from Brennan’s Restaurant)
Serves: 4 

4 tablespoons butter (unsalted is traditional, I like salted)
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 cup banana liqueur (such as crème de banane)
4 ripe bananas, cut lengthwise into quarters
1/2 cup dark rum
1 pint premium vanilla ice cream 

Heat a frying pan over m
edium heat. Add the butter, and when it melts completely stir in the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Let it cook for a moment, then stir in the banana liqueur. Add the bananas in a single layer, shaking the pan so that they’re basted with the sauce. Stir in the rum and very carefully (keeping your face, clothing and cupboards at a safe distance) ignite with a match. When the flames die down continue shaking the pan until the sauce has reduced to a thick glaze and the bananas are soft. Remove from the heat and serve on top of vanilla ice cream.