Rebooting Food and Community in New Orleans After Katrina, Part One

August 29 marks a decade since Hurricane Katrina roared its way on shore causing the largest infrastructure collapse in American history. There is so much to recount with this disaster, and so much of it is at odds with what we generally like to face as a nation. We don’t like failure and complexity, and Katrina has plenty of both.

However, it also delivers other themes: resilience, attachment to place, solidarity, and civic engagement. And many of those themes were borne out in how people came together over food.

Forty-eight hours before Katrina overwhelmed the New Orleans levee system, flooding 80 percent of the city, I was putting up tents and umbrellas for the Saturday morning Crescent City Farmers Market. It was just another hot and sticky August morning: Farmers and fishers selling the fruits of their labor directly to the city’s shopping public.

What began early as whispers by late morning had become increasingly agitated debates about the projected course of the storm. In particular, the fishing families voiced concerns that the barometric pressure readings were freaking them out.

Each stayed behind to protect their (otherwise uninsurable) livelihoods: boats, equipment, nets, etc. Decisions to remain set in motion terrifying series of events, like some of us being thrown into the swirling water when homes exploded in the eye wall of the storm, hanging onto tree tops for dear life, unaware of the fate of family members and pets, but nobody knew that yet.

After we closed the farmers market early that Saturday, I decided to evacuate with my family for the very first time. It began as a weekend in Baton Rouge, loaded up on farmers market food, and became four-months of temporary living in Houston, Texas.

For nearly a decade before the storm, we had created a regional community of farmers, fishers, bakers, chefs, public health advocates, and consumers devoted to a new kind of social and economic contract based on the experience of farmers markets. Admittedly, this is a fragile set of relationships, farmer meet farmer; shopper meet shopper; etc. Built upon the animation of public spaces and a healthy balance between cooperation and competition, Katrina sent this community packing.

A red light fallen off its post after Katrina raged through New Orleans taught city residents the art of the four-way stop. Photograph courtesy Market Umbrella

A red light fallen off its post after Katrina raged through New Orleans taught city residents the art of the four-way stop. Photograph courtesy Market Umbrella

When I spoke with many Katrina refugees (a loaded term) after the storm, many described feeling lonely and mournful of their loss of community. They also felt that they had lost control over the narrative of their lives.

Remember, this was 2005: two years before the arrival of the iPhone. None of us knew how to text and the local area code exchanges were effectively down in the wake of the hurricane. So, when we landed in our temporary new host cities and towns, we did so utterly unaware of where family, friends, farmers and neighbors had landed. Telephones were useless and few had laptops.

I became and remain obsessed with infrastructure collapse. Experiencing PTSD, I couldn’t sleep. My wife and I spent endless hours trying to determine whether our home had flooded by downloading clumsy satellite images from an obscure website. This was before Google Earth mapped our world. (If you need recommendations of engaging infrastructure collapse sci-fi novels, I’ve read nearly all of them in part because I felt as though I was living them.)

As quickly as we could, we reassembled the farmers market management team. We discovered we were scattered all over the country. The State Police granted us permission to re-enter New Orleans ten days after the storm to collect a couple of laptops, including the one that contained the vendor database. Back then our database did not live in “the Cloud.”

Upon arrival to the city, we encountered both chaos and order. I remember the National Guardsman from Oklahoma who inspected our credentials on Carrollton Avenue. He looked like he was twelve-years-old. You can see some of the destruction we returned to in the video above.

If the thousands of little decisions made while preparing for a storm are cause for reflection, consider the myriad of decisions that go into its reconstruction. That first trip set in motion a ten-week campaign to restart the market and at the same time, restart a community that was badly in need of some comfort and structure.

Find out how we did it, with the help of a whole lot of dedicated people, in Part Two.

Richard McCarthy has been the executive director of Slow Food USA since January 2013. Before that, he was executive director to Market Umbrella, a nonprofit group that mentors farmers markets. He has received several awards for his work to rebuild the food system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Find him on Twitter @RichardSlowFood

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