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Food Writer Examines The Effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orlean's Dining

Bacchanal started as a small wine shop before Kartrina, but after the storm cleared it became a pop-up for chefs and communities to gather around food, wine and live music.

Ten years ago today, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, declared a state of emergency and called for – at that time – a voluntary evacuation in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina reaching landfall. 

However within a day, the hurricane intensified to a Category 4 level, and the storm came ashore a short time later.  The surge from the Gulf of Mexico breached the levees protecting the city, and at its worst, nearly four fifths of the city was under water.  

The hurricane and the levee failure killed more than 900 people and displaced at least a million along the Gulf Coast.

Hundreds of thousands of people left New Orleans – some permanently, while others found their way back months, or years later. 

Food writer Sara Roahen grew up in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, but moved to New Orleans years before Katrina.  In a recent feature for Gravy, a podcast produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance, Roahen uses the lens of one New Orleans restaurant and its late owner to explore how the ten years since Katrina have changed the city and its people.

Bacchanal Wine started as a small wine shop on the outskirts of New Orleans that slowly became an eclectic Bywater watering hole. However, after Katrina, Bacchanal became a central part of the city’s and people’s recovery.

Late owner Chris Rudge invited guest chefs from around the city to come and cook for the crowds on Bacchanal Sundays and allowed them to keep all the profits, creating New Orelean’s original pop-up. These legendary Sundays included food, wine, live music and a place for residents to find company and comfort.

“Eighty percent of people who came back did not have working kitchens, so any place that was open serving food (and alcohol) became a gathering spot. This is kind of a hard-drinking, hard-partying city, and that was never more true than after Katrina,” Roahen says.

Bacchanal was raided by the city since it did not have the permission or the permits to be an outdoor kitchen and jazz club seven nights a week. However, this raid launched a year-long struggle to gain the proper rights to the backyard parties with the help of the community.

Today commemorates the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the city and its people continue to rebuild. Even though certain areas of the town are no longer considered “cool” due to their rise in popularity, Roashen has to remind herself that even if popularity may compromise uniqueness, all improvements should be welcomed.

“I have to remind myself to give the city a little bit of credit, because this has been a port city that has been populated by so many different cultures over the course of its history,” Roashen says. “This is just another time of change for the city and we have to wait it out and see what happens on the other side. If the city changes now how it has in the past, it’s probably going to be pretty good.”

With restaurants such as Bacchanal thriving once again, the anniversary of the storm prompts reflection from Roashen.  

"It's really clear to me this week how much of what I witnessed back then I sort of buried...I have to say people are really tense in this city right now, and I am too," she says. "I'm having to sort of cut off my exposure to the articles and the speculation and the talk of resilience, because it really does dig up so much emotion."

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.