A Diary From New Orleans
I believe Ewell Smith when he says it feels like yesterday that Hurricane Katrina struck his beloved hometown of New Orleans. Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board here, is one of the fortunate southern Louisianans whose home was not irreparably harmed by the winds and floodwaters of one of the worst storms in our nation's history. But make no mistake, unaffected he is not - many of Smith's close friends and colleagues were not as fortunate as he. Last week he showed me for the first time the indelible marks that horrific storm left on his proud city, and it was a sight I won't soon forget.
My trip to Louisiana last week as part of the National Fisheries Institute's Future Leader program led me to the Lower Ninth Ward, not far from where the levees broke under the pressures of a swollen Mississippi River. Concrete slabs scatter the once-spirited neighborhood as a grim reminder of where generations of families' homes once stood and where weeds now grow unfettered. The remaining structures bear the scars of Mother Nature's unbridled fury, many of them still windowless, roofless, boarded up and spray-painted with checkmarks the National Guard used in its quest for survivors in the days that followed Katrina's landfall in late August 2005. Shopping centers and restaurants are vacant and, in many cases, completely gutted by demolition crews, looters or both.
The tour bus on which I rode through this now-barren landscape was packed but eerily silent. I was one of nearly 30 seafood industry professionals who joined Smith to survey the damage to the hardest hit areas, including the neighborhood where he grew up, not far from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain where he spent his childhood scouting for blue crabs. Unfortunately, leading bus tours of the wreckage is something the board has turned to instead of promoting Louisiana seafood full time. But, he concedes, it must be done. People need to see this, as difficult as it may be.
The Crescent City is the Future Leaders' first stop in a year-long journey that will also take us to Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas to witness firsthand the various aspects of the seafood industry, some of which we are quite unfamiliar with. In New Orleans, we toured a couple of seafood processing facilities, got a culinary lesson from Chef Duke LoCicero and spent a day building two homes with Habitat for Humanity in the Central City neighborhood. It was hard work, but the effort felt like a drop of water in the Gulf of Mexico, when you see so much devastation and people still living in tents under the I-10 bride near Canal Street.
It's shocking: It's been nearly three years since the nation watched in horror as a storm laid waste to one of the world's most unique and energetic cities. It'll take decades, says Smith, before places like Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines return to their former selves. In some places, the people may never come back to their flooded homes, if they stand at all.
New Orleans is being rebuilt, however slowly. Louisiana's importance to the domestic seafood industry - and our country's culture - cannot be understated. I am humbled by my experience, by what I saw and felt. But more than that, I'm amazed by the resiliency and strength of the people who call this magical place home and don't ever want to leave.
Thank you, James Wright Assistant Editor SeaFood Business