A look at how New Orleans' world-famous dining scene recovered after Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesPatrons wait for orders of coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde on October 19, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The famous cafe reopened after being closed for more than a month after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.
  • The restaurant industry is a central part of New Orleans’ identity.
  • Exactly 15 years ago, the Louisiana city was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
  • With most of the city destroyed and underwater, recovery took years. But restaurant clean-up started a couple weeks after the storm hit, before evacuees even really returned to the city.
  • Roughly 40% of the city’s restaurants managed to reopen within nine months of the storm. Some institutions, like legendary Cafe Du Monde, opened in October to packed houses before most of the city even had power.
  • The city now faces another challenge as it braces for potential twin hurricanes amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the local dining scene is already familiar with rebuilding amid tragedy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

New Orleans, Louisiana, has long been a multicultural hub with French Creole roots and celebrations like Mardi Gras. The city’s historical centre, the French Quarter, coupled with its famed Bourbon Street nightlife, have attracted visitors for years.

AP Photo/Gerald HerbertRevelers play brass band music as they begin the march of the Society of Saint Anne Mardi Gras parade, on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015.

Source: The City of New Orleans

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans attracted millions of tourists every year. In 2004, it welcomed 10.1 million visitors. That number dropped off to 3.7 million in 2006.

Jorg Hackemann/ShutterstockThe city’s famed Bourbon Street in full swing.

Source: Nola

The city’s restaurants have long been part of its draw, too. Some of New Orleans’ still-popular dining places were established in the 1800s. Before Hurricane Katrina, there were over 3,400 restaurants in New Orleans that employed 54,000 people.

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLegendary Commander’s Palace restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 27, 2005, before Hurricane Katrina. It dates back to the 1880s. It needed a new roof and new floors following Katrina.

Source: Industry Today,Nola

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. This hurricane season marks the storm’s 15th anniversary. It is considered to be one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history.

David J. Phillip/APA flooded New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Source: Business Insider, National Hurricane Centre

The city, which is surrounded by water, was equipped with levees to prevent flooding. The storm broke those levees and ravaged New Orleans, causing 80% of the city to flood, with some parts under 15 feet of water. An estimated 1,833 people are said to have died in the metropolitan area.

James Nielsen/AFP via Getty ImagesDebris scattered across Canal street in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Source: Business Insider, National Hurricane Centre,UNC-Charlotte

The city’s restaurants, like almost everything else, were decimated. Clean-up of the iconic French Quarter began in mid-September, about two weeks after the hurricane hit, but the city faced major obstacles.

Lindsay Brice/Getty ImagesVenezia Italian restaurant after Hurricane Katrina on September 17, 2005 in Mid-City New Orleans.

Source: Nola, Vice,Industry Today

At first, owners were unable to get into their restaurants — and in many cases, even into the city — for weeks to assess the damages.

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesSergio Cabrera talks about the smell inside Tujague’s restaurant in the French Quarter as he cleans spoiled and rotting food out of the refrigerators on September 15, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Source: Nola,Industry Today

Structural damage and displaced workers slowed the process. After weeks without power, the first order of business in restaurants was not only cleaning debris, but also discarding buckets upon buckets of spoiled food.

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBuckets of spoiled food removed during cleanup stand outside Tujague’s restaurant in the French Quarter on September 15, 2005 in New Orleans.

Source: Industry Today,The New York Times

Clean-up crews wore protective gear and masks as they emptied French Quarter restaurants — the most popular among tourists — of everything down to contaminated bottles of wine.

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesMembers of a cleanup crew wear protective gear as they remove contaminated bottles of wine, champagne and food from a restaurant in the French Quarter in September 15, 2005.

Source: The New York Times, US News

Even a month after the hurricane, only 17% of the city had power. The community rallied together in many ways — one being propane-powered, street-side kitchens that provided red beans and rice to clean-up crews and National Guardsmen.

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesU.S. Army Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Byrd of Baton Rouge, Louisiana watches as Tim Shirah (L-R), Finis Shelnutt, and Ryan Huber make a pot of red beans and rice in a makeshift kitchen.

Source: Associated Press

As local chef Susan Spicer told The New York Times, “people realised that restaurants were more than just places to go eat” in the aftermath of Katrina. “They are culture bearers and community gathering places.”

Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesBaker Willie Watson pulls a garbage can through the Tastee Doughnuts shop October 2, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Source: The New York Times

Institutional mainstays like beignet legend Cafe Du Monde opened as early as October to packed houses. At the time, Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson said, “It makes a huge statement for the city of New Orleans: We’re open for business, come visit us.”

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesPatrons enjoy orders of coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde on October 19, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Source: Associated Press

Within nine months, roughly 41% of the restaurants in the metropolitan area had reopened. However, it took the city’s tourism scene a decade to rebound from Katrina: It welcomed pre-Katrina levels of visitors in 2016. Its restaurants are still one of the city’s largest draws — New Orleans has scores of James Beard Award recipients.

Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesA waiter delivers food to a customer during dinner at famed Galatoire’s Restaurant on May 22, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Source: City of New Orleans, Industry Today

The coronavirus pandemic presents a similar problem for New Orleans. Layoffs and lower capacities are taking a toll on local restaurants. Two tropical storms are headed for the Gulf Coast now, too, threatening damage. But the city already knows how to rebuild.

Claire Bangser/AFP via Getty ImagesA man wearing a facemask walks past Pere Antoine’s Restaurant in the French Quarter, on May 16, 2020, the first day of New Orleans’ reopening process amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Source: The New York Times,Insider

Donald Link, a chef with six New Orleans restaurants, told the New York Times he’s had to lay off 360 of his 450 employees. He left just one restaurant, Cochon Butcher, open with a menu that samples from all six restaurants. He and his small staff also cook for former colleagues, “but we can’t get too big, because I can’t put too many people in the kitchen.”

FilmMagic via Getty ImagesChef Donald Link at a demonstration in Las Vegas in October 2013.

Source: The New York Times

Brad Hollingsworth, the owner of Clancy’s restaurant, told The New York Times that he imagines recovery will look similar to the recovery after Katrina. “In 45 years in the restaurant business, I’d never seen anything like it,” Hollingsworth said. “People just loved being here, seeing their friends again, getting out, getting back home.”

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesA group enjoys dinner at Clancy’s in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Saturday, August 8, 2015.

Source: The New York Times

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