Spirit of survival: Returning to New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, a New Orleans girl returns to her old haunts to see how they've fared.
By Ylan Q. Mui
Sunday, August 29, 2010

I bumped into my past one steamy afternoon in June at a snowball stand just outside of New Orleans.

As I pulled into the shell parking lot in front of Sal's Sno-Balls, I debated flavors. Watermelon or wedding cake? Should I go for broke and get sweetened condensed milk poured on top, another local specialty? The stand, a little brick house with two walk-up windows and a few big wooden logs serving as seats out front, has been in the same spot for half a century. It even still uses the same ice machine, a small but determined stand against the passage of time.

Growing up around the city, I considered the finely shaved ice, flavored with deliciously high-fructose syrup, a culinary staple. There's nothing more refreshing during the stretch of summer when the muggy air is thick with sweat and mosquitoes. But by necessity, snowballs all but disappeared from my diet when I moved to Washington to launch my career after college. The imitators, such as "snow cones" and "Italian ice," weren't even worth the calories. Besides, with a busy job in a city where everybody always seems to be in a hurry, there was no longer time to loiter in a parking lot and eat ice.

In New Orleans, though, time seems to expand.

The woman taking orders at Sal's grinned at me. I glanced at her, trying not to be rude, trying to keep my head down, order quickly and eat fast like an efficient Washingtonian. She grinned at me again and nodded.

Tricia Grishaw. That was her name. I had gone to high school with her in New Orleans and hadn't seen, heard of or, frankly, even thought about her in the 12 years since we had graduated. And now she was grinning at me, asking what's been happening as casually as she had just taken my order. As if I had been coming here every week with the long line of regulars. As if Hurricane Katrina hadn't cannonballed our city five years ago and flooded our old high school, leaving it covered in muck and mold. As if my family hadn't resettled in Houston, where the state bird is the construction crane, and "home" for us no longer applies to New Orleans.

I ordered a strawberry.

Before we finished catching up, another car pulled into the lot. Out stepped another high school classmate I hadn't seen since graduation, and just like that, an impromptu reunion at the snowball stand.

I wasn't really surprised. I had been waiting for something like that to happen since I'd arrived in the city two weeks earlier, ostensibly to cover the BP oil spill but making sure to revisit my old haunts, as well. I kept my eyes peeled for familiar faces on every potholed street because I knew that it didn't matter how long it had been since I lived in the city, things didn't change in New Orleans. At least, they didn't before Katrina.

That maxim has been put to the test in the years since the history-making hurricane altered the landscape of New Orleans and its suburbs. Hundreds of people lost their lives. Institutions crumbled. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out. And lifelong New Orleanians who expected to spend the rest of their days there suddenly found themselves foreigners in cities and towns, near and far, where the food, the language and the lifestyle lacked the spice of their home town. Ten feet of water flooded my family's home in nearby St. Bernard Parish, forcing my parents and younger brother to decamp to Houston. My parents decided to start anew there, as Katrina had wiped out their livelihood -- my father's medical clinic, as well as my mother's day spa -- and they were unsure whether the area would rebound.

Sal's got lucky. It didn't flood, but weeks without power caused the soft serve ice cream to curdle and the sugary syrup to ferment, prompting the owner to nickname his shop Sal's Wine and Cheese. The stand reopened three weeks after the hurricane and stayed open into November, long past snowball season, because Tricia and some of the other workers had no other jobs.

Even the people and places that weathered the storm emerged somehow different, at first. You knew things were bad when diners began showing up without a coat and tie at the storied New Orleans restaurant Antoine's, whose tuxedoed waiters have served eggs sardou and souffled potatoes for 170 years.

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