At the Old Absinthe House and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar on Bourbon Street, no one really wants to talk about it.
On the trolley cars along St. Charles Avenue and in the funky eateries over on Magazine Street, they’re not saying much, either.
And farther up the line, at Tulane University, where students are arriving on campus to start fall classes this week, there’s barely a whisper.
For visitors to New Orleans, it may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a certain uneasiness hanging over the Big Easy like the smothering summer humidity. The reason: So far, hurricane season – the mean season, as the writer John Katzenbach called it – has been surprisingly tame.
Despite expert predictions of normal-to-above-average storm activity in the southeastern U.S. and along the Gulf Coast this season, there has been very little. While that is good news for a city such as New Orleans, which depends heavily on tourism and hospitality spending to drive its economy, local business people who have lived through big storms don’t want to tempt fate by talking about the lull. It isn’t just quiet, some say. It’s too quiet. And with storm season running until November, there is still lots of time for trouble.
“Shhh,” scolded Michelle Freeman, a St. Charles Avenue restaurant manager, when the “H” word was mentioned to her. “You’ll jinx us.”
For a relatively small city – about 400,000 people – with few big-name corporate headquarters, New Orleans punches above its weight in terms of top-tier attractions. In addition to the French Quarter, the world-famous annual Mardi Gras celebrations and a thriving arts and music community, it is home to the NFL’s Saints, the NBA’s Pelicans, the annual Sugar Bowl college football game and the annual Zurich Classic PGA golf tournament. The Caesars Superdome stadium – which has hosted Super Bowls – and the Smoothie King Center sports and entertainment venue are prominent features of the city’s skyline along the Mississippi River.
Still, business people such as Ms. Freeman say New Orleans can’t afford another jinx. In 2019, the city attracted almost 20 million visitors, who spent more than US$10-billion, according to the local tourism board. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, travel and tourism ground to a halt.
Just as the city’s economy was recovering in 2021, another blow knocked it down. On Aug. 26 that year – 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina pummelled the city – Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans as a Category 4 storm, with 150-mile-an-hour winds and a damaging storm surge. More than 100 people died, and the damage amounted to more than US$75-billion.
Ida was one of several big storms that swept along the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida panhandle in a span of only a few weeks.
In New Orleans, Ida’s widespread flooding and power outages shut businesses. And Tulane evacuated its campus, bussing thousands of students to Houston for travel home. School was conducted remotely for more than a month.
Ms. Freeman, a native New Orleanian who was forced to move to Texas for several months after Katrina, said she watched the storm surge from Ida fill up her backyard with water from the mighty and muddy Mississippi.
“It didn’t feel like a flood,” she said. “It felt like I was in the middle of the river.”
Unlike other hurricane-prone locales, New Orleans has a unique vulnerability linked to its topography. Much of the city is at or below sea level, protected by a network of levees and a series of giant pumps employed during storms. Visitors to the French Quarter can experience this for themselves: they must climb stairs to get to the river’s edge.
That vulnerability is considered to be a main reason the devastation from Katrina was more severe than that from other major Category 5 storms in other areas, such as Hurricane Irma, which swamped the Florida Keys in 2017, and Hurricane Andrew, which hammered the Miami area in 1992.
But New Orleans is known for its unique resilience. Business people say hurricane planning is part of their business strategy. Events such as the pandemic will come and go, and economic challenges such as inflation will rise and fall, but the inevitability of hurricanes is eternal.
As Ms. Freeman said with a smile, it’s part of peoples’ lives and part of their businesses.
Despite the city’s grit and grace, some New Orleanians admit they are tired after the past few years of disasters.
Dionne Dawson, a commercial driver whose mother died during Katrina when she fell and hit her head while being evacuated to a shelter, is one of them. She knows very well that, while there have been no big storms so far this year, the end of the season is still more than two months away.
“We need a break,” Ms. Dawson said, shaking her head. “We’ve been through a lot. We really need a break.”
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