New Orleans Thought Katrina was its Worst Nightmare – then COVID hit

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Kerry Seaton Stewart (right), owner of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, working in her restaurant, New Orleans, USA, August 12, 2020. Kasimu Harris

NEW ORLEANS – For decades, New Orleans has had more than its share of hurricanes, economic slumps, and gentrifying neighborhoods, and Sportsman’s Corner, a Black-owned bar, has endured it all.

But Steven Elloie, the third generation owner, wonders if the bar will survive the global pandemic, after his mother, 63-year-old Theresa Elloie, fell victim to COVID-19.

“It just kind of killed my spirit,” said Elloie, 41, sitting in one of the bar’s red vinyl-covered chairs, tears in his eyes.

“It took a big toll on me, and I didn’t feel the same about going on to operate. I was just that hurt about the whole situation.”

His mother was known in the community for her activism and for making detailed ribbon corsages for various occasions, but she also moonlighted as an Uber driver.

This is how Elloie thinks she contracted the virus in March.

She was hospitalized for two weeks before her death. He didn’t get the chance to see or talk to her again.

Small business owners like Elloie know hardship, having survived Hurricane Katrina exactly 15 years ago that wreaked unimaginable devastation on the city nicknamed the “Big Easy” and famed for its relaxed disposition, music and cuisine.

Ahead of Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, an estimated 1.2 million people evacuated but about 120,000 people remained behind to ride out the storm, some by choice, but many by force of circumstances.

The levee system protecting the city failed, and water from the Mississippi River and regional canal system inundated low-lying neighborhoods. Residents were forced onto rooftops and trapped in their attics, with 80% of the city flooded.

More than 50,000 people sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, where they waited for days in intense heat without enough food and water for help. Conditions were so dire some people died on the spot.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were lambasted for a slow and confused response to a crisis that affected the entire city but particularly its poor, Black residents.

MOST DEVASTATING DISASTER

Katrina caused $125 billion of damage and up to 1,800 deaths, the costliest and most devastating disaster in U.S. history.

With about 70% of New Orleans’ housing damaged, people fled to Baton Rouge, Houston and elsewhere, halving the city’s population, but over the years residents have returned, and the city boasts even more restaurants than it did prior to Katrina.

A local count recently put the number of eateries at more than 1,200 – almost one quarter more than before.

But this disaster is different. There’s no place to evacuate to in order to escape harm.

The tourism-dependent city in Louisiana is stuck balancing the need for visitors to come and spend money – but not wanting to invite crowds that could spread COVID-19.

While Katrina came and left, the pandemic has no end in sight.

“It’s really no comparison to Katrina. It’s actually 10 times worse, and Katrina was pretty devastating,” Elloie told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sportsman’s Corner is located in the Central City, a working-class Black neighborhood of modest homes in the midst of gentrifying, just blocks away from picturesque mansions on the oak-lined St. Charles Avenue.

It’s a bar at the heart of the city’s Black culture, a local haven for socializing and meetings of the Black Masking Indians, sometimes known as Mardi Gras Indians, in their intricate suits of beads and feathers.

The city’s famed Mardi Gras took place in February, but the pandemic has halted subsequent cultural practices and festivals.

During the city’s restrictions of recent months, Sportman’s Corner was briefly operating at 25% capacity, then was doing curbside-only sales – and now is closed.

As of late August, restaurants were limited to 50% capacity indoors, with no bar seating.

“Social distance is contrary to who we are as a people, and the need to limit social gatherings has transformed our lives,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said this month in a State of the City address.

“The way we love on one another and how we show our support is disrupted. Each life lost ripples through our community at a time when we can’t even turn to our traditions and our rituals that we have depended on for generations.”

CORONAVIRUS HOT SPOT

New Orleans emerged as one of the early U.S. hot spots for the coronavirus, with a death rate at one stage twice as high as that of New York.

Doctors attribute the deadlier threat to New Orleans residents to high rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, conditions feared to make patients vulnerable to COVID-19.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows an estimated 39% of New Orleans metropolitan residents have high blood pressure, 36% are obese and about 15% have diabetes. Nationally the median is 32% with high blood pressure, 31% obese and 11% with diabetes.

All the statistics illuminate the health disparities of the Black community in New Orleans which makes up nearly 60% of the population, according to government census data.

In Treme, the oldest Black neighborhood in America, Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe could be serving its golden fried chicken, gumbo and jambalaya to customers at 25% capacity or to-go. But it’s closed and for sale.

“I don’t want to personally come back out here at 73-years-old,” said owner Wayne Baquet, who comes from a long line of New Orleans restaurateurs.

Talking in the dining area of Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe, an area usually filled with customers, he recounted a recent ride around the city to see what other businesses and restaurants were doing about customer contact and decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

“I’ve lost some friends and customers to this virus,” said Baquet, wearing his trademark blue Treme baseball cap.

Figures from the Louisiana Department of Health show about 11,000 cases of coronavirus in New Orleans and about 570 deaths.

During Hurricane Katrina, Lil’ Dizzy’s cafe took in two feet of water, and Baquet and his family relocated to Atlanta. But the Baquet family has been in the restaurant business since 1947, so New Orleans pulled him back.

When Lil’ Dizzy’s reopened three months later, customers were waiting in a line that wrapped around the corner to dine at the restaurant, its photo- and memorabilia-covered walls a testament to New Orleans, jazz, and the countless celebrities and politicians who have visited.

The possible sale or closure of Lil’ Dizzy’s comes as Black-owned businesses in the United States are hit hard by lockdowns, with some economists concerned the damage may be permanent.

SERVICE SECTOR HIT

U.S. Black-owned small businesses are highly concentrated in retail, restaurants and service industries – the sectors most affected by shutdowns and social distancing. Their owners typically have fewer resources to fall back on and a tough time getting aid, research shows.

The number of Black businesses owners in the United States fell by 41% between February and April to 640,000, compared with a 17% drop in the number of white business owners, according to analysis by economics professor Robert Fairlie from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House, also in Treme, has been a staple in the New Orleans’ culinary scene since the late 1970s, and is now surviving – just – by selling take-out meals.

The restaurant is located where Willie Mae Seaton first opened a bar, beauty salon and barbershop in 1957 before trying her hand at a restaurant.

For decades Willie Mae’s was a favorite neighborhood joint but it drew national attention in early 2005 when it was featured in several high-profile publications and honored with a prestigious James Beard Award for “America’s Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region.”

Months later, Katrina hit and Willie Mae’s took two years to rebuild and reopen under the guidance of Kerry Seaton Stewart, the founder’s great granddaughter.

“Failure was not an option and it’s still not today. I was going to be steadfast on keeping the restaurant open and putting in all of the love I have for my grandmother and all of the love I have for the restaurant,” she said.

“After Katrina, I felt that I was climbing a mountain top,” she said, “and that’s the only thing that leaves me with some level of comfort, and some level of nostalgia. I’ve been here, I have been through the hard part. And it’s not as bad as that.”

Stewart runs one of the few minority-owned businesses to receive a loan through the U.S. government Paycheck Protection Program set up to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic and keep Americans working and off unemployment assistance.

The U.S. Small Business Administrator’s inspector general found in May that some minority, rural and women-owned businesses may not have received loans due to a lack of prioritization from the agency.

UNEMPLOYMENT RISING

A study released last month by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a lending, housing and business group, found Black potential buyers faced considerable bias at banks where they applied for PPP loans.

Even with the loan, Stewart’s workforce over two locations has shrunk from 50 to 10 since the pandemic. Stewart said some of her employees wanted to return, but did not have childcare to allow them to do so.

And she worries about them.

In New Orleans the unemployment rate rose to 12.9% in June, up from 5.2% a year earlier, but down from 19% in April. Nationally the unemployment rate was 11.2% in June.

Robert Habans, an economist for The Data Center, a non-profit research institution based in New Orleans, said nationally unemployment insurance (UI) claims have already far exceeded the previous record.

“In Louisiana, the only recent precedent for COVID-19’s effect on UI claims occurred in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Weekly employment losses have already far surpassed the peak of the Great Recession,” he wrote.

Another report Habans wrote with data analyst Jenna Losh from The Data Center showed employment plummeting across the state with New Orleans suffering an especially drastic decline.

“In both relative and absolute terms, the largest losses by far occurred in the Leisure and Hospitality sector, where employment fell by half,” wrote Habans and Losh.

Before the pandemic, long lines of people were typical outside Willie Mae’s and that popularity was one of the reasons Stewart was only doing take-out and not reopening dining areas.

“We were so busy,” said Stewart. “Now I don’t know how we can navigate if we get a crowd.”

Prior to the pandemic, the historic house museum, Le Musée de f.p.c., was drawing crowds for events and exhibits dedicated to free people of color, a term referring to Blacks born free or released from slavery before the 1861-1865 Civil War.

“PAR FOR THE COURSE”

The museum, situated along Esplanade Ave, a thoroughfare lined with trees and 19th Century Creole mansions, was founded by Beverly Stanton McKenna and her husband Dwight McKenna – who is the city’s first Black coroner.

The couple, who also own a Black news magazine The New Orleans Tribune, started buying and rehabilitating buildings in 2003 as a resistance to gentrification. Now, the historic buildings are home to six Black-owned businesses located on Bayou Road, the city’s oldest street.

“It was a dream, not just being a landlord but economic development and community building,” said McKenna, surrounded by portraits of free people of color and artifacts.

McKenna has kept the museum closed to keep her staff safe but she is determined to reopen the house in time.

“We confront monumental issues all the time. For Black people, this is par for the course,” said McKenna.

“(But) it’s scary because we don’t know,” she added. “Sometimes I think that this can go on for a year.”

Back at Sportsman’s Corner, Elloie said he was trying to stay positive and motivated.

For him the community is critical, and Sportsman’s Corner has had a key role bringing people together for generations and he wants that to continue, for himself and his mother.

“This is what she would’ve wanted,” Elloie said. “Once things get back to some type of normalcy, just to keep the business afloat.”

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