Hurricane season in New Orleans is never easy — even if you aren’t in the direct path of a storm.
In 2017, the Crescent City endured the side-effects of multiple, powerful hurricanes and tropical storms as they ravaged neighboring Gulf states. Pounding rain, wind and flooding found its way to a city under sea level, but everything occurred on a smaller scale. Unlike Southeast Texas and west Louisiana, where the death toll ended in 88 casualties, NOLA residents only lost furniture and vehicles. For someone who grew up far from hurricane territory, it was still a powerful thing to witness.
I moved to New Orleans on a whim. And by chance, I ended up living and working in a backpacker hostel in Mid-City. The neighborhood is a mixed bag — a little edgy and a little quirky with a strong sense of community. Peppered throughout the residential area sit Latino groceries, Indian temples, yoga studios, and Irish dive bars. The commercial real estate and homes are pierced by Canal Street, a main thoroughfare framed by cemeteries and City Park.
The hostel is a bright yellow 1906 Victorian-style mansion packed with bunk beds, wild graffiti-style artwork, and interesting people. As the hostel grew over the years, it absorbed the other houses beside it until the business took up the entire block.
Today, there are six houses in total. The two classic NOLA shotgun structures rounding out the block were purchased and renovated after Hurricane Katrina. Their former tenants, like many other residents of Mid-City, were unable to return to their homes.
The hostel has seen its fair share of hurricane heartbreak, along with the rest of the neighborhood. There are still watermarks on the fireplace and door frames in the main common room, leftovers of Hurricane Katrina. The owners of the hostel felt that they should leave them as they were. The marks, along with photos of the floodwaters and the stories of long-term staff members, have been their tools for educating international tourists about the hurricane’s devastating effects for the last 13 years. If that isn’t enough, they can simply walk down the street and see abandoned houses left to slowly fall apart among the colorful and neatly-restored façades.
I worked at the hostel for two hurricane seasons, two years apart. While I was fortunate enough not to be working during Hurricane Katrina, 2017 was a lesson in crisis hospitality.
When Traveling, Nothing Is Guaranteed
The struggles an international backpacker hostel faces during an emergency are unique. The travelers at the hostel where I worked are usually on tight budgets — booking one of 16 bunk beds in a room full of complete strangers is usually done to save money. They come from countries from Mauritania to Japan, with various levels of language barriers. Guests often rely on public transport, as well as, guidance from those of us at the front desk — mostly, they want to know what to do around New Orleans. When the power and street cars shut down in storms, we’re the ones who usually help.
In 2017, we were lucky—we were not directly in the path of the hurricanes and tropical storms. However, we still dealt with the effects they had on our neighboring states. In the aftermath, the hostel had to adapt quickly because the places our guests were supposed to go had been impacted. .
Harvey flooded not just Houston, but also western Louisiana. Many of our guests were scheduled to travel from New Orleans to Texas, but this was no longer an option. The floods had covered the main roads into and out of southern Texas, blocking their route. Even if their next hostel wasn’t underwater, they wouldn’t be able to get there. Buses and flights were cancelled, and reception staff scrambled to accommodate extended bookings for those who couldn’t continue to travel as they hoped.
We helped many guests manage their altered trips—from sending them north to Nashville and Memphis, to calling airlines for those who couldn’t manage the English conversations with customer service agents who had already dealt with too much.
Mostly, our job was to help everyone stay calm (not easy, considering many of us on staff were just as rattled). When you’ve never lived in a state or country that experiences hurricanes, dealing with the effects of a severe storm, even if you aren’t right in its path, can be intimidating.
Mid-City flooded out. There were pumps designed to prevent floods throughout New Orleans; it just so happened that the pumps broke down. The worst day came in early August, our second flood of the season.
It rained from the middle of the night until after dark. At its highest point, the water was more than waist-deep. We watched the rain come down that morning from the hostel’s large front porch; trash cans toppled over, spilling garbage into the shallow river that had been a street only hours before. People were still walking through the sludge at that point, dodging beer bottles and used condoms as they passed.
Throughout the entire day, staff and guests stood together on the front porch. We couldn’t go anywhere, so we drank and smoked and tried to distract each other from all of the things we knew could happen if flooding worsened. We knew that at the very least, it wouldn’t be as bad as Hurricane Katrina — which eased our minds a little.
Soon, it was clear that the cars parked in front of the hostel wouldn’t make it if they weren’t moved to higher ground. My own pickup truck was parked on a sidewalk a block away, the highest ground I could make it to at the time. Feeling the need to do something, I began a search through the six houses for the owners of the cars. We didn’t have a record of what cars our guests owned, so I ran from dorm to dorm in the pouring rain looking for anyone who might have a vehicle. We didn’t find the owners in time; we stood and watched as the hoods of all three cars went underwater.
Some of our guests had been out exploring the city when the storm intensified; they hadn’t realized how bad it would be. They didn’t head back to the hostel in time, resulting in them being cut off from higher ground by the deepening water
But as the waters rose, our neighbors came to the rescue. As we stood on the porch, just above the water line, we watched as small boats began to float down the street.
They were groups of tiny dinghies, canoes, and whatever small crafts people had on hand. They were a true bunch of Mid-City residents: a group of white, black, and Latino neighbors rowing slowly through the muddy water and the pounding rain. They weren’t going out just to look around and view the damage — they were bringing people home who had been stranded and would have otherwise had to risk wading through deep water filled with garbage to get back to their houses.
By nightfall, our guests returned in one of the rescue boats. I stood there watching a group of three young Greek backpackers scrambling out of the canoe, thanking the locals on one of their umpteenth rescue missions. It was a touching sight after such a long, stressful day, and I was happy to know that our guests had seen what really lies at the core of the New Orleans’ spirit — neighbors helping each other when it matters.
Our block was cut off until later the next morning, when the pumps finally came back on and began to drain the excess water. We’d only had one check-in during the storm, a young Chinese man who had somehow walked from the bus station carrying his suitcase over his head. He couldn’t understand why we were so shocked to see him walking through the front door.
The water was gone by the end of the next day. I retrieved my truck, unharmed, and at least a dozen neighbors retrieved their cars from their perches on the street car tracks. Later that week I visited my friend a few blocks away, and saw several families helping each other clear out furniture ruined by the muddy water. Many people had been using the garages beneath their homes as living space and had lost much of what was being kept there. The streets were lined with mattresses, tables, and couches for the next few weeks as people cleaned up the mess that the storm had left behind.
No part of the hostel was damaged during the floods (unless you count the rental cars). Our guests experienced a New Orleans flood but walked away safe and sound, armed with a new story to tell fellow backpackers at the next hostel. For weeks, we received phone calls and emails from travelers who had seen the news, asking if we were still open. We were able to tell all of them yes, we’re fine, please come and see us.
On my morning walks, I used to escape the hostel and go down to the end of Canal Street, where the street cars turn around and head back toward the French Quarter. The intersection is surrounded by huge cemeteries, a zombie-themed coffee shop, and one understated memorial— a site dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It’s a place to reflect and recognize the people of New Orleans who lost their lives, but it’s also a reminder that this city holds a community that is close to unbreakable. Even we transient visitors can see that.