A return to the scene of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to help and be helped by an unforgettable city

By Madeleine Frank
January 26, 2015

Jazz music emanates from everywhere: an open window, a car radio, a duo playing violin and guitar in the middle of the road. At first I wonder whether the notes are coming from inside my head, a soundtrack to how I always imagined New Orleans would be.

I hear the same tunes coming from a paint-covered boom box outside a weather-beaten house in Algiers, a neighborhood still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina nearly a decade after its destruction. I've arrived at this tarp-covered site to volunteer for Rebuilding Together New Orleans, which organizes helpers to repair storm-damaged houses.

A truck filled with construction materials sits at the worksite, where the homeowner takes me from room to room and tells me stories of the happy times her family enjoyed here pre-Katrina. She's spent the past eight years and every bit of her insurance money fixing rooms inside, and only the exterior work stands in the way of regaining the home she once had.

Atop a ladder in the sweltering Louisiana heat, my face covered with a dust mask, I scrape away at the house's existing layer of paint. The day soon becomes one of the most exhausting I've ever had, and I want more than anything to take a break and find some air-conditioning. But another conversation with the homeowner renews my energy: In this city, she explains, nothing is taken for granted—music, food, a stranger's kindness—and that appreciation gives people amazing resilience. What I'm doing is more than just making this house look better; I'm helping to give someone else the strength to take on whatever life may throw at her. Working in time to the music, covering three drop cloths full of old paint chips, I actually finish the day stronger than I started.

After a quick cleanup at The Roosevelt New Orleans hotel, I sink my sore muscles into a chair at Restaurant R'evolution. A pair of world-famous chefs here joined forces after Hurricane Katrina in a large-scale effort to bring food to survivors. Their pride in their city is still evident today in their take on traditional Creole food and its inventive presentation: A corn-and-crab soup is served cappuccino style, topped with a truffle foam and popcorn garnish.

Post dinner, I head to Frenchmen Street and stop inside Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. It's the crescendo of the soundtrack that has played throughout my New Orleans experience—lively music that encourages putting not just the mind, but the entire body to work. And I can think of nowhere I'd rather be than lost in its melody. 

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Redux Pictures