‘This is how we celebrate:’ Hurricane Ida brings New Orleans together to feed community after storm

NEW ORLEANS — Howie Kaplan was sitting inside his bar Monday morning, celebrating with friends that Hurricane Ida’s wrath wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as they’d all worried it’d be, when someone stopped in to ask if he’d be giving out food that afternoon.

An operation he started at the beginning of the pandemic to feed thousands throughout the city had started to slow down in the past couple of weeks, as New Orleans boasted an abnormally high vaccination rate for Louisiana and more and more service industry workers were able to get back to work.

But with the city’s electrical grid ruined by the storm, Kaplan realized it was time to ramp back up. There were roughly 1 million of his neighbors without power and thus without a means to prepare food.

“We can figure it out,” he recalled thinking. Through the pandemic, more than just feeding people, the Howlin’ Wolf has also hosted vaccine clinics and diaper drives.

“We’ve literally become a community center by accident,” Kaplan said.

There was no reason to stop the trend now, so he brought his grill from home and some friends started showing up to donate the contents of their freezers. Volunteers from various nonprofits quickly formed an assembly line. Two of the beer companies Kaplan works with donated refrigerated trucks.

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Howie Kaplan, owner of Howlin Wolf where he has gathered donated foods from fellow local restaurants and patrons with dozens of volunteers to help cook and feed more than 5000 meals on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. “This is how New Orleans cries, this is how we laugh, when we’re in pain, we celebrate,” said Kaplan of the outpouring of support and jovial attitudes of the nearly 150 volunteers over the course of the week. “New Orleans knows how to take care of our own,” he added.

By Saturday morning, about 15,000 meals had been given out to front line workers, first responders and to the city’s “culture bearers — just everyone who makes New Orleans, New Orleans,” Kaplan said.

Despite his business being shuttered — which was also without power until Friday morning — and despite the blistering heat and humidity, droves of people have continued to show each day to prepare wholesome, and often quite intricate dishes.

Ryan Prewitt, who owns the award winning restaurant Peche and was named the best chef of the south in 2014 by the James Beard Foundation, was one of the many volunteers working Saturday morning.

As he stirred a pot of bacon, onion and mushrooms that would be combined with chopped cabbage, a pan of stuffed peppers were awaiting their place on a grill that would also heat bacon wrapped ribeye steaks. On the assembly line, workers prepared a made-from-scratch slaw to top grilled fish tacos and at another station, cold meat sandwiches were made on toasted bagels and garnished with fresh spinach.
Ryan Prewitt, the James Beard Awarded chef of Peche, mixes a cabbage stew outside of Howlin Wolf where he joins other volunteers using donated foods from local restaurants and patrons to help cook and feed more than 5000 meals on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

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The burgers were being hand-pattied and the hot dogs had all the fixings. Though the food was free, it did not lack sustenance or savor — not in a city known for its culinary strengths.

“I think it’s incredible. This is a real grassroots effort that sprung up,” Prewitt said of the operation.

When he heard about Kaplan’s plan, he started to empty his walk-in coolers, a move several restaurants in the city followed. Thinking back to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the experience made them more prepared to deal with Ida.

“A lot of us really remembered that period and everyone mobilized really fast because we all did it 16 years ago,” Prewitt said.

While Ida fortunately did not cause the destruction that was anticipated, it’s arrival came at an already painful time. After more than a year of struggling through the pandemic, the Labor Day weekend could have been a great boost for the city’s service industry.
People line up for a hot meal at Howlin Wolf as many New Orleans, La. residents are still without power after Hurricane Ida swept through. The concert venue and bar is using donated foods from fellow local restaurants and patrons and volunteers to help cook and feed more than 5000 meals on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

“You just have to give up on all of that,” Prewitt said of thinking about what could have been had the storm not hit. “Howie has been a real amazing example of putting all of that in the past and dealing with the present situation.

As the clock ticked closer to noon — which is serving time — the line of people waiting for a fresh cooked meal grew longer. Drivers waited to pick up several To go boxes to deploy throughout the city for those that couldn’t come pick up. A generator chained to a light pole gave power to a mobile charging station across the street and music filled the air from a radio across the corner. While the streets surrounding the Howlin’ Wolf were deserted, the air surrounding Kaplan’s entertainment venue was lively.

“This is how we celebrate,” Kaplan said. “This is how we cry, this is how we laugh. When we are in pain, we celebrate.

Drawing another parallel to Katrina, he reflected on how long it took for tourists to come back and support its economy. For those wondering, he said, “New Orleans will be OK. Once we get the power back on, we’ll be ready.