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Hurricane Katrina and the L.A.-New Orleans Connection

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Hurricane Katrina and the L.A.-New Orleans Connection

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Hurricane Katrina and the L.A.-New Orleans Connection

Hurricane Katrina and the L.A.-New Orleans Connection

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Many African Americans in Los Angeles have family ties to New Orleans, and residents of both cities have been pulling those ties together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Karen Grigsby Bates explores the history of the bonds between the Crescent City and the City of Angels — and how that connection has turned into a lifeline for many struggling in the storm's aftermath.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, happy birthday, "Lolita," turning 50, the book.

First, families around the country are still trying to connect with their Gulf Coast relatives after the massive displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina. Greater Los Angeles has one of the largest populations of black residents with New Orleans ancestry. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report on just how strong the ties between the two communities are.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

The dinner shift is winding down at the Bayou Grille, a casual cafe featuring Creole and Cajun dishes. Although people drive a fair distance for owner Mike Smith's fried red snapper and crawfish etouffee, the bulk of his customers are black folks from the middle-class neighborhoods nearby in southwest Los Angeles and the city of Inglewood. Mike Smith says the Bayou Grille has been jumping since news of Katrina's destruction hit Los Angeles over two weeks ago.

Mr. MIKE SMITH (Owner, Bayou Grille): It seems like everyone that's come in here has relatives that either they haven't heard from or have already moved over to Texas or are just refusing to leave. It's almost whatever you see on TV, you see it on a smaller scale inside the restaurant.

BATES: And, he says, their priorities are clear.

Mr. SMITH: When they come in, before they even order, the first thing they ask: `Do you have any people down there? Is everybody OK?' It's almost like a universal concern.

BATES: There are so many southern Louisianans here, the city is rich with Creole restaurants. There's even an annual festival, LALA, which celebrates the ties between New Orleans, LA, and LA. Over in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood, New Orleans-born Amy Lipp owns the Creole Chef. It's a small brick place decorated with vintage New Orleans photos and Mardi Gras beads. She says since Katrina, people have been coming in to exchange news and seek comfort in a bowl of fragrant gumbo or a plate of bread pudding with whiskey sauce. A television on mute hangs above the counter showing scenes from the flooded city. Amy Lipp tears up when she admits her clients aren't the only ones who are upset.

Ms. AMY LIPP (Owner, Creole Chef): It's been so depressing; just hard to be here. It really is hard.

BATES: Lipp's chef, Norm Theard, comes from Houston, but has New Orleans roots. When we spoke, he clearly empathized with people who are wondering what's happened to their families and to the homes New Orleanians so cherish.

Mr. NORM THEARD (Creole Chef): Well, my family home, which is just off St. Charles Avenue--that's where my uncle was born; it's been in our family for almost a hundred years--so we expect that it's probably under water. We've looked at satellite pictures on the Internet; that's as close as we can get.

BATES: The ties between black Angelenos and New Orleans are unusually close, says writer Jervy Tervelon(ph), because so many New Orleans blacks have migrated west since the turn of the century. He says his father came in the 1940s wave drawn by the landscape and LA's wartime industries. Tervelon says he grew up surrounded by New Orleans home folk.

Mr. JERVY TERVELON (Writer): We moved into the same neighborhoods, we attended the same churches, the same schools. There was a lot of commonality of experience. In a city that has a lot of diversity, you know, you're living amongst your own ilk, and for a while, I found that almost claustrophobic.

BATES: But eventually, says Tervelon, he too succumbed to the pleasure of the LA-to-LA connection.

Mr. TERVELON: In a country like the United States where sometimes people run away from family, a place like New Orleans, family is what sustains you, what makes it possible to find work, to live a life. They do bring those things to Los Angeles and in California.

BATES: Judith Jackson Fossett is a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She's been studying black Louisiana migratory patterns for years, and is part of the social phenomenon she studies.

Professor JUDITH JACKSON FOSSETT (University of Southern California): I said as a child that I grew up in a small part of New Orleans on the South Side of Chicago.

BATES: The tightly woven threads of black New Orleans remains so strong, Fossett says, because there's a lot of travel to and from New Orleans by members of that city's black diaspora. This makes New Orleans' disasters, when they occur, felt that much more keenly.

Prof. FOSSETT: The nation's loss in light of the catastrophe of the hurricane reverberates across the country through those same circuits. New Orleans is a place that is--while 2,000 miles away, is very close. So it's a place that people do know intimately and can come back and reconnect with very quickly when they return.

BATES: Notice she said `when,' not `if.' Creole Chef owner Amy Lipp is adamant that there will be a black community in New Orleans when the city is eventually rebuilt.

Ms. LIPP: You can't drag the people out of the city and keep the city the same. It can't be the same. You know, they're thinking, `OK. Well, they'll keep the French Quarter, they'll keep New Orleans.' But New Orleans is not New Orleans without the people from it.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. We'll have more in a moment on DAY TO DAY.

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