Since beginning on this journey approximately six weeks after Hurricane Katrina thrashed the Gulf Coast, I have become extremely connected to the people and the cause about which I have learned so much. The information in the body of this article is factual and without personal bias—the way all newsworthy articles should be. However, I don’t feel as though it would be complete without sharing the thoughts and experiences I encountered on a recent trip to New Orleans to research this article. The relationships that I have forged during this process have been incredible, and I have bonded with once complete strangers in an amazing way. These people took time out of rebuilding their lives to speak with me when I wrote the first article, which appeared in the December 2005 issue of Skin Inc. magazine, and I will never be the same.
I left Chicago for New Orleans at approximately 9:30 am and arrived at almost noon. When I drove away from Louis Armstrong Airport, I took the interstate. The day was warm and lovely, and things seemed normal … that is, until I got my first glimpse of the Superdome. Conspicuous from the other buildings in the area, its normally white dome showed its battle scars, as well as a worn banner on the side of the structure announcing its reopening for football season this year. This set the scene for the entire trip—a battle-worn city that is down but not out. I then proceeded to the Hotel Monteleone, where I was staying. My first appointment was with Sandy Blum, co-owner of Spa Aria in the Hotel Monteleone and Shine Spa + Specialties, a retail store/spa in the French Quarter. I had interviewed her for my original article and enjoyed a really good rapport with her.
I arrived at Spa Aria. Sandy was on the other side of the counter, and I recognized her from her photograph. When she discovered who I was, she ran around the counter with her arms open wide and said, “I feel like we know each other.” The funny thing is, I felt exactly the same way. I also met Chance Brignec, the spa manager. The facility is relatively small and has a more earthy, organic feel than the romantic décor one might expect in an old hotel in the French Quarter, as well as a substantial retail section. Also, the place was hopping! Sandy said it was because of several wedding parties and the French Quarter Festival. They were thrilled for the business.
After the tour, Sandy took me to Shine, which is only about a block away. It is a retail store with personal care items, T-shirts, candles, jewelry and kitschy books. Sandy explained that it was undergoing a renovation to be turned into a spa when Katrina hit, and they had to use the budget to maintain operations. There are rooms in the back of the building that are halfway completed. For now, the open space is being used for yoga classes, which Sandy says have been well attended by the stressed-out masses of the city.
At Shine, I met spa co-owner Cindy Cocke. She and Sandy took me on a quick tour, and the three of us sat in the back of the store to conduct the interview. I learned a lot about the current state of the New Orleans spa industry from Sandy. When I initially talked to her for the first article, she was really gung-ho about helping to revitalize the city, but some of that seemed gone from her. She explained how she had 60 days before she might have to close Shine unless she received grant money from the United States Small Business Administration (SBA). The store has been in business for 10 years. Sandy discussed how the entire French Quarter is hurting due to the lack of tourism because of conferences being cancelled in the city until 2007, which is her bread and butter due to her location. She also spoke about the emotional toll the storm has had and about the numerous suicides that have taken place in the community, including a close friend of hers and a fellow spa owner.
My next meeting was with Kim Dudek, owner of Belladonna Day Spa in the Garden District. Her spa is amazing. The Garden District was mostly spared from the flooding, although it is closer to the devastated areas. It also is a very trendy district in which to live and work. The facility features an enormous retail area, with products ranging from clothes and shoes to crystals and candles. Kim also is the owner of a bedding store called Bellanoche and is opening a dog spa called Belladoggie. She greeted me with a warm hug and said she was so happy to see me.
We took a tour of her facility and chatted. I found out that her numbers are almost as high as they were last year, even though she has had to shave an entire day, as well as several hours off of her weekly operations schedule, due to fewer staff members and those newcomers who still are going through training. Kim attributes the steady numbers to having created a sense of urgency to make standing appointments, now that they are harder to get. She also believes that having a more locally based clientele has helped her to maintain her business—this probably is very true when compared to the spas in the French Quarter and their troubles due to the lack of tourism. She also has worked to convince her clients that regular spa visits are crucial to their health, and this has helped to keep her treatment rooms full.
Kim then took me on a tour of the city. She works with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and has volunteered since the storm to hunt down stray animals and locate their owners. She is very familiar with the devastated areas and continues to maintain feeding stations where she leaves food for homeless animals, which is just amazing. Kim took us through these areas, and the devastation was horrifying. Neighborhoods, remarkably similar to the one in which I live, were completely destroyed. Every house was empty and gutted, and there were piles of people’s belongings—their lives—in the middle of the street. The area was like a war zone and was completely abandoned except for the occasional cat or FEMA trailer in front of the shell of a house. The water lines—where the floodwater stood for weeks—were visible just below the rooftops. This was an eye-opening experience.
After the tour, I enjoyed dinner with Kim and Margaret Lippman, the special projects manager for Belladonna and a retail consultant. We met at Café Adeliade in the Lowes Hotel in New Orleans.
I flew back home on Sunday, but not before experiencing the French Quarter Festival that was taking place in the area. The community seems to be coming back, slowly but surely. Hopefully, tourism will revive and start pumping money back into the economy.
Those who remain in the area love New Orleans more than anything, but their wounds are still exposed—healing has yet to begin, and closure has not been attained. But there is a love and a sense of hope that overwhelm you throughout the city. People smile, offer a heartfelt welcome and thank you for visiting. Their strength and persistence need to be applauded and adopted. Personally, it has caused me to view humanity in a better light, and it has ignited a fire in me to become more helpful within my own community. This has been a truly life-changing experience.