New Orleans looks to voodoo to bring city back from the dead

THE last time Don Glossop saw his customers they were ritually burning green candles, hoping voodoo would pierce the federal bureaucracy and hasten the arrival of desperately-needed relief cheques.

Mr Glossop’s shop, New Orleans Mistic, has been closed since Hurricane Katrina swamped the city two months ago, and most of his clients, who practice a local variant of the voodoo religion, have scattered across the country.

He fears that Katrina, which laid waste to entire neighbourhoods and claimed hundreds of lives here, may take another casualty: New Orleans’s status as the US voodoo capital.

“As of today I would say it’s pretty dead,” Mr Glossop said. “Even the tourist shops are in jeopardy. There is a chance for a huge loss here.”

Voodoo has long been entrenched in New Orleans, quietly practiced in homes with altars, candles and incense to solve problems of the heart and wallet.

Before the storm tore through, about 15% of the city’s population actively practiced, according to Lisa Fannon, a tour guide, though estimates vary widely.

Voodoo is part of the vernacular here, showing up in jazz and conversation. Some residents still sprinkle red brick dust on their doorway steps to ward off evil spirits.

It is an economic draw as well, enticing curious tourists and their pocketbooks into shops such as Mr Glossop’s.

While plans are still on for an annual voodoo fest, organiser Brandi Kelley said the event will be much smaller this year because many drummers and dancers were forced to relocate. The ceremony at her shop will focus mainly on healing the city.

“We have got to call on the ancestors for help and get real serious about it,” Kelley said. “The spirit is in the city. It’s the spirit of this city that is going to rise from the ashes.”

If only she could find her snake for the closing ceremony. He was supposed to be in a bathtub of a friend’s apartment.

It was not supposed to be this way. The “go away” hurricane ritual was performed in July, just as it always is at the start of the hurricane season.

“It didn’t quite work out so well,” says Giselle Moller, manager of Marie Laveau House of Voodoo. But, she said, it may have helped a bit.

“Imagine if the hurricane would have hit us straight on. There would have been no French Quarter,” she said.

Advocates say voodoo is a legitimate African-based religion that has been unfairly maligned in movies and popular culture.

“Voodoo is not some kind of black magic cult,” said Wade Davis, a Washington-based National Geographic explorer-in-residence who has studied the religion extensively in Haiti.

“It’s the distillation of very profound religious ideas that came over during the tragic era of slavery,” he said.

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