After Hurricane Harvey, it was no surprise that restaurants here in New Orleans quickly got involved in local efforts to help, from gathering supplies to hitting the road with mobile kitchens to cook at shelters.

In the long haul after a disaster, though, it's restaurants in the very areas hardest hit that become their own hubs of community self help.

That’s one lesson from the New Orleans experience after Hurricane Katrina, and it’s one that translates to others facing monumental loss. It’s the way restaurants, fancy and modest alike, become beacons, and how the principle of service reaches beyond hot meals and cold drinks.

First though, those restaurants have to get back open. Restaurateurs have to find the means, and they also have to make the decision to do it. That second consideration is not always as simple as it sounds.

A restaurant meal can be seen as recreational, as discretionary, even as an indulgence. How does that square when people all around are suffering, when basic needs boil down to any kind of food, clean water and clothing that hasn’t been through the slog?

Restaurants often provide their own emergency relief after disasters, dispensing whatever aid they can to their neighbors and worrying about the cost later. That is heroic. But after an entire community has been turned upside down, at what point can a restaurant responsibly get back to being pragmatic, to the business of doing business?

The answer, from my own Katrina experience, is as soon as possible.

Even as devastation persists, functional restaurants provide something to a community’s social fabric that will never arrive in crates of donated supplies and can't be written into insurance checks. It comes from the interaction of the people who make up their community. Restaurants, with their open doors, their embedded personal traditions and neighborhood stories, their place in the rhythm of normal local life, are looms for that social fabric.

That's one reason why, as New Orleans began its long, halting recovery, our restaurant sector was a persistent center of attention. New Orleans is famous for its restaurants, of course, and to the outside world they served as a barometer for the bigger tale of rebuilding. Within the community, the famous names and the backstreet joints alike took on more personal meaning as they returned. When official recovery seemed aimless, when adversity felt endless, they provided anchors, respites and inspiration that was as tangible as the meal on the table.

Each catastrophe is its own monster, with different impacts and aftermaths on different communities. Direct comparisons don't always translate. But given our history in this town, no hurricane can be an abstraction for us. When one hits our neighbors, we feel it with an empathy that bridges the divide of distance and demographics.

If New Orleans can relate to the anguish of an entire city upturned overnight, we also know that on the long climb back up every handhold helps. Sometimes you find them around a table, on a plate or over a glass. 

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.