Not much is easy in The Big Easy these days. Take a walk down the historic alleys and winding streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter and you’ll hear distinctive notes once again bellowing from the mouth of a brass trumpet. Meander through the city’s beautiful Garden District and classy Uptown area and you will find all of the historic ante-bellum mansions intact—looking as genteel and as quintessentially southern as ever. Have a dozen raw oysters chased with a beer and a couple of pounds of crawfish at any of the hundreds of world-class restaurants and you will find yourself in a glutton’s paradise. But take a closer look at the city, beyond the thin veneers of jazz music, good food, and fresh paint and you will see a city that is fighting to come back from the dead. A city that nearly drowned. A city that quite literally, care forgot.
When Rob and Mary Carol Owen first debuted the New Orleans Surf Shop in December of 2004, they were met with a steady clientele of stoked locals and tourists. “Before Katrina, business was really good. We had created a place that we were proud of and people were really stoked on,” recalled Rob. “We have three universities here that have a lot of college kids from all over who didn’t realize that there is coast that actually produces some surf. There’s also a pretty substantial Cajun surfing community that we cater to. It’s a solid group of guys that has been really into it since the mid-’70s.”
“Yes, when they speak their tone is slow and their words are soft, but if the pair had to pick between mint juleps on the porch and a session on the Gulf, Rob and Mary Carol would be in the water faster than a knife fight in a phone booth.”
Rob, a longtime surfer with an artistic flair from South Carolina, and his wife Mary Carol, a professionally trained dancer and a native New Orleanian don’t necessarily fit the picture of what you think a southern couple should look like. Yes, when they speak their tone is slow and their words are soft, but if the pair had to pick between mint juleps on the porch and a session on the Gulf, Rob and Mary Carol would be in the water faster than a knife fight in a phone booth.
Through their mutual love of the sport, surfing has become an integral part of the Owen household. Along with their two daughters, the family often makes the two-hour trek to the coast in search of some surf. It was only natural then that the couple’s love affair with surfing would bubble over into the rest of their lives. Against the advice of their friends, Rob and Mary Carol decided to open up a surf shop in a city known more for its eccentric parties and tit-crazed, beer-sodden tourists than for its surf.
When Katrina hit, she caused an estimated $81 billion in damage and nearly wiped the city clean off the map. Many of the evacuees never returned to the city and would move on to call somewhere else home, but not Rob and Mary Carol. The resilient duo made their way through their saturated city and amidst the debris and wreckage of lives past, began to rebuild the New Orleans Surf Shop.
Not returning to the city was never an option. Rob and Mary Carol are die-hard New Orleanians, and leaving behind the city would be like leaving behind a child. “We’ve had to deal with a lot of hardships and a lot of ups and downs,” said Mary Carol, “but New Orleans is a special city. Our hearts are in it hook, line, and sinker. There have been some really tough times for sure, but we’ve decided to make the best of it.”
“After Katrina it felt like we were in a no man’s land,” recalled Mary Carol. “We were thinking this thing would never work again, we would never be able to come back. But we did come back and reopened on Halloween day. Nobody came,” she said with a laugh. “But then November was a bit of a retail resurgence on Magazine street which is where we are located. People were looking for T-shirts to show they support the city so Rob made the Fleur-de-Surf shirt.” The shirt depicting the city’s iconic fleur-de-lis symbol emblazoned with the words “Fleur-de-Surf” has been widely popular and the couple has used some of the revenue made from the shirts to reopen the shop.
As time continues to pass, the city begins to pick its bruised and battered body off the ground. Business is slowly returning to normal and Rob and Mary Carol are surfing as much as they can. All things considered, the couple still maintains a positive outlook on life. “We have a lot to live for and a lot to be thankful for. When we are out there, together in the water, we’re the happiest people alive, and it’s these moments that keep us going.”