When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, I was in Paris, France working on my Joan of Arc Project. The storm surge caused severe damage along the Gulf Coast, devastating the Mississippi cities of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. In New Orleans, flood protection failed in more than fifty places. Nearly every levee in metro New Orleans was breached as Katrina passed east of the city, flooding 80 percent of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes for weeks. One of the hardest hit was St. Bernard Parish just south and east of New Orleans where over 80 percent of the homes were destroyed or seriously damaged. Further complicating St. Bernard Parish was the Murphy Oil Spill which released crude oil impacting about 1700 residential homes. When I read online that the 17th Street Canal levee had been breached, I knew my home town was in for a very bad time. I had left New Orleans more than thirty years ago, but I was affected by the tragedy more than I imagined.
In January 2006, four months after Katrina struck New Orleans, my brother, Lyman, and I took a road trip. We went as soon as we could after the city was reopened. Even though I convinced Lyman to move to Austin in 1989, he still maintained a rental property in New Orleans. He was told by his partners that their property had sustained serious flood damage. Furthermore, our niece, Madelyn, had purchased a home in the Gentilly area six weeks before Katrina struck. Her home had three feet of water in it whereas Lyman’s building had about five or six feet of water. Off we went to see what we would find and do whatever we could do to help.
When we arrived we were shocked to see the condition of our hometown. Everywhere we looked – devastation. It brought to mind a quote by George Orwell, “A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.” Conjure up this picture: a force that can move water, many miles wide, 25 feet high at about 5 miles an hour. Katrina is the name we gave that force. Nature may be our mother but she doesn’t love us.
No street lights works, power lines down all over town and the city looked nearly deserted. War zone. Shock and awe. In the neighborhood where we spent our childhoods, we drove around for fifteen minutes before encountering anyone on the street. A few cars passed us on the major arteries but otherwise it looked like a scene from the movie Independence Day. Silent. No birds, no insects. Matted brown grass and broken trees. The only noise was the wind whipping up the fine silt which settled from the water as the city dried out. It was surely filled with various toxic contaminants from garages, gasoline stations and sewers. Eighty percent of the city was underwater for weeks. I coughed the entire time I was there and for two weeks afterward. I imagined living there and what might grow inside my lungs. I wished I had thought to bring a mask. I placed my camera in front of my face to shield me from the sight. Photographing was compulsory. From the images, I made a small book which I called “My Katrina”. The first half is about me, the second half is images from around the city.
The photo project is my personal record of what Katrina took of my New Orleans life and my tiny homage to its victims who suffered losses much greater than mine.