Wednesday, August 26, 2015

ReNew Orleans

I was 15 when Hurricane Katrina hit. I had been traveling to visit my aunt in the city since I was little, so it affected me greatly. When she and her partner fled to our area with their animals, their grief was palpable. Just the unknown...was their house affected? Their neighbors? What were conditions in the city like? Would they ever be able to return? News reports always seemed to look on the downside of things, which I'm sure made it worse. Photos flooded the media with the worst of things. But heroic stories came out of it too. 
As the 10th anniversary of Katrina approaches, I have many feelings. I've been reading and listening and looking at a ton of stories and books about before, during and after Katrina. I can't explain why I feel such a personal connection to this tragedy, but I do. I know I'm not a native New Orleanian or even a current one, but I feel as though I am in spirit. I think maybe I've been baptized as a New Orleanian through PJs coffee & Abita beer.

The following images are from my first return trip after Katrina when I was 15 in April of 2006--high school spring break.. We had a required community service project in high school which was a 40-hour community service project and final presentation. I had applied to use this as mine, and it ended up working out. But that's not the reason why I went...more of an excuse for my mom to buy a plane ticket for me to go and see everything for myself and help out in any way I could. 

We gutted a different home every day during that week, sometimes the home owners were there and other times they weren't. Even thought it was a small impact on the return of New Orleans after Katrina, the fact that it was any impact at all was important. The city needed to come back. The residents needed to come back. Sadly, that isn't necessarily true to this day. But I hope they are able to. Even if it's a slow migration. I really hope that those who need to be here can return. And I hope those who want to be there can help make that happen.

All photos taken (to the best of my knowledge) are on my old Fujifilm point-and-shoot film camera, and all pictures are "pictures of pictures" from my DSLR shooting pictures (as seen below). The first set of pictures I made when my aunt walked and drove me around her uptown neighborhood, as well as when we drove down to more devastated parts of the city. The second set is from my work with the RHINO group. 

I'll be going down this Friday, August 28, for a long weekend in the city for its 10th anniversary events. I just sort of felt like I needed to be there, ya know?



We set out at 9 a.m. every morning for that week in April to help restore homes and lives. I didn't remember this until I looked back in the scrapbook I made for my project, but my group of volunteers and I deemed ourselves the "Steagles," because I was from Philadelphia (Eagles) and the rest of the group was from Pittsburgh (Steelers). I thought that was kind of funny.

We saw a lot--holes cut through roofs where people used household tools to escape when they realized the flood waters continued to rise, family wedding photos, portraits and baby photos that had been completely ruined by flood waters, floor-to-ceiling mold, homeowners crying when/if they could bear to see us in their house taking everything they owned the curb, X's bearing details of what rescue crews found in homes, and water lines on homes from decreasing water, meaning the water was above the roof and slowly went down, leaving marks.
I know I was there eight months after Katrina, but from the devastation and emptiness we encountered, it had seemed like just yesterday the storm hit. I still remember pressing my face to the window of the van we took as transportation to the houses every day and watching all the blue tarps in the city as we passed by. It was a city under construction at that point. An empty one at that. 

People call me crazy for loving New Orleans. "No one should live below sea level," they say. And I get that. It makes sense. I see your point. And of course there are bad things about New Orleans like in all cities. But be careful and cognizant of your surroundings like you should be anywhere. 

But you can't help who, what or where you love. And I have and always will have an unconditional, unexplainable, unquestioning love for the city of New Orleans.  Just go. I dare you. And if you venture outside the tourist lines, you will come to find a love for it too. It'll just happen one day and you won't even know. And you won't be able to stop smiling about it. 

 Piles of things we gutted from a home.

A hole where we were told a neighbor cut through his roof.

Before & after.