The Louisiana State Museum’s newest exhibit at the Presbytere, Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, opened last month. Arguably the best retrospective on “the storm” (as locals refer to the most devasting hurricane to ever hit New Orleans), Katrina and Beyond is a multimedia presentation designed to explain the storm in many contexts: history, geology, politics, and through the eyes of those who experienced it.
Visitors to the Presbytere, a building itself steeped in New Orleans history and tradition, encounter a significant cultural casualty to the city. The piano of Fats Domino, one of the city’s musical icons, is displayed in the Presbytere’s lobby. The moldy keyboard, warped wood, and filthy interior show just how badly flood waters impacted the Domino home in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The exhibit runs counter-clockwise around the first floor of the Presbytere, the same direction of hurricane winds. A turn to the right from the entrance foyer presents the historical relationship between New Orleans and the storms that blow up the river from the Gulf. How we’ve coped with storms over time is presented on a wall made of “barge board.” Wooden barges have been used for generations to bring crops and goods down to New Orleans from the Mississippi Valley. Those barges made a one-way trip, unable to fight the current back upriver, so they were broken up and the sturdy wood was used around town for other purposes.
Photographs and video, accompanied by written documents, go back to the 18th and 19th centuries to explain why New Orleans continues to fortify itself against the storms, re-building and developing stronger reinforcements after each onslaught of wind and water.
Another right (counter-clockwise) turn around the barge-board wall leads the viewer down a row of monitors that play various newscasts from the days leading up to 29-August-2005. Faced with the threat of a Category 5 (on the Saffir-Simpson scale) storm, a significant portion of the metro area evacuated for higher ground. Those who were unable to leave the city were told to go to the Louisiana Superdome, designated as a “shelter of last resort.”
The horror of the storm itself is presented around the next turn, on three large screens, accompanied by light-and-sound special effects. The presentation lasts for several minutes and there are benches where visitors can sit and take it all in. (This portion of the exhibit had a profound impact on me personally; feel free to read my thoughts on my website.) The stories of flood waters assaulting New Orleans East, St. Bernard Parish, and the Lower Ninth Ward, as well as points south of the city, are told by several folks who stayed home, intending to ride the storm out. Video monitors present a timeline of how the waters encroached upon and breached the city’s defenses.
The “attic” room is something many New Orleanians know all about. It seems like every family has a relative who has a story from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, about how someone was trapped in their home as flood waters rose. To escape drowning, they clambered up into the attic, some even forced to grab an axe and cut their way out onto their roof. This nightmare was repeated several times during Hurricane Katrina, with this room telling the tale of one mother and daughter, Judith Buffone and Lacey Landry, who managed to escape to their roof.
Once a storm passes the Metro New Orleans area, the standard routine has always been that the first responders who rode out the wind and water hit the streets to provide immediate assistance. They are almost immediately followed up by extensive support, usually through the Army National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). After Katrina, that support system broke down in almost every way, from NOPD officers who simply got in their vehicles and rode out of town to the lack of Guard/FEMA response for days. Visitors to the exhibit turn away from the storm itself into the chaos of those first five days. The voices are diverse, loud, and angry, and will give visitors an incredible perspective on just what things were like in the storm’s immediate aftermath. The overall lighting in this room is a shade of blue very close to the “blue roof” tarps distributed by the Guard, FEMA, and the USACE after the storm.
Just off to the side of the post-storm chaos are a series of drywall panels covered in writing. The walls where Tommie Mabry kept a “Katrina diary” in an apartment in the B. W. Cooper Public Housing Project were preserved by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), and were documented by photographer Thomas Neff. Mabry’s thoughts and experiences offer an incredible first-person perspective on the days just after the storm.
The emotional impact of the storm winds down with a walk down a connecting hallway of the Presbytere, into a room which seeks an explanation for what happened. The exhibit pulls no punches in explaining the failures, both singular and systemic, that caused the failure of the levees and floodwalls. This section includes a number of hands-on activities for children and students to get a better feel for just what it takes to defend New Orleans from flooding. In the photo above, students can test the strength of “floodwalls” embedded in regular soil versus densely-packed clay. Whereas the soil allows the floodwall to rock back and forth, creating breaks, the clay would keep the wall in place.
Sorting out and cleaning up New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was no small task. First responders went from house to house throughout the city, using the “X-code” to mark the status of inspected houses. This garage door has been preserved to illustrate the sort of notes rescuers made while making their way through neighborhoods. Three weeks after the storm, the city and surrounding parishes began to let essential personnel and some residents back into the area, to begin the clean-up.
The final section of the exhibit is an asymetrical wall of video monitors. The screens are encased in the various shapes of windows one would find in homes and buildings across New Orleans. The room’s overall design makes the visitor feel they’re in someone’s home or shop, simultaneously putting one at ease and re-iterating the importance of protecting these important parts of our lives.
Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, at the Presbytere, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am – 4:30 pm. The Presbytere is closed during all legal holidays. Admission is $6 for adults. Admission for students, senior citizens and active military is $5, and children under 12 are free. See the LSM website for more details.
Many thanks to Ms. Victoria Salisbury, Manager of Web Marketing and Communications, Louisiana State Museum, for her assistance with this article.
All photos used in this article are courtesy of the author.