Katrina was devastating. We all saw the photos on Flickr when the storm first hit New Orleans and all of the pictures of the damage and the aftermath from the mainstream press. And while a picture truly can paint 1,000 words, even after seeing the many, many photos of the tragedy I still was in no way prepared for what I saw this past weekend. Seeing the wrath and destruction first hand is an incredibly depressing experience. Perhaps most surprising to me, however, was that despite all of the money that has supposedly gone to help rebuild New Orleans, that the areas hit by Katrina are all pretty much still completely destroyed. Here almost nine months later it felt like absolutely nothing had been done.
When I asked the locals about why nothing was being done they had many different answers. Most blamed the mayor and the politicians. They talked about how special interests needed to get paid and that that was where a lot of the money went. They said that the streets were being rebuilt but that this was about it. The stories told by the locals are indeed heartbreaking. Stories of death and destruction. Of people spending three days on their roofs before they could be rescued. Stories of lawlessness, looting and of vigilante squads who would hunt the looters (two in the chest one in the head to mark their bodies as looters for when others would find them later). Bodies are still being found.
The spray paint everywhere is a constant reminder to the people who live there of the tragedy. Homes are destroyed and marked by rescue workers. Slogans of frustration are spray painted on signs, “Farmers Insurance, Thanks for Nothing.”
As you drive around and see each home marked it reminded me for some strange reason of the concept of Passover. Of the blood that would mark homes to spare the destruction wrecked on the Egyptian families when Moses was trying to set his people free. Perhaps a bad analogy, but these homes were not passed over. They are marked in red and largely still destroyed and uninhabitable.
“Make sure you go by the Lakeview District too and not just the Ninth Ward,” said the Bellman. “Lot’s of us middle class people lost everything too,” he added as he pulled out photos to show me that he keeps in his pocket of what his living room still looks like today.
There is a certain sense of exasperation in New Orleans. It’s like so many people have given up. There is a cynicism and sense of hopelessness mixed in with their usually jovial way of going about life. As one taxi driver put it to me while laughing and pointing up in the air, see what the man upstairs gave us.
The t-shirts that litter the souvenir stands of the city tell stories of frustration. “I stayed for Katrina, and all I got was this Lousy T-Shirt… and a Cadillac and a Plasma TV,” “Fema Disaster Plan, Run, Motherf****er, Run,” “Fema, Fix Everything My Ass,” “Looter’s, New Orleans Original Brew.”
I’m not sure what the answer is with regards to repairing New Orleans. Although I’ve never seen a war zone first hand, what I saw in New Orleans is what I’d imagine it would look like.
Yes, it is still very much *this* bad.
I chatted via Skype with Brian Oberkirch from the social media company Weblogs Work while I was in New Orleans. Brian is a local there. He gave me some tips on the areas to photograph. Brian also recently published a set of photos of the damage that remains of Katrina that you might want to check out to really get a sense of how bad it is still.