Nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina barrelled into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, setting off a chain reaction of failed levees and disaster after disaster, it might seem a bit surprising to walk around the French Quarter and not see traces of the destruction everywhere you look. The French Quarter and nearby Garden District, however, were largely untouched by the worst of what the storms brought, and they were back to almost-normal fairly quickly. Areas like the now-famous Ninth Ward and New Orleans East remain devastated even today – but you can get an idea of what the hurricanes did to the area without leaving the French Quarter at all.
Inside the Presbytere building to the right of St. Louis Cathedral is the “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” exhibit at the Lousiana State Museum – and it’s a sobering must-see when you’re in New Orleans.
The exhibit leads visitors through a history of New Orleans’ relationship with the water around it – the Mississippi River, after all, is what led people to settle here – through the present day, including other deadly hurricanes like Betsy in 1965. From there, a series of television screens presents the images many of us remember so clearly from 2005 as Katrina slammed into the city. For me, however, it wasn’t until the next room, where screens in different sections tell individual Katrina stories, that I finally started to cry.
Hearing the voices of those who survived talk about what they did to make it out alive is heart-wrenching enough, but alongside each screen is an exhibit with artifacts relating to that person’s story – a makeshift raft built hastily in an attic, a pair of blue jeans with identification information written in permanent marker “just in case,” a homemade cat carrier designed to float so pets didn’t have to be left behind. It’s impossible to know what it must have been like, but seeing that a man had written a social security number and blood type in black ink on his own clothing so that his body could be identified if he died is enough to make you stop and think about the circumstances that lead to desperate measures.
Other parts of the exhibit are more science-oriented, explaining how the levees failed and what might be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a few interactive displays, too, and some celebratory rooms showing the indefatigable spirit of New Orleanians.
One of the more memorable parts of the exhibit is a small room lined with pieces of a New Orleans apartment’s walls. The man who lived in that apartment had used those walls as his diary pages, writing a daily entry from the day before Katrina hit up through the day he was rescued weeks later – there’s a large photo of him next to all his writing. As I stood in that room reading the scrawled words, a woman was having her picture taken in front of the man’s photograph.
“This is my brother,” she said, proudly, with tears in her eyes. I smiled back at her. It was all I could do, as tears welled up in my eyes again.
It’s absolutely possible to visit New Orleans today and never know that Katrina happened, despite the fact that a few miles away from Bourbon Street there are entire neighborhoods where most of the houses left standing are uninhabitable. These neighborhoods, once packed with people, are still virtually empty.
Don’t let any of that keep you from New Orleans, however – in fact, make it your mission when you go to see that as much of your tourist money goes to the locals as possible. Avoid chain hotels, hire local tour guides, buy from mom-and-pop shops – just go. Don’t feel bad if you have a wonderful time – New Orleans wants you to have fun. Just be sure to balance that with a bit of perspective at the “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” exhibit.
Photos courtesy Louisiana State Museum.
Jessica Spiegel is a freelance writer and social-media consultant based in Portland, which she loves almost as much as Italy itself. She is also deeply in love with New Orleans, a flawed city with so much to offer.