A lot happened. A lot didn’t happen. I can’t remember half of it. That’s probably for the best. But, this is what I know. A made a helluva (that’s a technical term) lot of pictures in ten years.
Some were really good. Some were good. And, a lot of them fall under the heading of “what was I thinking? ” I spent way too much time photographing my version of faux nature. As I reviewed that work I realized that no matter how I try to see things differently, I keep repeating just about everything. That’s bad news for a guy like me who wants to move forward.
I spent two years of the decade in New Mexico, so that is reflected here. Luckily, I do like the two New Mexican pictures a lot. There are eight New Orleans pictures. Culling them was hard. There are at least six others that could have made the cut. I opted to go with pictures that I really like rather than some signature images.
The pictures are organized in no particular order. The best pictures come to me whenever they do. You know. “Don’t take the picture, let the picture take you.” I’m certain that these pictures are not chronological, but they are an honest representation of what I believe are my ten best pictures of this closing decade.
I hope that you enjoy them. I enjoyed making them.
So, I played with everything that I could in post production without going too far. I suppose this is a kind of art, but I’m not sure. It could just be a mess. Ironically, in my world of typos I originally wrote that, “I could just be a mess.” That’s probably closer to the real story.
These two houses are located very near to the one in yesterday’s post. The neighborhood wasn’t in the best shape when the storm arrived. When Katrina blew through it sort of dealt a death blow to the area. Houses stood. Brick buildings remained. The streets were still there. But, for the first couple of years of recovery this area was a ghost town. People didn’t start returning until at least 2012, seven years after the big event.
That’s how it went. Many people were forced to take the long way home either by lack of funds, or by FEMA, or by the passing of a loved one either during or after the storm. Some people never came back.
This is an odd subject to write about during the holiday season. Once our holidays are upon us they don’t stop. Christmas, followed by New Year, followed by The Twelfth Night, followed by Carnival and Mardi Gras, followed by the Lenten season. And, finally Easter.
I suppose that I want to remember my thoughts as they come to me. It’s the end of the year. The end of the decade. These little histories matter to me, if nobody else.
After all, somebody might ask me how I spent my decade. Probably not.
I have a question.
I’m going to publish my ten best pictures of the decade right here on Storyteller. The editing wasn’t as hard as I imagined. Storyteller is ten years old. The decade is ten years old. My signature pictures — the ones that I didn’t make on assignment — are all right here in my archive.
When do you think I should publish them? All the big publications have already published their “best lists.” I could do it next week, or I could do it the week in between Christmas and New Year. What’s your pleasure?
Daylight again, following me to bed
I think about a hundred years ago, how my fathers bled
I think I see a valley, covered with bones in blue
All the brave soldiers that cannot get older been askin’ after
Hear the past a callin’, from Armegeddon’s side
When everyone’s talkin’ and no one is listenin’, how can we
Do we find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down
Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down
(Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground)
Written by Stephen Stills/Wixen Music
Preformed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Battered and broken. We persisted. The Lower 9th Ward. New Orleans.
I told you about this yesterday. I made this picture in the Lower 9th Ward. Houses stacked on other houses. Houses stacked on cars. Cars completely left to die after the water finally receded.
The Lower 9th Ward was a vibrant community on the downriver side of the Industrial Canal. It more-or-less sat by itself away from the rest of New Orleans. It started out as small truck farms feeding the restaurants of The French Quarter. Most of the folks who resided there lived in old family homes, many of which were built between 1900 and maybe 1930. They were smallish. They were insured for replacement costs when they were built. The houses passed from family member to family with out a deed or proof of mortgage.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Without the proper paperwork, FEMA funds and LRA funds were unavailable to the people who just lost everything. They might be able to file an insurance claim and be paid at full value. But, a house built at 1,200 square feet that cost maybe $8,000 to build in 1920, cost about $200,000 to replace. The current family members didn’t have that kind of money. The original insurance had never been upgraded and they couldn’t qualify for Federal money.
The community pretty much died.
There was actor Brad Pitt’s foundation called Make It Right, who built maybe 40 new homes clustered around one or two streets. That didn’t make a dent. Worse, the very high end architects who volunteered to design energy efficient modern homes didn’t design houses for our very extreme climate. A number of them have serious issues. One was demolished because it couldn’t be repaired. Make It Right doesn’t seem to want to repair the others. As usual, the whole thing is ending up in court.
That’s the story.
Thank you all for your comments and good wishes. They matter. A lot.
I’ll post like I did yesterday when I can. But, producing yesterday’s post was very emotionally draining.
The picture. I saw it. I photographed it. This is a kind of photojournalism so I don’t tinker with it except to correct things like color and contrast. I do remember that when I made the picture it was so hot. So humid. We had one of those hot, hot summers. That’s what heated the gulf, which fueled the storm, which destroyed 80% of the city. Then, there was the smell. The stench of rotted everything. Of mold. Of the oil and chemicals that flooded everywhere. That’s what I remember when I look at this picture.
I kept going back. At first, every week or so. I had to know what would become of a once vibrant neighborhood of blue-collar people. While it is true that many people lost their lives out here, many more didn’t. It is still sacred ground. It always will be.
They were the rebuilders. The ones whose sense of pride and ownership brought them back to almost nothing day after day. They emptied their houses out. They removed pews from churches in hopes that they would dry out under our hot Louisiana sun.
Some even scraped away what remained of their houses in hopes that they could started rebuilding soon. Dump truck after dump truck helped them remove the remains and the debris. The home owners hoped to rebuild soon.
A community loss.
No place to sit.
It was not to be.
So many of the home owners lived in houses that were built by their grandfathers or their great grandfathers. When one generation passed, the next generation simply moved into the family home. There was no legal line of succession. Most homes were insured at, maybe 1920 replacement cost prices.
Without legal proof of ownership the residents could not qualify for anything. No FEMA funds. No LRH funds. No low-interest SBA loans. No nothing. Probably 90% of these people never returned home. They had no home to come back to. Their diaspora is far and wide. Many went to Houston. Many went to Atlanta. Some went further west. When we evacuated to New Mexico one of my 7th Ward neighbors family lived two doors down from us. Imagine our joy at seeing each other alive.
Yet many continued to care for their property. Even today. You’ll often see overgrown land with one neatly mowed and manicured property in the middle of that.
The best anyone did for this neighborhood was actor Brad Pitt, who founded the “Make-It-Right” organization. They built about 30 house. They used very famous architects who designed modern structures designed to withstand storms. They builders used modern building materials.
The new houses may have been designed to withstand a storm, but they weren’t designed to deal with our extreme heat and humidity. You have to live here to understand. Some are falling apart. One is in such bad condition that demolition permits have been filed in order to tear it down. Brad Pitt is being sued in order to force Make It Right to repair the houses.
And, so it goes.
The picture. They were made over time. For instance, the top picture was made a few weeks after the storm. The middle two were made a month or so later. The bottom picture was made maybe six months after that. I suppose the toilets attached to very strong plumbing will live on. I have no idea if the seat cover was there before the storm or added later. I prefer to think it rode out the storm.
I continue to return today. Usually once every three months. Beside the Make It Right homes, a few people have managed to return and rebuild. There are houses scattered here and there. Many properties are still as the storm left them. Worse for wear after rotting in the hot sun, and severe storms, over thirteen years. The rest of the neighborhood has returned to nature. Perhaps, that’s as it should be. This was always bottom land. Land so far below sea level that some streets leaked in the best of times.
These are things that I found during the early days of recovery following Hurricane Katrina’s destructive path. Or more precisely, the Federal Flood, given that the levees broke because of catastrophic failure.
I saw things. Terrible things. I’ll show you some of the more publishable things over the past few days. So terrible that when I finally returned to my own flooded house after photographing what remained of the Lower 9th Ward, I sat on my old friend Uncle Joe’s porch with him. I held my head in my hands. He put his arm on my shoulder. He said, “I told you not to go, but like a moth drawn to a flame you had to.”
He was right. He is usually right.
Uncle Joe is now 83 years old. He lost his house, but the Feds replaced it with a factory made house that looks just like his old house, but a little better. He’s a Creole man. He’s lived in Mississippi and New Orleans all his life. He’s seen everything. He’s been through every kind of racial issue there is. Still he smiles. Still he bares no ill will. He’s a guy that I can only aspire to be.
Heroes are where you find them. He’s one of mine.
What I found.
You know how I feel about all marching bands. Big high school bands and the little brass bands that play at second lines. I love them all. I love their music. I love the compact and on point sound of a great high school band. I love the chaotic sound of a second brass band. It’s the same, but very different.
When I returned to New Orleans after the storm, I was standing on Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. Two Canadian women were standing next to me. I told them that if they ever were lucky enough to see the St. Augustine Marching 100 it would change their lives for the better. A minute after I said that, they came thundering up St. Charles in between the buildings that formed a sonic canyon. I almost couldn’t make pictures. My eyes were wet. I never thought that I’d see them again. It was a gift. It helped spur my return to New Orleans.
When I found these pictures, I was broken-hearted. Whoever owned this stuff marched and played in the St. Aug’s Marching 100. If the hash marks mean what I think the mean, he played in the band for all four years of high school and came back as a band helper after he graduated in order to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of band members. It also means that he was very, very good.
A lot of people went out to the Lower 9th Ward to see what the water destroyed. A lot of them would pick stuff up as kind of bizarre souvenir. I couldn’t do that. Most of the 9th Ward is sacred ground, meaning a lot of people died there. I have no idea how these items came be there. But, I’m not messing around with ghosts.
That was a day most of us who live in New Orleans will never forget. Hurricane Katrina blew in, and made landfall at Buras, Louisiana. The levees broke and 80 percent of the city was under water.
August 29, 2017.
Hurricane Harvey, now Tropical Storm Harvey, finally makes a turn away from Houston, where most of the city was flooded. Harvey sat over the gulf and refueled, headed northeast and then northwest. Towards us.
So far, in New Orleans, we’ve had 5.85 inches of rainfall. Our diminished pumping capacity is not really keeping up. Streets are flooding. All schools are closed. Many government offices are closed. Our smart phones have been going off all morning with flood advisories.
I know. 5.85 inches of rain is nowhere near Houston’s 40 to 60 inches of rainfall. But, our ground is already saturated. Our pumping capacity is down. The mayor’s office said that the original pumping station, the one that was repaired just about a week ago after being broken down for the last flood, broke down again this morning.
And, as a snarky aside, after most of the old Sewerage Board was fired or resigned, new consultants were hired. They are led by a man whose last name is Rainwater. Oh, come on. Give us a break.
These pictures. After taking a break last year, the 9th Ward folks decided to honor the 12th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with a gathering at the levee and a second line followed by a party in the 7th Ward. The city strongly suggested that everybody who didn’t need to be on the streets, stay off the streets.
No memorial. No second line. No party. Just rain. Just water. More rain. More water.
I decided to show you some of the pictures that I made in 2015, commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the storm. The one when seemingly every media in the world descended upon us… and got most of their stories wrong. You know. Ten is a big number. Twelve, not so much.
Some of you who have been around Storyteller for that long may remember some of these pictures. The top picture, of Big Queen Cherise, is sort of famous. It hangs in the Jazz and Heritage Festival’s permanent collection.
Today, I honor our twelfth year anniversary and those Texans who are still going through the flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. They will be recovering for a long time. We’ll be there for them. We can do less. They were there for us in the aftermath of Katrina.
That storm isn’t done yet.
Once it finally turns north, it doesn’t stop until it reaches Indiana. With luck, we’ll only have five or six more inches of rain, bringing New Orleans to about 12 inches of Harvey-produced rainfall. By the way, that brings us to well over a record-setting summer rainfall total.
Hurricane. Katrina at 11. I said last year that ten years was enough time to mourn. To rebuild. To reflect. I said that I was done living in post-Katrina New Orleans. That from last year’s ten-year anniversary I wasn’t going to wallow in the Katrina leftovers. I was moving on.
My response was partially due to the national and international media coverage of the “big” ten-year anniversary of the storm and flooding the swamped 80 % of the city. Every possible kind of media descended on the city. Many of them got it wrong. Most of us who actually live here and have recovered were disgusted. We predicted, and got it right, that there would be next to no coverage this year. I saw two national stories on the storm. One in the Huffington Post and another in the Washington Post. That was just fine with me.
Many of my friends who post on social media said the were not going to post anything at all. I kind of agree with them. But, obviously I don’t agree with them all the way. I decided to simply photograph what I saw on August 29, 2016 in the Lower 9th Ward. That’s a big piece of what I do. I document things. Sure, I spin the post production my way. To help make the picture my mind saw. But, still…
Obviously, many New Orleanians felt the same way. Very few people came out.
Look at the top picture. That’s the healing service. Last year the crowd was so big that it stretched into the street and down some of the side streets. Everybody represented. Mardi Gras Indians. Queens. Baby Dolls. Brass bands. Social and Benevolent Societies. And, of course, media from all over the world.
Not this year. What you see in the top picture is what there was. You can count them.
I decide to wander around the Lower 9th Ward and just photograph a few things. What I saw. You may have to open the pictures to see the details.
The big question. What do I think? Feel?
Eleven years on, I don’t feel like the government let us down. Anymore. Oh, they did to be sure. The levees are a federal project that was locally managed. The levees weren’t built all that well and they certainly weren’t maintained. They broke in 57 places. Two neighborhoods were completely destroyed. And just a bit downriver, an entire town was almost wiped off the map. Overall recovery was a mess. You saw the immediate results on CNN.
We can talk about how and why one neighborhood came back and the other didn’t. Well, with the exception of the few streets that actor Brad Pitt’s Make it Right group helped to rebuild.
If you want to get into why most of the Lower 9th didn’t come back, search for it here on Storyteller. Or, Google it. It’s not pretty. It will make you angry, but that’s not my point today.
Instead, while I was photographing around, I saw a lot of beauty. Oh yeah, I find beauty in ruins and broken things, but that wasn’t it.
I saw nature. Doing her thing. She’s been doing it for a while. But, yesterday toward the end of summer with all of the season’s growth I could see it clearly.
And, maybe, just maybe this neighborhood wasn’t meant to come back all the way. Much of it is simply country now. Southern country land. Nature reclaimed it. And, that ain’t a bad thing.
No. I wasn’t sad yesterday. And, I wasn’t reliving the past. I was seeing the now. And, maybe I had a glimpse of the future.
Nothing has been done to this building since Hurricane Katrina flooded the neighborhood. Eleven years ago.
That’s not to say the building was in good shape then. In fact, the entire corner had fallen on hard times well before the flood.
Luckily for Bohn Motors, a well-known local car dealer, they’ve been on the Westbank for years. This building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2011. It was built in 1926. Rhodes Funeral Home bought it in 2005 for future development. Two weeks later the storm flooded the city. Redevelopment was scheduled to start in summer 2012.
So far, nothing has happened. Four years later.
This is the place the Rhodes family said is the crossroads of New Orleans. So much for the crossroads, I guess. Despite many signs to the contrary, maybe New Orleans hasn’t really recovered yet. After the storm damage was assessed, the Urban League said it would take about eight years for the city to recover. I’ve learned a little bit about project management in my career. The rule of thumb, when I learned it, was to plan for three times the predicted schedule time. Twenty four years. That sounds about right. We are less than half way through.
The picture. More experiments. More tinkering. More starts and stops. I wanted to make it really, really dark. But, the picture looked too evil. So, I went in the other direction. I think it works.