Thursday, April 1, 2010


I just got back from a trip to New Orleans, my first time in four years. Stay tuned for a couple upcoming podcasts on the city's Neighborhood Story Project, and on Faubourg Treme -- the historic district that's the subject of a 2008 documentary and the setting for HBO's new series. But for now, a bit about some other stories.  

I was in New Orleans in October 2005, just over a month after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The water had of course receded by that time, but many houses still had high-water marks, and orange crosses with numbers on the doors, indicating whether rescue workers had inspected the building for people living or dead, and what or whom they found. The scene was a shadow of the awesome force that pounded the city; it was easily understandable why some people I spoke with -- pained as they were at the terrible losses they'd suffered -- were proud at having survived the storm. (Guiltily, their stories made me wish a little that I had been there during the storm; for however terrifying it was, the experience of genuine awe is rare, as is the sense of community that came about among residents.) And even those who had fled for safer spots and were just coming back to town, they wanted to talk. Maybe New Orleanians just love to talk. But on top of that, many people wanted to testify. How they'd escaped. How they'd ridden out the storm. What they lost. Whom they'd rescued. Their outrage at the failure of the levees, or of the government.

They had each other to talk with, of course, but there were plenty of others to hear their testimonials. News crews. Trauma counselors. And oral historians from far and near. The Historic New Orleans Collection has a list of some oral history projects. HNOC's oral history work focused on first responders, and included interviews with corrections officers who helped evacuate jails and prisons. Other sites include the "Hurricane Digital Memory Bank," which is "collecting and preserving the stories of Katrina and Rita." The "I-10 Witness Project" interviews New Orleans residents about their storm-related experiences. And "Do You Know What It Means" implores visitors to "help remember New Orleans" before Katrina -- drawing its name from the song made famous by Louis Armstrong, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" Heroic or outraged or funny as some of the stories are, the whole enterprise of documenting this calamity is somehow terribly sad, as if the inimitable city of New Orleans were being reduced to mere memories, a collection of digital files to be found online, electric impulses, 0s and 1s floating in the air.

Or that's how I felt before going to New Orleans last week, my first time since Mardi Gras 2006. Plenty of rebuilding remains to be done, but the progress is encouraging, and tangible. Katrina's legacy is of course still present everywhere, but like the waters, it, too, is receding. People are talking about the music, and the new HBO show coming up, and the Saints, and everything else people talk about. Part of the reason they can now do that is the reckoning that took place through oral history. And so these stories, which seemed so sad to me just recently, look different now. Katrina and the levee failures will surely go down in history. But whether or not these particular stories on these particular websites ever make it into any book or documentary film, whether they reach anyone a few generations from now, whether and how they are transformed in time into family legend that someone's great great grandchild recounts many years from now -- whether or not any of that happens, the stories had to be told. They are not just mournful memories of a lost city, but the powerful assertion of an irrepressible culture.    

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