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A Must-See in New Orleans: The New Katrina Exhibit

It was dawn in New Orleans and I was in a cab on the way to the airport after a Thanksgiving getaway. We had just driven past the Superdome, only days after hosting the lively Bayou Classic and only five years after it stood as the unfortunate icon of one of the worst disasters in New Orleans’ history. As if in acknowledgement, my cab driver nodded towards it and started talking. “You know, I been in this city all my life,” he said, “except for the two years I spent in Houston after Katrina. Most of my family—they’re still there.”

His was not a unique story. The day before, I’d paid a visit to the new Katrina exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. The exhibit was filled with stories like his, of families broken up by the storm. It was also filled with stories of human resilience, bureaucratic bottlenecks, individual determination, infrastructural failures, and an only-in-New-Orleans spirit in the face of extreme circumstances.

Rain was falling when I ducked into the museum just off Jackson Square, but that didn’t stop a gaggle of musicians out front from playing the tuba and trombone beneath a wind-whipped beach umbrella. In contrast, upon entering I found myself staring at the ruins of Fats Domino’s baby grand piano, a powerful symbol with which to kick the exhibition off. I turned a corner and so began a news media assault of dire storm predictions. TVs mounted on the walls carried footage of weather reporters predicting the path of the storm, of a wall of cars jamming the roads trying to get out of town, and of residents boarding up windows and doors.

I turned another corner, and found myself right in the eye of the hurricane. Three large screens projected dramatic footage of the storm, while stereos conveyed the sounds of the howling wind and driving rains. It was horrifying but mesmerizing watching the waters rise, seeing pets afloat on branches, viewing cars get submerged, and hearing that ever-present wind and water. Another corner turned, and I was in an attic listening to a family stranded, how they had to hack through the roof with an axe to avoid the rising tide, how they only had one bottle of water and a piece of bread, how they waited and waited in excruciating conditions for rescue.

Across the hall, a variety of TVs and listening stations told the stories of the storm’s aftermath, from the man who tried to save his cats, to the pre-teen boy who had to man-up fast and help deliver his neighbor’s baby, to the woman who set up an impromptu barbecue in her backyard and started feeding all her neighbors. In a glass case hanging on the wall was a haunting pair of blue jeans marked up in desperation and big black letters with a name, social security number, and blood type, written by a man who didn’t think he’d make it and wanted to be sure his body could be identified.

After that were the stories of grandstanding and obfuscation by the politicians. There was footage of state and local officials defending their timeline for evacuations and the infamous image of George Bush slapping FEMA director “Brownie” on the back and congratulating him on a “heckuva job.” There were exhibits and diagrams on what made the levies fail, information on hurricanes and how they’re formed, and dire warnings about the future of this low-lying region, the need to shore things up, the worry that something like this could happen again.

Overall, it was incredibly well done and very moving. There are so many lessons to be learned from this disaster, and anyone who visits New Orleans should set aside a few hours to escape the dueling pianos at Pat O’Briens or the clink of the slot machines at Harrah’s. This exhibit not only pays homage to the memory of those who were lost but it also pays tribute to the storm’s survivors, the city’s tenacity, and the need to invest resources into ensuring that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again.

rachel_berg

My name: Rachel Berg.

Favorite way to get around: By Venetian gondola during starlit high tide, gliding past decaying and slightly spooky palaces, with perhaps a bottle of prosecco placed between the gondola seat cushions.

View that took my breath away: Unable to sleep in the mystical city of Sfat in Israel, I wandered outdoors predawn and was treated to a purple-on-purple sunrise below the mountaintop that seemed to emerge feet-first through ground-level clouds.

Greatest travel lesson learned: Sunny weather isn't everything. Some of my best travel memories involve go-karting through a deluge turned mud-fest in Mexico, drinking tea in the cold Denali tundra, and watching electric thunderstorms roll through national parks out West.

Most challenging travel moment: Getting leveled by altitude sickness in Cuzco and realizing that my body was forcing me to slow down and rest despite the fact that there was so much to do and see.

Travel ambition: To see the northern lights.

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