Hurricane Katrina: A Disaster in Retrospect

The first order of business for New Orleans residents who evacuated in the face of Hurricane Katrina is to tell their story—a necessary catharsis—so that is where I'll start. I initially learned of Katrina on Saturday, August 27, two days before the storm hit the city, while en route from the Louis Armstrong International airport to my uptown apartment. I had just returned from a conference in Veracruz, Mexico, where I had been fully absorbed by the presentations and extra-curricular activities, completely oblivious of events in the outside world because the television in my hotel room had lacked an "on" switch and I didn't have time for TV anyway. Since it was Saturday afternoon and I was hungry, I had the taxi driver drop me at a restaurant, Dante's Kitchen, near the river bend, and it was at that point that I noted how nervous everyone was. My last conversation with my wife had been in North Wales two weeks before: I had returned early to attend a Society of American Archivists meeting, and by the time she got back to New Orleans, I was in Mexico. When I got to our apartment, she was in Baton Rouge at an American Association of University Professors meeting but arrived later that evening. Saturday night we talked about staying. Sunday morning we saw what was happening with the expansion and intensification of Katrina and decided to evacuate. My wife and I don't drive, and the buses and trains were no longer running. I had been flying Continental all summer, so I knew the telephone number. Miraculously, there were still tickets on a 5:30 p.m. flight to Oakland, California, where my sister and her husband have a nice bungalow with a spare bedroom with its own bathroom. As we soon learned, Continental was the only airline still flying out of New Orleans, and the 5:30 flight was to be the last one before Katrina destroyed 80% of the city. Just before leaving for the airport, I made a quick pass by the Hogan Jazz Archive on my bike in order to "batten down the hatches" according to our disaster plan, which meant getting moveable objects away from windows and into interior rooms and unplugging all the electrical equipment. There wasn't time to do much more than that. Then I took one last look, and fled.

Within a few days of our arrival in Oakland I had established contact via the Internet with observers still in New Orleans and various news media interested in how the city's jazz repositories had weathered the storm. The Sunday after Katrina The New York Times reported that the Hogan Jazz Archive was safe, although the Old U.S. Mint had suffered roof damage. My friend Ned Sublette had sent me photographs of the water surrounding our building, Jones Hall, near the furthest reach of the flooding on Freret Street, but since the Archive was situated on the third floor and all windows appeared to be intact, I had confidence that we had survived the deluge without significant damage. Of course, I couldn't know for sure until I was permitted to inspect the premises, which did not happen until a week after we returned to the city on October 6. Meanwhile, there was a tendency to conflate our fate with that of the Maxwell Music Library, located in the basement of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library nearby, which had been wiped out by eight feet of water, so I was receiving condolences from various sources even before leaving the Bay Area, and that made me nervous because I had also heard that there was four feet of water in the basement of Jones Hall.

Access to the Tulane campus in October and November required permission from the Administration—in my case, from the Dean of Libraries, Lance Query, who happened to live across the street from me. Lynn Abbott, a member of our staff, had just returned from Lafayette, and he needed photographic materials from the Archive to finish a book project slated for imminent publication. When we arrived at Jones Hall, it looked like an invasion by "tube monsters" a la Terry Gilliam's "Brazil": the front doors to the building were wide open, with gigantic white tubing inserted therein, blowing hot and cold air into the structure—hot for drying, cold to bring temperatures down. Belfor, a Halliburton subsidiary, had been hired by the University Administration within days of the disaster to address issues related to flooding and water removal, mold abatement, restoration of temperature and humidity control, and conservation of damaged materials. Because of the Administration's quick action, Belfor had saved the day by preventing the spread of mold to the upper floors of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library and the Special Collections in Jones Hall—with eight feet of water in HTML and four feet in Jones, a few days hesitation would have been tantamount to total disaster. There was no electricity in the building, so, armed with flashlights, we made our way around the "white worms" and up to the third floor. The Hogan Jazz Archive was exactly as we had left it.

The Howard-Tilton Memorial Library Disaster Plan had been updated in September 2002. Here is an excerpt from the memo sent by the Head of the Preservation Department (which no longer exists) at that time: "All: The newly crafted disaster plan is finally here. Chock full of information on what to do to prepare for a storm, and what to do when cleaning up our collections after a MINOR disaster. Note, this plan is made with the intention of handling 1,000-1,500 volumes. Anything larger, and an outside vendor will be called. So, if God forbid, a hurricane hits us as a category 5, the only thing we'll have to worry about is preparing for the storm. I doubt much will be left if a category 5 hits us. That will be up to Munters. It would behoove us all if all library personnel familiarize themselves with this plan, as it would make the recovery that much faster. Remember, it's not if, but when." Below there was an epigram by Benjamin Franklin: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." This tag might be seen as a particularly apt New Orleans touch to disaster planning, although not necessarily intended in this case to be read as part of the attached document. It's just that the proximity is revealing. The city's notorious fixation with "good time" mentalities and escapism in the face of perennial threat from disaster has provided a vast blind spot. We have been relying on a "fate bet" approach to preparedness for so long that we expected discussions of disaster to remain theoretical, despite the lip service to inevitability. We now know that the high ground made all the difference. Thus, when Kara van Malssen of New York University's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program contacted me about participating in their study of post-Katrina New Orleans last January, I responded by stating that "I must admit that our good fortune probably has more to do with luck rather than preparedness—the fact that we are on the third floor, rather than in the basement."

A review of the HTML Disaster Plan in retrospect is most enlightening. The tools for the packing and recovery of wet materials were put aside in the building but were ultimately inaccessible due to flooding in those locations. The Disaster recovery team concept was undercut by mass evacuation. Had the designated team members shown up to do their jobs, they would have been immediately turned away from campus by the National Guard, as were many faculty attempting to access the campus after their return. Instead, it was a small number of intrepid individuals, such as Dean of Libraries Lance Query, Assistant Dean for Special Collections Bill Meneray, and Government Documents Librarian Eric Wedig, who managed as best they could until teams from Belfor arrived. (What happened to Munters? HTML was simply preempted by campus-wide imperatives from above.) In short, the packing and removal of wet library materials fell to the real disaster professionals. The three-tiered Collection Priorities lists stated in Appendix C of the plan (1. salvage "at all costs;" 2. "if time permits;" and 3. "as part of general cleanup, if financially feasible") were presumably communicated to Belfor, but I noted that there was no Special Collections provision in the listings, and so this, too, would have fallen on Meneray's shoulders. If the disaster preparedness plan provided some orientation, it was still decisive action in the field that mattered the most. One lesson that Tulane learned from its Katrina experience is that an integrated plan for the entire university is the most viable disaster preparedness strategy. A myriad of disaster plans won't work, especially when they have been formulated unilaterally and without mutual consultation.

It's deceptively easy to focus on the dark side of the mess that Katrina wrought, even if most of the city's archival repositories were spared the worst. Numerous personal collections were lost, and I'll have more to say about that in a minute, but the concomitant of such losses was the realization that archives provide a degree of protection for valuable materials that is beyond the capability of individuals. Thus, unexpected opportunities for collection development arose post-Katrina, although often with considerable conservation work attached to them. A case in point would be the Danny Barker Collection, which requires some preliminary "back story." When this New Orleans jazz icon—a banjoist, guitarist, educator, historian, and griot of the first order—passed away in 1994, there was considerable interest in his papers from the archival community, including the Hogan Jazz Archive, Amistad Research Center, Historic New Orleans Collection, and the Smithsonian Institution. Danny's widow, the vocalist Blue Lu Barker, was not in good health, and so the responsibility for negotiating disposition of the collection fell primarily to the daughter, Sylvia, who was yet prevented from attempting to collate the material by her mother for fear of disturbing the "organic unity" of the collection—matchbook covers going with this napkin from a nightclub, etc. For various reasons, the inside track went to Hogan Jazz Archive and HNOC, one essentially without a budget for acquisitions, the other enjoying the option. Sylvia played the two competitors against each other, as potential donors are sometimes wont to do, without ever realizing that within the archival world, colleagues from what appear to be competing institutions are often quite chummy and communicate on a regular basis. HNOC is an organization that follows its guidelines and procedures assiduously, and in order to determine the nature and condition of the Barker Collection, it required access for inspection. Most of the material was stored in black plastic bags in a back room at the family residence on Sere Street and was piled so high that maneuvering around the bags to inspect their contents was almost impossible. Suffice it to say that without an opportunity for inspection, negotiations between HNOC and Sylvia broke down, and within a matter of hours she had phoned us to ask if we would take the record collection, ostensibly to provide the space to investigate what remained. This was on December 6, 2001.

Fast forward to November 19, 2005. I was attending a book signing at Octavia Books for Tom Piazza's Why New Orleans Matters, a work that went from conceptualization to print in a little over eight weeks post-Katrina while the author was evacuated in various locations. Octavia Books was jammed, overflowing with people exchanging stories of forced exile, and Tom gave an impassioned reading. As I was leaving I encountered Michael Tisserand, a music writer for Gambit, who told me that after receiving a tip from Pat Jolly, he had spoken with Larry Brunner, the son of Sylvia Barker, who conveyed to him his mother's wish that anything that could be salvaged from the flooded-out residence on Sere Street could go to the Hogan Jazz Archive with her blessing. I was due to leave for Paris in less than two weeks but immediately set to work lining up volunteers with storage space for drying and sorting potentially wet and molded materials in order to give Michael a place to put them. Among those who lent a hand, either as part of the retrieval team or in a collateral capacity, were Lynn Abbott, Jack Stewart, Jason Berry, Professor Larry Powell, Dean Query, and, of course, Michael Tisserand, accompanied by Larry Brunner, who had the keys. The first trip took the team no further than the front room, where it was discovered that photography albums, portraits, and other memorabilia on higher shelves had survived the flooding, but that the better part of the house was essentially a mold farm. Larry took what the family wanted for personal reasons, and the rest was sent to Jack Stewart's warehouse and then to David Clements' apartment (across the street from the Tisserand's house) for drying. A second trip included penetration of the back room and the removal of flooded materials: some twenty boxes were then sent to Belfor for conservation work, including freeze-drying and bombardment with gamma rays to deactivate the mold. The window of opportunity had been a slim one: Tisserand was taking a job in Chicago and was due to depart the day after Christmas. After I returned from Paris on December 23, we scheduled a second transfer of uncontaminated Barker materials into the Archive with the aid of Jason Berry, at which time Michael confided to me that rescuing the Danny Barker collection was the only thing he had accomplished post-Katrina that made him feel like he was making a difference. Indeed, his dedicated action and alacrity made the salvage operation possible, and even though Tulane (and, ultimately, the entire jazz research community) reaped the benefits, he was the hero of this story.

There have been other collection development opportunities, but none more dramatic than this one, and so I will stop there. In retrospect, it's safe to say that from my perspective, good news notwithstanding, what has been rescued from private hands post-Katrina pales in comparison to what has been lost. Taking only New Orleans musicians as a point of departure, the toll has been staggering. The personal collection of clarinetist and jazz scholar Dr. Michael White included over 40 vintage instruments, family photographs, more than 4,000 recordings, manuscript sheet music, research notes, unique oral history interviews, and a medal given to him upon his appointment as a Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government. White's Gentilly home was very near to the London Canal breech, and he reflected upon his situation in a story that was carried in the October 22, 2005 Times-Picayune: "It reminds me of one of those 'Twilight Zone' episodes where I'll go in and find my own body...I tried very hard to picture what this would be like but you can't begin to imagine. The hard part is there's a lot of history here that can't be replaced. It's all gone." Other musicians who lost everything residing in neighborhoods ranging from Lakeview and New Orleans East to Pontchartrain Park (in Gentilly) and the Lower Ninth Ward would include pianists Henry Butler and Fats Domino, trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, and vocalists Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, and Wanda Rouzan, and that's just the short list. The internationally celebrated jazz photographer Herman Leonard was living in Lakeview—although his negatives were rescued, his prints were destroyed. Photographer Michael P. Smith's home on LaSalle Street near Jefferson Avenue (uptown) was also severely damaged, although his life's work was saved. The filmmaker Stevenson Palfi, perhaps best known for his masterpiece on Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, and Tuts Washington, "Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together," had deposited his masters with the Hogan Jazz Archive years ago, specifically to protect them from hurricanes. When the deluge came, his residence and workplace on Banks Street in Mid City was flooded, and he lost his current project, a film about New Orleans rhythm and blues, along with some others that he was editing for colleagues. It was too much for him. He took his own life in December.

So many lives have been shattered, and when one contemplates the destruction of entire neighborhoods that have also served as the "cultural wetlands" sustaining the city's music and festival traditions, it becomes apparent that the living New Orleans culture that we, as archivists, have carefully sought to document and preserve may be very much in jeopardy. Only time will tell. I like to believe that the New Orleans spirit remains resilient, and that if the past serves as a guide, displaced musicians will find a way back home, because they are culturally programmed for a life style that only makes sense here. That's a "fate bet" we have to take, because the alternative is too dismal to contemplate. If the musical culture dies, our knowledge and experience of "second lines," Creole songs, brass band funerals, and collectively improvised jazz will have to rely solely on the photography, film, and recordings that exist in our media archives. Although it's reassuring, therefore, to celebrate the survival of our collections, we must also recognize that, in the end, there will never be a substitute for the real thing in the streets. Our job now, as citizens of New Orleans as much as in our capacity as archivists, is to become proactive in sustaining a culture that cannot be allowed to wash away.