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LSU Leads the Way in Preserving the Stories of Katrina Survivors

It is a feeling that is unmistakable – the swelling of nervousness, fear, and uncertainty when the skies turn pale gray and the wind reveals its hidden, angry side. The people of Louisiana know this feeling all too well. It is what you feel at the hour of nature’s wrath, heralded in the devastating howl of a hurricane.

You can read about it in books. Scholars and experts can explain it to you in great detail. But until you have actually heard the words of someone who has survived it, you will not understand it.

“Everything in the living room was bobbing around in water. During the night the water rose and came up. We didn’t know what was going on … when I walked outside to go across the street the water was up to here above my chest. Freddy and my son held on to me because I thought I was gonna drown.”

- Norma Jackson, Uptown New Orleans“

One of the EMS reported, ‘We just had a levee break!’ You heard it before you saw it, and then you just saw bubbling of water. It started rising. We were getting scared now. The water was not stopping. It eventually did stop … on the top of the second floor. So now we’re in panic mode ... we’re thinking we’re all going to drown in here together.”

- Angel Aucoin, flight nurse at Memorial Hospital

They are words that haunt and bear powerful warnings for those who might listen to them in the days and years to come. Collecting and preserving these stories that define the experience of hurricane survival is the goal of a new project undertaken by LSU’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History. The center’s Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project aims to create a bridge for future listeners to the present-day voices of tragedy, courage, and hope brought about by the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history.

With so many people impacted by the storm and so many perspectives on the disaster and its aftermath, Jennifer Abraham, the center’s director, is taking a community-based strategy to create the central point for first-hand accounts of Hurricane Katrina.

Abraham is collaborating with community groups in parishes across Southeast Louisiana to go into the field and collect personal perspectives from those affected by the storm. The arrangement is simple: the T. Harry Williams Center provides training and equipment for interviewers, and in return, receives the stories collected for inclusion in the main project.

“The advantage of collaborating with community groups is they are often driven by their own ideas and their own motivations to document,” said Abraham, “They have a personal stake in documenting the lives of people who were affected, the neighborhoods that were affected, and in not only showing them to Louisianans, but showing them to the world.”

The groups and individuals associated with collecting the interviews are as varied and diverse as the people they seek. LSU professors Carolyn Ware and Jonathan Roberts are documenting two different angles for their own interests and research. Ware is interested in how Hurricane Katrina impacted businesses and employment in Louisiana. Roberts is collecting tales from Charity Hospital workers – the emergency responders charged with saving lives when the storm first hit.

“The emergency room was crazily busy. People were just dropping people off. No names, no I.D. Just little old people were getting dropped off on the E.R. ramp.”

- Angel Aucoin

Across the Mississippi River, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Blanche Jewell is heading up the Julien Poydras Museum and Arts Council’s efforts to document the stories of Katrina survivors who evacuated to Pointe Coupee, as well as the perspective of local residents who came to their aid.

“Each time I read over the transcripts I feel so humbled that these extraordinary people entrusted their stories of courage, perseverance, and faith to us,” said Jewell. “Many have chosen to live in our parish community, and we are richer because of this. We must never forget that Hurricane Katrina was a life-altering event. The stories of recovery continue and should be honored.”

The Julien Poydras Museum will use those stories to form the basis of a new exhibit, with the interviews from the exhibit going toward inclusion in the LSU Katrina Oral History Project.

“After the hurricane, I don’t have any pictures of any of my children now. I don’t have my children, and I don’t have their pictures. I still have the memories, but nothing tangible. So I’m here trying to start over again. At 67.”

- Victor Cusher, lifelong resident of New Orleans now living in New Roads, Louisiana

In New Orleans, Tatiana Clay is part of a project called “Floodwall,” a planned memorial wall composed of drawers taken from homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. “Floodwall” hopes to create an interactive exhibit linking these physical artifacts with the stories of their owners.

“The main goal of the Floodwall project is to create a memorial wall that speaks for the silence of loss,” Clay said. “Each of the 600 drawers that were collected represents a household and family that was affected by this catastrophe.

“I think that 100 years from now people who listen to these interviews will get a glimpse of the love and dedication that people have for this area,” Clay added. “Even the people that have left the area still have a commitment to the city. I hope that these interviews will preserve some descriptions of the city and the neighborhoods that may be lost in the rebuilding process over the next several decades.”

Like the project in Pointe Coupee, the interviews Clay collects in the field will be housed in LSU’s T. Harry Williams Center.

Abraham said these original accounts will eventually form a comprehensive view of the disaster and provide a wealth of historical understanding to those who want to experience the full story of Hurricane Katrina.

“Firsthand accounts are extremely important because we are creating primary sources,” Abraham said. “By creating these original documents that are going to be nowhere else, you get different perspectives. Everyone is going to have a different perspective on this particular event, and getting those recorded and preserved is incredibly important … not just for today, but for the reference of future use.”

Once all of the interviews are processed and catalogued, Abraham said the T. Harry Williams Center hopes to make the collection available via the LOUISiana Digital Library, accessible from their Web site.

For now, however, the T. Harry Williams Center will make the raw interviews available to those who wish to hear them on request. They are also seeking more individuals and groups who wish to participate in the program as interviewers and storytellers.

Abraham says it is these storytellers who, 100 years from now, will have the most accurate perspective on the event.

“You get to hear their voices,” she said. “There is nothing like hearing someone’s voice, the intonation. Maybe there’s laughter, maybe there’s emotions like sadness, maybe there’s emotions like excitement. You get to hear these voices, and they cannot be replicated in text. Hearing them is incredibly important.”

Clay believes the interviews she collects for the Project have the potential to inspire future generations.

“I hope that listeners will hear stories about the physical and social characteristics of New Orleans and see how those qualities compare and contrast. Although the interviews have tones of sadness, they also express a lot of hope for the long run. I think it is important for the people in the future to know about our hope now so that they have a reason to carry the torch and keep trying,” she said.

“Whenever things are bad, look around. There’s always somebody worse off. I guess the bottom line was, for whatever we went through, there was always somebody who had less. And no matter how bad things get, you still come through it, you really do. And the sun comes up, and the sun goes down, and when all is said and done, you move on.”

- Cathy Chauvin, Director of Rehab Services, St. Bernard Parish

The T. Harry Williams Oral History Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the historic Agnes Morris House on the LSU campus. Please call 225-578-6577 to schedule an appointment, should you wish to visit.

Programs like the Katrina Oral History Project and the people who make it possible are a source of pride for all LSU Tigers. If you would like to support the T. Harry Williams Center and the LSU Libraries, visit www.foreverlsu.org to find out how you can get involved. Forever LSU, the campaign for Louisiana State University, will raise $750 million by LSU’s 150th anniversary in 2010. Join the campaign and be a part of history. Every Tiger can help!

Scott Madere | LSU Foundation | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Summer 2007

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