Sunday, February 13, 2011

Trip Report: NOLA (Part 2)

After city park, we realized how hungry we were, so we made our way over to a poboy restaurant by a cemetery. I've never had a poboy sandwich in my life, but let me just tell you. I am a big, big fan. As I was ordering, the woman behind the counter, May, started asking me about why I was in the city. As I explained the project to her, she told me that her and her husband, Yang, would be happy to talk to me about the hurricane. I ate while Yang talked to me about their experience about the storm. Her husband explained to me that they decided to stay in their restaurant for the period of the storm. As soon as the hurricane was over, they emerged from their shop, and everything was destroyed. He said it was the scariest thing he has ever experienced in his life, and I witnessed the deepness of the terror in his eyes while he said this. They thought they were the only living beings, and their moving around was the only sound that they heard. No birds, no cars, no wind. Just quiet.

I listened, thanked them and then asked to take their photograph. (Yang and May- owners of Yang's Poboy) As we were getting up to leave, two men sitting at a table behind me mentioned that they overheard my project. They introduced themselves both as Mike and that they were both contractors for houses, doing storm repair. I boldly asked if I could see a before and an after house, and they said they would show me as much as they could. We excitedly jumped in the car and drove to the "After" house.

The same hardwood floors that were in there before, but they redid everything else. It was a beautiful house. After taking a short tour, we were on to the "Before" house. When we arrived there, Mike handed me a flashlight. "Breathe into your shirt, or don't breathe deep. Don't touch anything. Remember, someone used to call this a home." The pool outside was covered up to ground level with grass and Mike told us that there was hurricane debris inside of it. I asked if there could be a body buried in this debris. He slowly nodded and I felt sick to my stomach. As we entered the house, most of the bottom floor had been stripped of its walls. A lone faucet and shower head stood in the midst of everything. Seaweed was hanging from the ceiling above the door, and the whole house was hot and reeked of mold. He took us upstairs and before we entered the old tenant's bedroom, he explained to us that things were virtually untouched since the storm.

Once we walked in the bedroom door, my breath was gone. The guy's deodorant, comb, hairdryer, cigarettes and ash tray, and clothes were exactly where he had left them. Mike explained to us that this man that had lived here gathered up 3 bags of clothes and tried to leave. And didn't make it back. I found negatives on the floor, and tears welled in my eyes as I held them up and a perfect image of a girl smiling was displayed in front of me. I had no idea whoo this was, but she was obviously important to him. We left the house and I couldn't believe what I had just seen. The storm just became very very real to me, and there were ghosts of Katrina everywhere I went.

Katherine and I made our way to the lake, and as we were walking along the steps of the edges, it started to rain. Driving back into the city, I noticed grates in the highway to drain water quickly. It wasn't raining hard, but there was a ton of water.

We went home that night and I was feeling the weight of this storm. There was so much left untouched, and it was a lot to handle. That night, we met up with a friend of a friend, Katie, at Cafe du Monde, which I am now obsessed with. We shared Cafe Au Laite's and beignets while we talked about the day.

Before I left, with a huge help from some friends from National Geographic, I had gotten in touch with the photographer, Tyrone Turner ( who shot the Hurricane story for the magazine. He had given me the name of a guy, Robert Green, who he thought might be able to help me understand the rebuilding process. I called Robert, and he said that he would meet us that afternoon and show us around the neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward, a place that due to a break in the barge, flooded more than much of the city.

We decided to drive around the lower 9th ward area, and we visited the only park that is currently up, which was completely controlled by solar power (it was awesome). We played in the park for about 30 minutes and then went to lunch. After lunch, we were driving back into the city when I saw an old abandoned church. I asked to pull over, and we went exploring inside. The carpet had been ripped out, but the pews had served as an obvious bed for those who needed it some nights. Stain class shadows left colorful squares on the floors and a huge mural of Jesus with his arms around New Orleans was painted at the very front. We walked around in the church, and then looked around at an abandoned Christian Academy right next to it. It was hauntingly beautiful, as chandeliers still hung from the ceiling, above the black mold and broken glass covering the floors.

Driving around the lower 9th ward in the morning, in the car was Katie, myself, Katherine and her roommate Melanie (Thank you Melanie, a hundred times over, for the use of your car.) As we were driving around the neighborhood, we found houses without walls, but with light switches still attached, railroad tracks that led to nowhere, puddles of water that perfectly reflected houses and then we found Helen. As we drove our car past, a very cute old woman waved at us from her porch. I thought how photogenic her wrinkles were and how much I wanted to talk to her. We pulled over and started talking to her. Helen was 90 years old and full of sass. She was definitely one of a kind, and embodied old New Orleans culture. Sweet smells drifted from her kitchen and she talked about how all of her neighbors were going to wonder why she was talking to "all these white girls." It wasn't said as a racist comment, but more so of an observation. She told us about her experience with the storm, and agreed to let me take her photo. When I gave her my information and told her that she could find me on the internet, she asked if the internet was something on the television.

We then visited Robert Green. He was probably the most inspiring person I've met on this trip by far. He invited us in to his Make It Right home in the Lower 9th ward and the rest of the girls played with his grandson, Everett, while I talked to him. Robert lived in a FEMA trailer for 3 years before his house was built by Brad Pitt's organization ( Robert told us his story as he walked around the neighborhood. When the storm hit, his mother, who he lived with, was very sick. They tried to leave in their car for Baton Rouge, but sat in traffic for 7 hours before deciding to turn back. After turning back, they tried to go to the Superdome but got turned away due to lack of space. They went back to their house, and had to break their attic ceiling onto their roof because their house was flooding. The water picked up their roof and carried it 200 yards down the road to a tree. The roof hit the tree, and when it broke, Robert lost both his mother and his 3 year old granddaughter. Tears filled both his and our eyes as he recounted this story, and he walked us to the tree. I asked him, "how has this storm made you a better person?" And he told me, "It's no use hoping for my granddaughter or mother back. Hoping that will do nothing for me. I can appreciate all the moments I had with them, but I now appreciate every moment I have with my grandson and my family." I have to sincerely thank both Robert and Tyrone for helping make this trip successful. Robert explained a picture he had of the barge breaking into the lower 9th, which caused the neighborhood to flood. If the government had moved the barge, like they were supposed to, it would have prevented much of the flooding, and might have saved hundreds of people's lives.

We left Robert's house fulfilled. I parted ways with Katherine and Melanie and Katie and I went to dinner in the French Quarter, where my hotel was. Despite my dislike of shrimp, I accidently ordered a bowl of barbeque shrimp for dinner. Since it was my last night in NOLA, and neither one of us had ever had our fortune's told, we decided to go do that in Jackson square. We sat down with Madame Teresa who had Mardi Gras beads on the table and fake candles on her table, sitting in a lawn chair. I had told Katie beforehand (since I'm a little afraid of flying) that I have always been scared to get my fortune told because I never wanted a death card, and especially because I was flying the next day, if I got a card that predicted my death, I was going to flip. As Madame Teresa told us to draw cards, the first card I turned over was a guy, laying on the ground with seven swords stuck in his back. As I verbally started panicking, Katie laughed uncontrollably and Madame Teresa told me that it wasn't a death card, but that I need to "watch for backstabbers." We left the table and giggled all the way back home.

NOLA, overall was an incredible trip for me. Everyone that I met, shared experiences with, let me photograph them, etc, made the trip both beautiful and haunting. I have shared all these photos with you in order to show you an accurate depiction of my trip, so please refrain from downloading them. Thank you for reading my story. Half of the proceeds from the photos I sold in the gallery here, went to the Make It Right Foundation, and the same will be true with any of the Ghosts of Katrina photos bought off of my website. We can continue to rebuild this city. I owe a huge, HUGE thank you to these people:
University of Wyoming (specifically Michael L. and Sarah B.)
Gallery 234
Melanie M.
Katie B.
Jennifer O. and family
Cary B.
Mike D.
Helen O.
Chris M.
Connor N.
Nori N.
Robert Green
Tyrone Turner
Rebecca Martin
Sadie Quarrier
Pete Hill
and finally, Lowepro Camera Bags.
I sincerely appreciate all of your help and support through this project. I can't wait to return to New Orleans. My question, "Why would you return?" was answered at the end of this project. The food, the people, the culture, the music. It is all unique and beautiful. New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the world. And it's just the feeling you get when you go there that keeps you wanting to come back.


  1. Beautifully told and photgraphed Becca.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the whole story. I'm glad you were able to recall so much of your experience and share it with everyone. Great story, amazing photos, and I'm glad you posted lots of photos that were not featured in your gallery. Cheers!