This Katrina show began in the shower room at the Austin Convention Center. Abe Louise Young was volunteering there when she realized that the people she was helping bathe wanted to tell her what had happened to them and talk about who they were almost as much as they wanted that hot water.
This collection of pieces demonstrates the way that culture survives, transforms, and tries to heal itself in the aftermath of disaster.
The focus is not just on mainstream cultural expressions, but also on the grassroots, the underground, the rough around the edges. We hear from a Mardi Gras Indian chief, school kids in a housing project, a Voodoo sorcerer and t-shirt vendors in the French quarter.
There are thousands more stories out there and hundreds of groups collecting them. Perhaps after the taste you’ve had here, you’ll want to hear, do or see more so we’re posting links to people and groups who are collecting Katrina stories on tape, on film, on the stage.
Permission to Leave and Something Happened
Produced by Heather Booth
Being a New Orleanian now means being completely neurotic about diplomacy and representation – always trying to strike the perfect balance between reminding people of the abyss of sadness and fear in our city and of all the romantic reasons we are worth saving. I was worried that these recordings, made very shortly after the storm, wouldn’t do the latter job adequately, but they still represent my impressions a year later.
I interviewed my friend Abram Himelstein in a vaguely soundproof lean-to (dubbed the radio shack) that my boyfriend built for me out of salvaged lumber from our damaged house. The shack occupied half of the sole livable room during the reconstruction of our home.
Produced by Alexandra L. Woodruff
Elmer Glover is a voodoo sorcerer and resident of New Orleans. He left the city when the storm hit land a year ago but was drawn back in spite of losing his business.
Produced by Eve Troeh
As the Katrina anniversary approached I was nervous about hearing and seeing news coverage that simplified and made sentimental slop out of our experiences on the Gulf Coast. I had some great tape about stuff I’ve seen and heard in this post-Katrina year that could never fit into the news features I file as a reporter. Like moments of humor. Like kitsch. Like little girls screaming profanities about FEMA instead of playground rhymes. And how small things here tear our hearts apart and sew them back together on a daily basis. I wanted to put something more ambiguous and personal out there. It was a stretch, a much needed one, and here it is…
Alive in Truth
Produced by Sarah Yahm with Abe Louise Young (founder of Alive in Truth)
In New Orleans strangers talk to each other.
I was raised in the affectionate, gregarious call-and-response that flows between strangers black and white on the streets of New Orleans. The city’s background noise is narration; it’s a palette of baby, sweetheart, how y’all doing, hey my love, your feet hurt. As a child, I learned to nod, smile, and say “How you doing?” to every person I encountered, black or white—and then really listen to their answer.
I don’t live in New Orleans anymore, I live in Austin Texas. But last summer a whole lot of New Orleans came to Austin. I started as a Red Cross volunteer at the shelter for Katrina evacuees in Austin, Texas. I’d been there for about 72 hours, working in the outdoor showers, when something hit me. I realized that when 5,000 people who’ve just lost their homes, communities, and family members arrive in a new town, tending to their stories is just as important as tending to their bodies.
It was out of that spirit that I founded Alive in Truth, an oral history and memory project for New Orleanians displaced by the disaster. We weren’t allowed to interview inside the Austin Convention center so instead we set up on the street corner just outside with our donated equipment, and hand made signs that said “Alive in Truth.” We’d say something like, “Hey, baby, how’re you doing? Hi, sweetheart, looking good, keeping your head up?”
There were a lot of people who had a lot of things to say and we were there to hear them. We were present at the Austin Convention Center every day and night until it closed. After everyone left the shelter we kept recording through word of mouth and we’re still recording today.
You are about to hear some of the stories that we’ve collected.
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When I met Big Chief Kevin Goodman head of the Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indian tribe, he was wearing his bright orange feather suit, the costume that he’d sewed by hand here in Austin after his old one was destroyed in the flood waters.
—Abe Louise Young
Produced by Sarah Yahm with Abe Louise Young
Producing these “Alive in Truth” pieces was a bit of a technical challenge because the oral histories were recorded by a wide range of people, some with technical audio experience and some without. The richest part of this experience for me was the collaborative nature of this project. Even throughout the radio production process Abe managed to keep me (all the way in Woods Hole on Cape Cod) connected to the folks in Austin and Houston whose stories we were telling. The intensity of this kind of collaboration makes the process more complicated but also more rich.
Sarah Yahm has tried out various careers before settling into radio documentary. For the past year she’s been living in Woods Hole, working at Atlantic Public Media and Transom as a producer and editor. She’s moving to UC Santa Cruz to start a graduate program in social documentation.
Heather Booth is a graduate of the New School. She is a longtime resident of New Orleans and program assistant at American Routes.
Alexandra L. Woodruff has produced and written for commercial television news stations in Salt Lake City and Oakland for the last nine years. She has spent most of this year trying to redeem her public radio soul. She spent the summer reporting for KNAU, the National Public Radio affiliate in Flagstaff, Arizona. She’s currently working on a Masters of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Eve Troeh is a radio producer and reporter who’s lived in New Orleans since 2000. She’s the former Editor of PRI’s American Routes, and since Katrina has been filing for any number of public radio outlets. Eve was just named a Katrina Media Fellow by the Open Society Institute, so she’s looking forward to another year of reporting on the rebuilding of New Orleans.
Abe Louise Young is a poet, educator, and activist born in New Orleans, LA in 1976. Her poems and essays have been published and anthologized widely, and she edited the anthology, Hip Deep: Opinion, Essays, and Vision from American Teenagers (Next Generation Press, 2006.) As founder of Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History Project, Young also works to document the lives of Hurricane Katrina survivors living in Austin.
Riza Falk lives in Greeley, CO and works as a photojournalist for the Spanish language weekly La Tribuna. She earned her M.A. in Photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin where she shot an in-depth documentary project on the Flaming Arrow Mardi Gras Indians from New Orleans. More of her work can be found at rizafalk.com.