It's been five years since the levees broke and Hurricane Katrina devastated the great city of New Orleans.
Though it remains a part of our modern culture—witness the HBO series Treme or Spike Lee's recent documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise—it's easy to disregard or, worse, forget just how deeply Katrina impacted the lives of those in the New Orleans area.
A number of former residents with deep ties to the Triangle have put together a new series of free events at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. Over three days, the school will present a series of panel discussions, exhibitions and performances designed to offer a unique perspective on the city and people of New Orleans and the area's future.
A highlight of the series is the opening reception on Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at the center. The reception highlights a new exhibit by photographer Donn Young, taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as examples of his photos for the North Carolina Hunger Project.
During his career as a photographer and journalist in New Orleans, Young took nearly 1.5 million photos of the city, many of which were destroyed during Katrina. Having lost their home to Katrina, Young and his family remained in the area for 18 months with no permanent residence. What pushed him out of New Orleans was a news story about a mother who'd given her son a gun to take to school for protection.
Though Young felt "challenged" about leaving New Orleans, he also wanted to move forward with his life. "My heart was there, but it was time to rebuild," he says. Part of his goal for his new exhibit is to help people understand the experience of Katrina from the perspective of those who lived through it.
"It's one thing to have Time and Newsweek and National Geographic and The Dallas Morning News tell the story of Katrina, but it's another to tell it through the heart and soul and eyes of the residents who lived it," he says. "There's a number of artists participating in this event who lived through all of this, and they're telling their story."
Young is happy with his life in North Carolina: "I finally got a home—front porch, back porch, silverware, closets and clothes. What more to life is there?" he says with an ironic laugh. But he's also filled with a mixture of nostalgia and frustration for the city he left behind.
"It's a heartbreaking situation to lose everything," Young says. "It's a frustrating situation and feeling to not know what's going to happen the next day, where your money's coming from, or if you can even get to it, because the banks have been destroyed. You can't get any information from high school records because the high schools have been destroyed.
"There's this kind of consciousness that all from New Orleans tend to suffer, which is how to go on with life."
The reception also includes a musical performance and discussion with Durham musician and former New Orleans resident Peter Holsapple, who'll share the stage with his former Continental Drifters mates Susan Cowsill and Russ Broussard, both of whom have moved back to New Orleans since Katrina.
Holsapple, best known as co-founder of The dB's and for his work with R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish, was on the road when Katrina hit. He soon found himself a "conduit" for friends who needed to get in touch with those still in the area. "We discovered the joys of texting during that time," he says.
A native of North Carolina, Holsapple had already thought of moving back to the area, so "the hurricane precipitated the move, if you'll forgive the choice of words." He often returns to New Orleans; after the storm subsided, he saw things like churches with steeples cracked off and a sheriff's department shoved clear across the street by the force of the waters.
"I'll never forget the smell, never forget the look, never forget driving around looking for some sign of what was once familiar," he says. However, he hopes what people come away with from UNC's program is "not 'Oh, poor New Orleans,' but 'Wow, look at the people's resolve.'"
"For people that weren't there, five years is a long enough time for them to guess everything is back to normal. There's Mardi Gras, the Saints won the Super Bowl," Holsapple says. "But it's hard for them to know the difference in life pre- and post-Katrina. The spirit of New Orleans is there, undiminished, but the venue for it has changed so remarkably, and people are still trying to get used to it."
Louis Armstrong once asked in a song, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" Young says he knows. "There is a pride that I think most New Orleanians feel about the city, because it's such a vital, inventive place ... the idea that you can travel anywhere in the world and still have a heart for the city ... it all boils down to one word: home.
"And that's why people who travel past New Orleans know what it means to miss it."