Oral History, Folklore, and Katrina

By Alan H. Stein and Gene B. Preuss


The hurricane season of 2005 reached historic proportion in the sheer number of tropical storms and hurricanes, people displaced, homes and businesses destroyed, jobs lost, and lives lost to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. The Associated Press overwhelmingly voted the Gulf Coast hurricanes as the number one story of 2005 (Dallas Morning News 2005). The growing number of town meetings, conferences, and congressional subcommittees that have convened to hear the testimony and stories of both the disaster itself and the condemnations of the slow response of local, state, and national relief efforts provide an overwhelming amount of oral history material.

Dyan French Cole told the members of the House Select Committee investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina, "I have witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levee, boom, boom!" Cole, a community activist known to many of New Orleans's 7th Ward residents as "Mamma D," was among several witnesses to address the Committee in early December 2005. Other witnesses told U.S. Representatives of the harsh treatment they received from U.S. military personnel, who kept refugees penned behind barbed wire, refusing requests for health care and first aid. "They set us up so that we would rebel, so that they could shoot us," another woman complained. "At one point they brought in two truckloads of dogs and let the dogs out" (Myers 2005; Hodges 2005). Another woman was even more emphatic: "We was treated worse than an animal. People do leave a dog in a house, but they do leave him food and water. They didn't do that. And that's sad." She explained her frustration:

I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana and I was caught into the storm. I never thought New Orleans would have done us the way they done us. I didn't realize what was going on until maybe the third day after I was trying to get out of that place-they would not let us out. I was on top of the Interstate, the Interstate in front to the Superdome and some guys came along in an Ozone Water truck and picked up a lot of people and we got near as far as getting out. They turned us around with guns. The army turned us around with guns. Policemen. And I realized then that they really was keeping us in there. And you want me to tell you the truth, my version of it? They tried to kill us. When you keep somebody on top of the Interstate for five days, with no food and water, that's killing people. And there ain't no ands, ifs, or buts about it, that was NOPD [New Orleans Police Department] killing people. Four people died around me. Four. Diabetes. I am a diabetic and I survived it, by the grace of God, but I survived it. But they had people who were worse off than me, and they didn't make it. Old people. One young woman couldn't survive it because of the dehydration. So I mean, this is what you call NOPD murder. Murder. That's what I call it. What else would you call it? (Alive in Truth 2005b)

Certainly, historians writing about the effect of the hurricanes and the historical significance of the 2005 hurricane season, the damage visited on the Gulf Coast, and the changed lives of the people of New Orleans and the American South will assess and analyze the oral testimony, but how should we respond presently? Mamma D's story of levee bombings are among the stories circulating that lend credence to the growing belief that racism and a lack of concern for victims in poorer sections of the Crescent City influenced the government's reaction to the hurricane's victims. For historians, oral history methodology helps with conducting, collecting, and evaluating personal narratives that can shed the light of experience on a path increasingly darkened by the overwhelming number of accounts that emerge on a daily basis.

What Is Oral History And How Does It Preserve Community?

This chapter explores the uses of oral history in documenting and interpreting Katrina. For the purposes of this chapter, simplistically stated, oral history is the application of modern technology to history's most ancient technique of gathering historical material: using a recording machine to preserve both the questions to, and answers of, eyewitnesses or participants in selected aspects of history. For centuries, stories and traditions were passed orally from one generation to the next. One of the stories that emerged from the massive tsunami of 2004 that killed hundreds of thousands is the account of how relatively few died on the Indonesian island of Simeulue. Residents remembered the stories their grandparents told them of the "semong"-big waves-that followed earthquakes.

Oral history became a tool of significant historical inquiry and documentation in both the literate and nonliterate worlds, but it was with the development of recording technology and the ability to capture the actual voices of narrators that the practice became more popular and legitimate. During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers' Project employed writers and folklorists to document the stories of ex-slaves, immigrant families, famines and floods.

While the field was legitimized in 1948 by the creation of the Columbia University Oral History Program, it was not until the 1960s and the development of the new social history that the oral history movement came into its own, as it focused on the lives and experiences of "ordinary people," popularized by the works of Studs Terkel. History "from the bottom up" became favored by social historians and activists who viewed oral history in the community as an empowering process for interviewer and narrator alike: It brought to light the voices of those who had been silenced by the dominant historiography due to race, gender, and class biases.

Aided by the world of television and digital media, oral history is a way of documenting urgent events and insights that otherwise might not be recorded. The numerous Katrina projects cited in this chapter illustrate how evacuees are active participants in their own historical drama. Through rich audio-video interviews, their life stories present enormous opportunities for uses from pedagogy to research. But they also present profound challenges: How reliable are the interviewers and the oral sources? How will the interviews be accessed in their audio and video form? When should we even begin collecting "urgent" oral history of a catastrophe? Finally, how do we interpret what we are collecting?

When Should We Begin Collecting Oral History?

Oral historians, a multidisciplinary group that includes folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, have worked for many years with testimony, family stories, and oral accounts like those arising from the ruined areas of the Gulf Coast region. The techniques and methodologies oral historians have developed may help unravel the tangle of confused, horrific, and contradictory testimony from evacuees and survivors displaced by the hurricanes.

An important question oral historians (unlike their journalism colleagues) wrestle with is when to begin collecting the narratives. How our media responded is at the same time reflective of our interest in catastrophes and the media's need for ratings, but there is human compassion as well. USA Today's Peter Johnson wrote "The human side of Katrina-tales of agony and misery that thousands of Katrina's victims still endure a month after the storm-also has gripped many reporters, who want to stay on the story indefinitely" (Johnson 2005).1 Reporters covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Shuttle Columbia accident expressed similar sentiments. How should the oral historian respond? The gut-level instinct is to grab a recorder and get "in the field" as soon as possible. But historians, like journalists, are always concerned about maintaining an objectivity about their research and writing. Most historians achieve this "historical distance" by writing about the past, not contemporary events.

The discussion about Katrina oral history projects became one of the year's leading discussions on H-ORALHIST, an H-NET discussion list [], with oral historians divided in their opinion. The subsequent discussion begged the question: When do current events become history? Historians usually prefer the temporal distance presented by the past. "I have never come nearer to contemporary history than a perspective of 25 years," Barbara Tuchman wrote (Tuchman 1996). On September 8, 2005, Holly Werner Thomas wrote: "It may be too soon to ask, but it seems important that the stories of the refugees from Hurricane Katrina be told. Does anyone have any information about a possible oral history project regarding the hurricane and its aftermath?" (Thomas 2005) One respondent admitted that he felt vexed about beginning to collect narratives too rapidly. After rushing to the refugee center located in Houston's Astrodome to collect oral history of this disaster, he admitted, "Yet when I arrived, I found myself wondering if we should allow some time for reflection" (Preuss 2005; K'Meyer 2005). Would rushing in to collect oral histories while people were still displaced, sheltered in auditoriums, churches, and public buildings be adding more traumas to their lives? "People will need time to settle down, time to reflect, and time to put their lives back together before they will be able to discuss how the disaster affected them? They are still 'in the midst' of their story." He worried that rushing in and conducting interviews too close to the traumatic incident would be "working at the intersection of grief and history," as two public historians described their interaction while working with 9/11 survivors (Gardner and Henry 2002).

Columbia University Oral History Research Office Director Mary Marshall Clark argues, "If projects can be well-organized, funded well enough, and there is an archive willing to accept tapes and transcripts and to disseminate them when the time comes-it is possible to begin early." Getting an early start could also be important not only to historians, but to survivors it might also be "important in some cases, as it was with many we interviewed after 9/11 who experienced relief in knowing that someone was willing to listen to personal accounts of horror" (Clark 2005).

Another dilemma facing oral historians and others working with people whose lives were shattered by disasters and tragedy is maintaining a professional distance. How involved should one become? Public historians working after the September 11 tragedy in New York explained that they confronted this dilemma. How to collect historical information for the future, and still provide for the needs of the present? (Scudder and Gulick 1972) Mary Marshall Clark described the importance of interviewing soon after an event in order to avoid the problems of contaminating individual memories with those of others, or a larger "public narrative." While conducting interviews for Columbia's September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project, Clark reported that many interviewees expressed confusion about the meaning and significance of the attacks. There were multiple interpretations based upon the interviewee's ethnicity, sex, and culture. Clark and her colleagues found themselves asking, "Is this history yet? Is it memory? And . . . Is it therapy?" (Clark 2003)

Clark goes on to describe the challenges of doing Katrina-related oral history projects:

I have a perspective on the questions raised about documenting Katrina. It's in part philosophical perspective, which is based on understanding how important oral history can be to those who tell. My perspective is this: I think it is both "never too soon" to tell, and "never too late" to tell. The story of Katrina and the failure of the relief effort [as well as] the impact on African Americans and others and the poorest of the poor is still unfolding. Oral histories of Katrina will involve not only the event and its immediate aftermath but its still unfolding legacy: the story of the largest displacement of people since the Civil War and maybe the largest displacement of children ever.

These stories of displacement and resettlement, the decisions about how and whether to return, the redefinition of home, etc. are all stories that can be documented over time, and should be carefully planned so as to respect the human struggles that will be involved. We found with 9/11, though, it can't compare to Katrina in most ways, as the complete destruction and devastation of every kind of support is so much more extreme, that people who were displaced from their homes/lost jobs/were disrupted in major ways couldn't really focus on the oral history process. So we never pushed them to describe the difficulties that were ongoing unless they chose to describe these specific struggles themselves. (Clark 2005)

How Involved Should One Become When Collecting "Urgent" Oral History Of A Catastrophe?

In the spirit of "never too soon to tell," volunteers began conducting oral history research within weeks of the Katrina crisis, even as the crisis event unfolded. Most notably is the "Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project" [], run by an all-volunteer group of interviewers/recorders, transcribers, translators, therapists, donors, and community members. The project began in early September 2005 outside the Austin Convention Center, which sheltered some 6,000 New Orleans evacuees, mostly African-American residents who were trapped in the city after the storm. It is one of the first projects to utilize a "life history" approach, focusing on the entire life of the interviewee, not only their hurricane-experience stories:

I'm from the 7th Ward, and I was raised in New Orleans. I was raised and born in New Orleans. I worked as a babysitter. Went to school there, finished the 10th grade. Went to Warren Easton High School. At the age of 17, I decided to go to Job Corps, but so far I didn't make it there, so I wound up getting pregnant with my first daughter, which is named Dionnka T. (Alive in Truth 2005a)

This kind of bottom-up approach also helps evacuees find their voice. By interviewing residents from New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, the project seeks to document individual lives, restore community bonds, and uphold the voices, culture, rights, and history of New Orleanians.

Some members of the Oral History Association expressed concern over Alive In Truth's volunteers because they become directly involved as advocates for the interviewee. Interviewers have driven narrators to sign up for Medicare, to access warehouses of clothing and furniture, and to file FEMA claims. In the meantime, volunteers continue to encounter people who do not have furniture, who are missing family members and are unaware of resources to help locate them. In many cases, the volunteers encounter survivors with untreated medical conditions and who are not in contact with preliminary case management services. Volunteers are prepared to help evacuees find social services for help or to accompany them to FEMA information centers. In the minds of some oral historians, the Alive in Truth interviewers are too close to the problems, and so their personal "bias" will intrude on the interview since the interviewer takes an activist role by empathizing with the narrator who is contributing their story to the project.

Alive in Truth Project Director and former New Orleanian Abe Louise Young has been a Research Fellow for the Jewish Women's Archive, for The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, and for the Danish-American Dialogue on Human Rights. She describes the importance of active oral history in shaping public policy by networking with other organizations-grassroots, nonprofits, oral history, human rights, state and national, people of color-led groups-in order to connect with a broader social change movement. She also believes that the legacy of Alive in Truth will be in preserving "the archive of accounts [that have] achieved rapid dissemination, educating and informing various constituencies: this is evidence of the broad scope possible with multiple media liaisons, a vision of justice, and belief in the speakers" (Young 2005). In February 2006, Young also introduced an interpretative photography exhibit documenting Katrina at the Carver Library in East Austin, Texas. Entitled "Surviving Katrina: Sharing Our Stories," it was one of the first oral history exhibits documenting the experience of Katrina evacuees. Through text and photographs, it tells the story of six New Orleanians and their experiences coming to Austin.

The project collected over 60 interviews that are, on average, one to two hours long. They are recorded on minidisk, and excerpts are placed into MP3 format (playable and accessible on the Web). Young has contributed the interviews to the U.S. Human Rights Network reports, as well as the Katrina Task Force, established at the Ben L. Hooks Center for Social Change at the University of Memphis.

How Do We Interpret What We Are Collecting?

In response to the critical issues laid bare by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the Open Society Institute (OSI) offered a fellowship competition for projects exposing the persistent problems of poverty, racism, and government neglect. OSI, part of the George Soros Foundations Network, recognized the importance of documenting the hurricane aftermath by creating the Katrina Media Fellowships in 2006, a one-time award (averaging $15,000-$35,000) for journalists, photographers, and documentary film makers who are using sound recordings collected from oral history interviews for media production. Along with OSI, other national and state arts and humanities councils have supported oral history research projects in the past, but there exists a greater sense of urgency for funding these special projects, a fact recognized by the Oral History Association (OHA), the national organization of oral history professionals headquartered at Pennsylvania's Dickenson College.

The increases in recent disasters and tragedies have forced oral historians to reevaluate the timely collection and interpretation of "urgent" interviews. The OHA is primarily concerned with the slow response time from foundations for funding meaningful interpretative projects. It recognized the importance of emerging crises in oral history research by creating an Emerging Crises Oral History Research Fund in 2006. The fund is primarily designed to provide a more expedient source of funding and a quick turnaround time for oral historians to undertake "crisis research" as well as field work in the United States and internationally. (Oral History Association 2006)

While Katrina has provided an opportunity for gathering documentary photography and oral history recordings, the real challenge has been the dissemination of the digital data. The digital revolution meant that crucial aspects of information can be organized, searched, extracted, and integrated with relative speed and accuracy, leading historians like Roy Rosenzweig into the age of digital history. Roy Rosenzweig (co-author of the prize-winning multimedia CD-ROM Who Built America?) is the founder and director of The Center for History and Media at George Mason University and Executive Producer of The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB), which uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and presents the stories of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. The George Mason Center for History and New Media ( and the University of New Orleans, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and other partners, organized this project. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, HMDB is an ongoing effort by historians and archivists to preserve the record of these storms by documented first-hand accounts, on-scene images, blog postings, and podcasts. (Hurricane Digital Memory Bank 2006)

A project partner with the HDMB is the University of Southern Mississippi Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. They are engaged in a large-scale "Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project" that will seek to capture the larger human experience of this landmark event. To date this project includes a partnership with scholars in six states (South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Arizona) trained in oral history. The Center is conducting over 1,000 interviews to capture the breadth of the experiences of those impacted, including emergency management officers, local officials, residents, volunteer relief workers, and those displaced by the storm. Other partner projects include:

The Photojournalists of Hurricane Katrina

An oral history and book project featuring a dozen of the photojournalists who covered New Orleans and the Mississippi coast post-Katrina. The project will feature unpublished photographs and personal narratives of the aftermath of the storm, allowing these journalists to relate a powerful story through a blend of words and images.

Archivists and Hurricane Katrina Project

Working with archivists and libraries along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, this project will use focus groups and individual interviews to assess the disaster preparedness of historical and cultural institutions. This initiative will examine existing protocols, how these were implemented, and identify issues that need to be addressed in planning. The outcome of the project will be to develop and disseminate documented, workable procedures to fulfill community information needs of archival processes when disaster strikes. This project is a partnership with Solinet, Mississippi Library Commission, and the School of Library and Information Science at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Hurricane Katrina and the Coastal Vietnamese Community

One of the most at-risk communities following the storm are the coastal Vietnamese. This project, working with humanitarian relief agencies along with local churches and temples, strives to capture the stories of these members of the Gulf Coast community, many of whom lost everything in the storm. Through gathering the personal narratives of the Vietnamese, this project offers a unique opportunity not only to affirm the strength of their community but also share with them as they rebuild.

Mississippi Nurses and Hurricane Katrina Project

An effort to interview nurses who worked during the immediate pre- and post-Katrina period on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in the Hattiesburg area. Nurses, as frontline caregivers, were the ones at the "point of care," attempting to improvise and prioritize care as they could. These stories are critical to capture, for, as time goes by, many of these nurses who are already in a state of flux are becoming harder to identify and locate.

Hurricane Katrina Exhibit

A partnership with the Mississippi Sound Historical Museum to develop a museum exhibit at their facility in Gulfport, MS. The exhibit will feature oral narratives, photographs, and artifacts in one of the first efforts by a cultural institution to place the storm in historical perspective.

One documentary project that has applied to the OSI fund is entitled "People Power: Citizen Responses to Hurricane Katrina." It is a photo-driven, electronic media project that will tell the dramatic stories of how Louisianans responded with bravery, improvisation, and humanity to save lives, evacuate survivors, and continue to care for those affected by the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Each person interviewed will provide a case study to gauge the recovery process, access to resources and information, and their personal well-being. The narrators will represent the diversity of people living in southern Louisiana pre-Katrina. Their stories will shed light on the complexities of the social inequalities and shared histories of this region. The project combines photography, recorded interviews, and written stories to stimulate debate about the effectiveness of civil society's response to the disaster. These sound and image packages are disseminated through an interactive website designed for the project; weekly spots on community radio stations; state and national magazines; and a photography exhibition. The project website will be linked to the WWOZ website ( WWOZ is a world-renowned New Orleans community radio station and cultural hub for New Orleans.

Dr. Lance Hill is the Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University. Hill worked as a community activist and labor organizer for 20 years before embarking on an academic career. From 1989 to 1992, he served as the Executive Director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism (LCARN), the grassroots organization that led the opposition to former Klansman David Duke's Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns. Hill is a consultant and appears in the New Orleans Documentary Project, produced by Organic Process Productions. The film uses oral histories to interview "characters" like Lewis Taylor, a retired farmer and fisherman, and to document the impact of uprooting communities as well as the effect this will have on future land development and gentrification plans for the area. The film (and planned book) examines controversial issues of governmental power, such as the use of eminent domain and privatization.

Oral history can be used as a tool in collecting social history and folklore. Folklorists must confront "tall tales" or urban myths. Can memories always be trusted? How do we respond to stories so fantastic that they tax credulity, even when they come from dispassionate sources? For example, Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley witnessed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials prohibiting private citizens and people in unauthorized trucks from trying to aid others. Rescuers pulled people from the water, he reported, but medical aid was absent; instead, FEMA officials stood idly by. Brinkley's new book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, draws upon hundreds of oral history interviews and arrives at the conclusion that it was not a natural disaster at all but a failure of government-"one that, through breached levees and massive government incompetence, the country brought upon itself." (Brinkley 2006)

A coalition of Louisiana- and Mississippi-based scholars (coordinated by Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program) has developed two projects designed to empower evacuees and help contribute to public policy decisions. One program is entitled "In the Wake of the Hurricanes: A Coalition Effort to Collect Our Stories and Rebuild Our Culture" (Louisiana Division of the Arts 2006). Folklorist Susan Roach, an English professor and folklorist at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, began talking to other folklorists around the state. Walton teamed up with Susan Roach, former associate director of Tulane's Deep South Humanities Center, in applying for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to help pay interviewers and hire unemployed hurricane survivors to conduct interviews. They model their program on the New Deal Writers' Project, which paid unemployed writers and artists to do interviews and life-histories with ex-slaves and survivors of the Dust Bowl. Together, they have recruited about 100 people, from Mississippi to California. Sponsored by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, these projects involve seven universities and faculty throughout Louisiana.

Walton had conducted several interviews at a New Orleans-area shelter shortly after the hurricane struck, but realized that it was too soon after the event. Because of the chaos and stress, it was not the best place to do formal interviews or field work. She then began collecting oral histories for her project on Little Black Creek, a FEMA Camp in rural Mississippi. It is one of dozens of temporary housing camps established by FEMA to house people displaced from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes. The project is based on relief work and oral histories with camp residents between November 2005 and January 2006, giving an overview of demographics of the approximately 200 camp residents; how their individual trajectories led them to be in a FEMA camp; their assessment of the local and federal government; the biggest challenges facing them; and the attitudes of most toward returning to where they lived before the hurricane. Walton also documents the emergence of community in the camp, and the long-term view from the residents' perspective. Interviews show that camp residents are not only displaced from their homes, but also isolated from reliable sources of information about the rebuilding or from having any input in the process. This overview will be generally compared with others whose research looks at residents who lost their homes but have returned to the city and those who have chosen to relocate.

A similar effort is underway in Texas. As Houston's post-hurricane population swelled by 250,000, Carl Lindahl, a folklorist and English professor at the University of Houston, started conducting several interviews with evacuees, eventually expanding it into a project entitled "Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston," with his colleague Patricia Jasper, a folklorist with over 20 years of experience. Their goal is to create as many as 3,000 narratives by teaching volunteers how to interview evacuees, because, as he explained, "We've found that a person who has gone through this is a much better interviewer than those who have not. I found the survivors to be heroes rather than victims." He added that the project will not stress the "traumatizing effects" of the storms themselves, nor dwell on the "horror stories," but instead will focus on the "cultural richness" in Houston's community, pointing to the influx of Louisiana evacuees after the 1927 Mississippi River flood that created a section of the city called "French Town." (Shields 2005)

"Narrating Katrina Through Oral History" (a project sponsored by the Albert Gore, Sr., Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University) is the title of a new initiative under the direction of Lisa Pruitt. Teams of student interviewers from Middle Tennessee State University, working under Pruitt's direction, are conducting oral history interviews with individuals who were forced to evacuate to middle Tennessee from coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. The students are also interested in interviewing volunteer responders from the Middle Tennessee region. Several thousand people relocated to Middle Tennessee, either temporarily or permanently. Furthermore, hundreds of people from Middle Tennessee have traveled to the Gulf Coast as volunteer responders. The overall goal of this project is to create a documentary record of the experiences of as many of these people as possible through the medium of oral history. Tapes and transcripts of the interviews will become a permanent part of the Middle Tennessee Oral History Collection at the Gore Center. Teams of student interviewers will ask participants to describe their experiences evacuating, staying in shelters or with family or friends; re-establishing their lives in Middle Tennessee (whether temporarily or permanently); their perceptions of media coverage of the events; their evaluation of various agencies and organizations that responded to the disaster and with whom they had direct experience; and their hopes for their own futures and the future of the affected region. Volunteer responders will be asked to describe their motives for volunteering; the logistics of volunteering; the details of their work; their perception of the scope and impact of the disaster; their perception of media coverage; their perception of the performances of various agencies and organizations involved in responding with whom they had direct contact; and their feelings about the experience of volunteering in response to a major disaster.

The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC), a museum and research center located on the dry ground of the French Quarter, found itself in the epicenter of the deluge and established oral history projects with the first responders from the New Orleans Police Department and The New Orleans Fire Department. The interviews with NOPD and NOFD members, entitled "Through Hell and High Water," focuses on the period between August 29th when Katrina made landfall, and September 15, when President Bush gave his address to the nation in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. It was difficult to gain the trust and cooperation of the departments due to the intense media scrutiny of the event. The breakdown of the social structure of the city is a focus of the NOPD interviews, as are the tensions between personal and professional responsibilities as well as interaction with the citizens who remained there. But memories of both departments' past hurricane preparedness plans were also discussed. How these plans were implemented during the hours before the storm, and how they unraveled during it and its aftermath is a major theme of the project. Within the NOFD interviews is the documentation of the rescue operations of about 25 firemen, who, based on their own memories of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, took it upon themselves to bring their own recreational boats to the NOFD pre-storm staging areas on the upper floors of downtown hotel parking garages, and began boat rescue operations immediately following the storm. It is estimated that in the days following the storm that these 25 boats rescued between 12,000 and 15,000 people who were stranded on rooftops or trapped in attics. In addition to the interviews, HNOC has collected approximately 1,000 images taken during this two-week period by members of both the NOFD and NOPD.

Phyllis E. Mann coordinated the volunteer criminal defense attorney efforts in Louisiana to assist evacuated prisoners. She described her experiences in an article for The Advocate, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers newsletter. "There has been so much bad this month in Louisiana," she recalls, and then "there has been so much good" (Mann 2005a). In her own "oral history," she relates the stories she heard from people in jail cells:

The first stories we heard were from men evacuated out of the many Orleans Parish Prison buildings. They received their last meal on Sunday night-it was a cold sandwich. During the night, the power began to go on and off as the Hurricane began to make landfall. Inside the jail, it was dark and the air soon became hot and stale. Without electricity, the controls for the cell doors, dormitory doors, and main doors were inoperable-everyone was trapped. Guards had been required to stay in Orleans during the storm and had been encouraged to bring their families to the jails, so there were children in those buildings also. And the guards were stretched to the breaking point-worrying about their own safety, worrying about the safety of their families, and not doing quite so much worrying about the safety of the people locked inside the cells? The people who were locked inside were so very much like you and I and especially like our children. There was one young man who had been arrested for reading Tarot cards without a permit? There were college age folks who had come to New Orleans for a good time, but had the misfortune of getting a little too drunk just a day or two before a hurricane. There were young women who were pregnant; ? middle-aged soccer moms who just had not gotten around to paying that speeding ticket; an older grandmother who was visiting her grandchildren and overstayed her visa from Jamaica; and then there were the poor of New Orleans who were arrested for sleeping on the street? and the stories go on and on. What all of these people had in common? is that they were all trapped together, inside of a building with no lights, with no air, and they had no food to eat or water to drink? These are the stories that have broken our hearts." (Mann 2005b)

How Can We Learn From The Mistakes?

The debate over oral histories has often focused on the issue of historical accuracy. Like the dramatic accounts of the bombing of the New Orleans levees Mamma D remembers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, other witnesses and officials have denied deliberate acts of destruction and malevolence. Instead, they note, the levees were bombed during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and suggest that perhaps the collective memory of these two events long separated chronologically were somehow merged in the memory of the witness. Validation is a common phenomenon oral historians face. While some reminiscences might not be factually accurate, they are accurate in the psyche of the interviewee.

Captain Francis J. Arnona, Jr. was a ship-docking captain for Crescent Towing and Salvage in New Orleans. Two months before Katrina, he had been through tropical storm Cindy. He had a different impression about the collapse of the levees. He confirmed this in an oral history interview he gave at the Gore Center:

Basically, New Orleans did well. Yeah, there was a lot of wind damage and all from the storm. A lot of windows, the roof on the Superdome was blown off. But, as far as the storm, that didn't cause it. That problem came when the levees breached? after the fact. Now, seems to me? they have levee boards down there and, you know, that's run by politicians again. Well, if those levees breached, there was a reason they breached. And they're supposed to be monitoring those levees and shoring them up constantly, but they got a little sitting back on their haunches, "Oh, we're all right. We're all right." Well, guess what? It wasn't all right?

All they are is dirt and they stick a little slab of concrete on them. That's all they are. I'm going to tell you-a lot of those levees, there were so many broke loose barges and boats drifting around. They hit those levees, they cracked the cement, you know. And they said, "Oh, St. Bernard [Parish] and all got flooded because the levee gave away back there." But, if they ever looked real close, there was a barge sitting on the other side of the levee in somebody's front yard.2

One woman who left New Orleans and was interviewed in Austin tells a story where her fear, exaggerated by exhaustion, played tricks with her imagination:

'Cause I seen so much, so much happening, hearing so much happening; I was devastated. I was walking in the water, trying to find a way, you know, to get out? And I could 'a sworn I felt a body, or, something; somebody's body wrapped around my leg! But I know it couldn't 'a been true! [laughing] (Alive in Truth 2005a)

Careful analysis has provided several explanations for the problems in relying upon multiple versions of oral testimony. Psychologists term the tendency for hostages to identify with their captors "Stockholm Syndrome," and interviews with former prisoners of war, kidnapping victims, and torture survivors reveal that some victims do not assess any personal blame upon the perpetrators. Historian Alessandro Portelli explains that for some people, certain "climatic moments" overwhelm their ability to place these events into perspective; instead, they are "wholly absorbed by the totality of the historical event of which they were a part." For them, these events become epic stories in their memories. (Portelli 1991)

Another method historians have used to overcome the conflict between narrative and documentary evidence is to compare oral traditions with the commonly accepted scholarly version of history. James G. Blight, a cognitive psychologist who is professor of international relations at the Watson Institute at Brown University, has pioneered what he terms "Critical Oral History." Critical oral history seeks to reevaluate historical events by bringing together academic scholars, leading actors and policy makers in the event, and historical documents, in an attempt to arrive at a fuller understanding of how the historical event in question developed. By combining documents, scholars, and participants, Blight explains, the goal is to "learn to collaborate in an effort to get a more comprehensive picture of the historical reality during whatever events we are studying" (Chronicle of Higher Education Colloquy Live 2002).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many have criticized the treatment African-American Louisianans received. Among the dozen or so hurricane research projects listed on the Louisiana Folklife Website is one offering a social and environmental interpretation of events, entitled "Katrina Narratives of African-Americans is in an Unprecedented Diaspora: A Social and Environmental Oral History Project," coordinated by Dr. Dianne Glave from Tulane University's Bioenvironmental Research Department (which relocated to Atlanta following Katrina). Glave's proposal re-enforces the need for oral historians to expand on the news media's impressionistic reporting. She believes oral history interviewers share responsibilities with news media:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fragmented and harrowing pieces of many narratives of African Americans who were trapped in the Superdome, Convention Center, and their flooded homes have emerged on television and the internet. Some evacuated immediately while others were forced to wait many days to be rescued; most migrated to points across the United States; and many are now attempting to return to the Gulf region. As a result, the news media has opened an insightful dialogue across the United States and throughout the world concerning race, racism, and class. Scholars now have an opportunity to add to this exchange of ideas-not merely replicating the news-as a catalyst for analyzing the historical context for this natural disaster by looking at African influences, the Middle Passage, enslavement, freedom, migration, the Civil Rights movement and more. Out of this tragedy, I propose an oral history project that would give the Katrina narratives by African Americans scope, adding to what is in the news [by] emphasizing the social and environmental implications. (American Folklife Center 2006)3

Ninety-year-old folklorist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan during the 1940s and exposed it in a series of documentary books like Southern Exposure (still doing business as an investigative magazine). As the director of the Florida Writers' Project Folklore unit in the 1930s, Kennedy worked with Zora Neal Hurston to gather Negro folklore, interview ex-slaves, and expose slave-labor conditions throughout the South. Kennedy wasted no time in making his voice heard in support of the African Americans who were trapped inside the Superdome. Watching the catastrophe unfold on CNN angered Kennedy, who would later write "it is up to every American to assess, according to his or her conscience, our individual and national shame for what happened before and after Katrina" (Kennedy 2005). He wondered what the men, women, children, infants, aged, and infirm victims of Katrina did to deserve such "bestial" treatment in the Superdome and elsewhere. "Absolutely nothing," he concluded:

Much like the victims of the Holocaust, theirs was the misfortune of being the wrong kind of people. They were poor and, for the most part, dark-skinned. When Katrina took aim at New Orleans, they were included out of preparations for evacuation. And when push came to shove, and everybody else had gotten out, they were left stranded and abandoned in the tsunami of debris and excrement. And all that the great city, state, and nation offered them was to go to the Superdome. What happened to them after they got there will forever be burned into the memory of mankind, thanks to television, even though it lacked the guts to give us more than a glimpse of the horrors going on inside. In a matter of days, America stood stripped naked in the eyes of the world for what it is (you name it). When catastrophe strikes, it's not the women and children first, but the Haves-and Devil take the Have-Nots.

But the world watched, and help never really got there until it was too late-not that it was not available. America has the public and private wherewithal to supply and/or evacuate any number of people anytime anywhere (anybody remember The Berlin Airlift?) So why not the Superdome and why not Charity Hospital? (Evacuating posh Tulane Hospital presented no problem.) Why not all the folks drowning and starving in their homes and on the streets? The problem was not really how, but who-who would be responsible for them once they had been saved?

With the backdrop of a devastated city, it was all too obvious that whoever took them in would be stuck with them for a very long time-perhaps even forever. Evacuating Japanese-Americans from our Pacific Coast during WW II was quite different. We wanted them out of there, ostensibly for reasons of security, and none of us objected, because Uncle Sam would be feeding them behind barbed wire out in the desert for the duration, and meanwhile, some of us could take over their homes and businesses. No such incentives in New Orleans.

Was racism/bigotry an added factor on top of the economic tab? This observer was reminded of the time, a half century earlier, when a shipload of one thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany sailed up and down the coast of America, hoping in vain for us to take them in. No nation in the world would open its doors, so most of them ended up in the ovens. It was shame on us then and shame on us now.

A socially engineered community is what's being done here! They want to engineer what the community should look like. That is wrong! I don't care what anybody else says, that is wrong and that is not paranoia speaking. From the Governor on down they're talking about who should be allowed to come back. They gave certain people one way tickets out of this state, ok? Well some of this money may be able to be used to give them a ticket back into this state. This is their home. But let's be real, what people are booking on is that if these people aren't able to come home within a year, [then] they're going to get settled somewhere else. But what areas of New Orleans and Louisiana are we talking about? The French Quarter, Uptown, and the Garden District-we're talking about the casino areas-what does that sound like to you? Did you hear any names of any predominately African-American poor communities that they're talking about? Now I'm not going to say that they're never going to get to them-but it won't be tomorrow, trust me. (Mead 2005)


What will the "new" New Orleans look like? Who rebuilds and who does not? The answers to questions such as these will pique the attention of social commentators, politicians, community activists, and historians long into the future. Sibal Holt reflects the concerns shared by many displaced workers from the Gulf Coast:

Because New Orleans is perceived as a black city-clearly there are about 68-69 percent but the rest in that city are whites. If you would have watched the media during Hurricane Katrina you would have thought there were no white folks evacuating because all you saw was black? Therefore when it came time to get these people out there were those who said, you know they're just a bunch of poor people, you know? So race did play a very heavy factor. Didn't you wonder when you saw all these black folks going to the shelter where are all the white people [were]? ? And even now in terms of the return, the right to return to the place where you were born, where your children were raised, where your home was structured, rather than allow these people to come home and put them in trailers they've put all kinds of Hispanics from not only out of the state but out of the country-who cannot speak a word of English in a lot of instances. But they would rather have them in the city, cleaning up and making what little dollars there are to be made rather than bring these people who have a right to return, who are trying to earn a living and rebuild their homes, and their communities, and their schools. Yeah, race plays a very heavy part in this. (Mead 2005)

Although most of the media stories focus on the negative effects of the disaster, some interviewees have redoubled their inner strength, through faith, family, or the prospect of starting over in a new community:

God was good, God blessed us. He really did, He blessed us. And right now, I could see that he did this for a reason. You know, to change lives. 'Cause so much was going on, in New Orleans, so much. Killing, drugging, and you know, corruption in the cops. You know, children getting killed, bystanders. You know, just, just, just full. It's something you wouldn't imagine. You know? But from New Orleans to [Austin] is a big different world. It's a whole different world, the people here are beautiful, wonderful. They're so nice, everywhere you turn. You turn your back, everybody speaks to you. You know, they're concerned, like they care about you. It makes you feel so good, that you still got people, you know, around that cares about you. It doesn't matter the race, or nationality, or anything. Beautiful. (Alive in Truth 2005a)

Sibal Holt's concerns remind us of the importance of perspective: How we deal with one disaster will teach us lessons that will help us prepare for the future.

And all these issues have been brought up but we need to keep them in the face of America because people easily forget, we forget so easily, but what has been happening down here in New Orleans and Louisiana is nothing new-people chose not to see it before. Katrina has brought out some of the ugliest things in this state, and that's the embarrassment-that the outside world has seen it. Katrina has brought out how our government treats the poorest of its poor-and that's an embarrassment. Katrina has brought it out, you know. I hope that all of America, that their hearts are touched, their conscience is raised and we need to do right by all our citizens because it's Louisiana today but there could very well be an earthquake in California tomorrow, or it could be a tornado in Oklahoma, you know. It could be anything, mudslides or snowstorms, where they would feel the same type of tragedy, not necessarily a hurricane but the devastation of that tragedy. Would you want the people of your state to be treated the way they treated the people in New Orleans? (Mead 2005)

Using oral history will help prepare not only for future Katrinas, but future race and class divides. The past connects us to the present, and to the future; it is part of that human need for immortality of some sort. How investigators, lawmakers, and the public wade through the mountains of oral witness to evaluate what went wrong during and after Katrina will inform their decisions as they make plans for future responses.

How Americans weave this tragedy into their collective history and the lessons we take from the disaster will preoccupy the minds of pundits, historians, and both political and community leaders for generations. However, the impact of Hurricane Katrina is not limited to Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast. "Katrinaland" has become a national and international phenomenon that has struck both the nation and the world.


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1. Author John R. Tisdale wrote in The Oral History Review that "the journalist and the oral historian, however, are concerned with leaving information in a physical format to be studied later. Both are concerned with recording information, both are concerned with accuracy, and both rely on the interview as the primary source of information and credibility." John R. Tisdale, "Observational Reporting as Oral History: How Journalists Interpreted the Death and Destruction of Hurricane Audrey," The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2000 v27 i2 p41.

2. For more information please contact Gore Center Director Lisa Pruitt ( or Project Coordinator Sarah Elizabeth Hickman (

3. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, cable news networks experienced huge spikes in ratings. See "Eyes On the Storm," in Broadcasting & Cable 135, no 36 (September 5, 2005): 6

Alan H. Stein is Associate Director of the Consortium of Oral History Educators. Gene B. Preuss is Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Social Sciences, University of Houston-Downtown. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17 in 2008. This article appears in There Is No Such Thing As A Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina edited by Chester W. Hartman and Gregory D. Squires. It won the Best Article Award from the Oral History Association in 2010.