The Lost Katrina Photos

In June of 2005 I made my appointments for September to call on the bookstores of New Orleans. Little did I know then that in less than two months a devastating hurricane named Katrina would visit there first. After it happened I debated canceling, since my visit would only be a few weeks after she hit and no flights were going in or out at that time. Since I would be driving in from Jackson, MS and then flying home from New Orleans, I decided to chance it and hope that the airport would be open by the day of my flight home.

A few hours after I got home from that trip I wrote a report to my colleagues about what I had seen and experienced. I remember sitting down at my computer and the words and memories just flowed out of me. 

  A week later, my computer crashed and I thought everything was lost. I kept the hard drive just in case one day I might be able to have a professional see if the report could be salvaged. Last month a genius of a tech guy here in Asheville was able to work some magic and was able to dig out the words and pictures.  

  The report is not particularly well written, but it certainly tells of my feelings at the time. I took a number of photos that somewhat showed what I was describing, but as we all know, photos can't fully show the reality of a scene. Most were taken in the devastated residential areas just north of downtown. 

I know there were many photos taken by professionals, most much sooner after the event. These photos were taken by a publisher's rep who happens to be an amateur photographer who also just happened to be calling on his bookstore accounts a few weeks after a calamity hit. Here is that report and the photos.

    "As I passed over the Mississippi border into Louisiana I started to notice the number of trees on the ground. Not a lot at first but the further south you drive the more you see. Then, just on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, in author Olympia Vernon's town of Hammond, you see the first of the blue roofs. The ones covered in the  "tarpaulin blue"
poke their heads out from behind the tree cover (by the time I flew out a day later, I will have seen thousands more). I then started driving over the 20 mile bridge that leads into New Orleans. Land, as far as I can see, that used to be covered with trees, is just flat. No major damage to the bridges that I could tell though. If you've never been to New Orleans you should know that as soon as the bridge over the wetlands ends, you instantly hit the metro area, no slow build up of houses, its just water then, bang, airport and city. I was surprised to see so many cars on the freeways the closer I got to downtown, but I found out later that a surprising number of people that work in the city now lived in Baton Rouge, so they now had to commute. It was very late when I finally arrived so I drove straight to the hotel. As you get off the freeway there are signs everywhere that either say "we're open" for some business or "help wanted" for others. The signs are really everywhere, on every corner and every median. I also saw a large number of military Humvees driving around, with fully equipped soldiers, on patrol. That was rather eerie. Other than seeing a good deal of trash piled up, downtown isn't that different. 

  That evening I took Patty Friedmann, Shoemaker & Hoard's
author of Side Effects, out to dinner. Patty's the one who we saw getting rescued from her house in the AP picture seen everywhere on TV. She's an amazing woman, that's for sure. I think Patty could go through three Katrina's and still come back fighting."

Robs home.

     "Next morning I set out to see my accounts, starting with the regional wholesaler, Forest Sales. Rob, the owner, and I met at his home, since his warehouse was completely flooded. He lives in the Garden District, which was spared the high water, so his house looked fine. When he opened the door and saw me I could tell right away how happy he was to see me. Not me in particular I feel, just "someone
from before it happened". We sat down at his dining room table and he started telling me what happened to him personally. It was like he was getting a lot off his chest. I came to find later that (I'm proud to say) I was the first rep from any publishing company to visit the New Orleans accounts since Katrina. It really meant something to everyone I visited that day. He told me that he and his wife stayed through the initial storm, thinking that it wouldn't be so very bad. But then when the power stayed off and all they heard on their battery-powered radio was news of the rising flood waters and people calling in for help because there was no police or emergency services at all, they got pretty scared. There just wasn't anyone in the city there to help. No
police, no emergency personnel, no one. A day later the looting started near their house on Magazine Street. They decided to get out as soon as possible, but their car wouldn't start. He had to take a battery from his next door neighbor's truck so his engine would turn over. At that time there was only one way out of the city, the Mississippi bridge, because all the freeways were under water, but it was swarming with people from the sports arena. Even following a police convoy that had shown up, he had people trying to get into his car as he drove up onto the bridge. The bridge was covered with luggage from people who had left earlier on foot. He described it as a "Mad Max" scenario. Very scary.
    Now he's trying to get back into business but a lot of his business is tourist based and right now there are very few tourists coming to town."

    "Two other accounts, Octavia Books and 
Garden District Bookshop, by contrast, have rebounded well. They get a good deal of their customer base from the better off and not flooded Garden District. They are the lucky ones though and definitely feel in the minority. They talk about how they are living "in the bubble".
    I met a Soft Skull editor, Ami Emergency and author Michelle Embree for lunch, where I heard more astonishing stories. Richard Nash is lucky to have these two in his fold. They are smart, spunky and very talented indeed."

  "During the afternoon I visited Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. Joe DeSalvo, the owner, is only now putting his store back in order. I found him on his hands and knees cleaning the floor boards. The French Quarter is strangely empty now with only a few tourists picking through the limited stores that have re-opened."

  "It was after I had seen everyone that I finally went to view the rest of the city, the part that "didn't make it". 

  "The abandoned cars were shocking, they were everywhere. Many halfway into the street, all covered in a dried gray-white film. I found them upside down in the streets near where the levee broke." 

   "No one was around, all was deserted. Very silent. Very surreal. Very moving. I kept on thinking that just a couple of months ago, children were playing in these same streets. I could see the line the flood waters left on the buildings. It was above my head in most places."

   "Never in my life have I seen such devastation. I drove
through poor, middle class and rich neighborhoods. It's literally like a huge bomb went off and then a thick dust storm came through and covered everything."

  "One street was blocked by a house that had been
pushed right off its foundation. Bushes are brown up to 4-5 feet then bright green to the top. The huge Live Oak trees had a lot of limbs missing but otherwise have survived. The Magnolias fared the worst. They're all dead, no matter how big, all dead."

 "I drove mile after mile, saw boats on their sides and trash everywhere, pure unadulterated devastation."

 "It was like walking in a ghost city a lot of the time."

 "I felt a sense of guilt as I took pictures, like I was making light or taking advantage of these poor people's catastrophe."

 "Most homes have some sort of spray painted message on the doors, a big X with dates and numbers, some sort of FEMA code."

  "In the other half of the city though, life is getting back to
normal. The parts that weren't flooded, restaurants are very busy, if they can find employees that is."

 "I asked the Hertz bus driver as I was leaving the following morning, how business was and he said that it was down about 20%. "We're waiting for the conventioneers and business people to come back." When I told him why I was there and the business I was in, he thanked me and then added with some emotion that he had lost all his hardback books in flood waters, about $10,000. worth. This was from a bus driver."

  "I know New Orleans will come back some day. The tourist New Orleans, that won't take long, but the everyday working person's New Orleans, that's a different story altogether. Being there and seeing what happened up close really makes it all too real."

Well, that's it. Reading this again and seeing those photos brought it all back. It was definitely one of the most amazing days of being a publisher's rep and indeed, of my life.



Jim said…
I'm glad you were able to get your text and photos back from your hard drive, Jon. Your photos and copy brought back memories I had of the first major convention held in NOLA post Katrina, the ALA. I was on the library side of the book business at that time.

Tuesday after the convention ended one of our librarian customers took us to her house. The waterline in her living room was 2 feet above my head. Like you, I found the devastation very difficult to take. And this was a year after your visit.

Also like you, I've been back to New Orleans for business many times since. The city has rebounded in an amazing way. Some of the people who live there love that city more than anybody else loves any other city. Many were in their 20s and 30s. They came from up north or they came back to New Orleans and they put their hearts and souls into rebuilding that city.

Was last there in September. I loved running along the riverfront down past the warehouses and all the way to the Armed Forces entry station. Apparently there weren't many runners along that route because some of the workers would turn, stare and then wave!

Thanks again for your post Jon.

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