WHO WE ARE
Pat Jasper, Director of Folklife + Traditional Arts
As I have written before, Hurricane Katrina is the reason I now live in Houston. However, I did not flee from the path of the hurricane itself, I came instead to work alongside Katrina survivors and my colleague, Carl Lindahl at the University of Houston, to orchestrate the first large-scale project, anywhere, in which the survivors of a major disaster have taken the lead in documenting it.
The project was called Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, and its goal was to voice, as intimately as possible, the first person experiences and reflections of those displaced to Houston by the two major hurricanes that pounded the Gulf Coast in August and September of 2005. Hurricane survivors were recruited, trained and compensated for collecting the stories of their fellow survivors.
In the course of several years, the project collected over 400 narratives and many of them now reside in the collections of the Library of Congress. Overtime, several auxiliary projects grew out of the effort. One was an exhibition on view at Art League Houston, entitled Who We Are, which combined portraits of survivors with audio excerpts from their interviews.
Participants talked about a wide range of things – from memories of the life they left to their direct experience of the storm. The stunning, photographic portraits were created by Dallas McNamara, herself a resident of New Orleans at the time of Katrina. The exhibit was curated by McNamara, Lindahl and myself.
With the special program STORM SONGS & STORIES coming on May 4, and all this frightful weather we have experienced in the last few weeks, it seems fitting to revisit a small piece of Who We Are – a few photos and a sentence or two edited from the audio excerpts that originally accompanied them. At its core, Who We Are was an attempt to counter, not to replace or erase, all of the negative imagery which seemed to adhere to the dramatic damage that the storms wrought and that the survivors suffered. Those things were and are real, but so is bravery, resourcefulness, resilience and strength.
Those were the qualities of the people I worked with through the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project. I know from that experience that those are the qualities of so many who have endured the ravages of Ike and our last few years of severe flooding events. It is all too easy to forget human dignity and worth in the face of devastation and waste. Houston, let’s not.
Take a look below at some of the photos from Who We Are and join us, May 4 for STORM SONGS & STORIES, at Rudyard's upstairs.
"I was born and raised in church and so when I came to Houston I knew that I wanted to find a church to go to. You know a lot of people ask “What was the healing process after Katrina?” and I always say it was my spirituality. It was just God." -Dione Morgan
"Some people asked why I stayed behind in the path of such a perilous storm. I stayed because it was my responsibility. I let my family go and I volunteered to stay and help the patients. The captain of a sinking ship must ensure that all the passengers are safe and off the vessel before he himself can leave. That was the belief of all who stayed, because we understood our duty. Since the hurricane, those who stayed formed a bond and have remained in contact with each other." -Dr. Bong Mui
"We were planning on staying. We figured we sat through a few of these before. You lose your power for a little while and it’s no big deal. And it’s kind of fun actually. But as time grew closer we had been alarmed and alerted by a man who was actually a pilot for us and said. “Our airplane can’t stay.” So we figured if the plane can’t stay maybe we shouldn’t stay." -Colleen Kotts
"I was born and raised in New Orleans. I was a lover of music at a young age and that was what I committed my life to. All I remember is living in the Treme area and that community had the second line because that was where a lot of the music came from – from the Treme area. Dirty Dozen evolved from there -- Rebirth, the Soul Rebels, we all evolved out of the Treme community." -Lumar LeBlanc
"I have a lot of memories. It was really hard just watching, on the news, seeing like five blocks away from our house being totally under water, knowing that we didn’t have a home in New Orleans was really big for me because I lived in New Orleans all of my life. We had lost everything. But it just opens up things like I’m not as materialistic as I was when I was little. I’m a lot stronger person. Even though I wish it wouldn’t have happened, it was really good for us. Kind of." -Felicia Lipp