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Introducing the Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project

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"You see, I'm alright. There's new opportunities. You can become the person you're supposed to be." --Jermaine, 30, from the Ninth Ward, interviewed on September 9, 2005

My name is Stacy Parker Aab and I'm a writer here in Houston. For the past year I have interviewed Americans about their Katrina experiences. We talk about the hurricane and the aftermath. We talk about what it's been like to survive, and for some, to thrive. We talk about crimes. We talk about epiphanies. We talk about their lives before. We talk about their dreams ahead.

Katrina is not over. Far from it. Therefore, I will keep chronicling the lives of those who survived. I will also talk to people whose role, or calling, is to work with survivors.

Using the Studs Terkel approach, I've shaped those interviews into oral history essays. I've posted several essays on the project website: www.thekatrinaexperience.net.

As I interview, and create the essays, I will share excerpts here on The Huffington Post.

* * *

THE EVACUEE

Jermaine, 30, is from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. This interview was conducted September 9, 2005, in the park across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston, Texas. When I met Jermaine, he was leaning against the base of a statue talking with other young men. He spoke with gold dental "fronts" top and bottom. He appeared to be stoned. At first, he was reluctant to be interviewed, but then he relented. He would not allow me to record or photograph him.

Mysterious Ways

I'm straight. For most people this is a new beginning. A lot of people want to go home but they ain't no more.

You see, I'm alright. There's new opportunities. You can become the person you're supposed to be.

I've been here four days. They treat you with love. They're giving you so much love.

[He walks away. He returns, suddenly angry]

In the water all the way to the roof! I saw people with axes. Saw dead people floating tied to the posts. It should be more! Should mean more! When I close my eyes I still see the people tied to the posts. Red Xs on their houses. That shit real. Kids gotta see that. They sure fucked over the black people. They could have sent buses. They could have done something.

[He walks away again. He returns, suddenly calm]

God works in mysterious ways. For those that have good hearts.

* * *

THE PHYSICIAN

Dr. Ben deBoisblanc, 50, was the Director of Critical Care Services at Charity Hospital, in New Orleans. This interview was done in two sessions, both times in Baton Rouge. Interviews were either before or after his shift at the Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where he works post-Katrina.

This excerpt is from Thursday, September 1st, 2005 of the oral history essay. After waiting for the long-promised FEMA rescue, they've realized that they must take rescue into their own hands:

We gathered up all of the fire department boats and National Guard trucks we could find. We loaded patients into the back. We brought them over to Tulane's parking garage. We set up a mini-intensive care unit on the roof-top, or just below the rooftop, just below where the helicopters were landing. We had 30 some-odd patients up there, all the one's that had respiratory failure, being bagged by hand, by nurses, therapists, and residents.

Watching all of these doctors deliver care without technology was a wonderful, wonderful thing. I struggled to understand at the time: why was it so moving? I think there were several reasons. Everywhere you looked there were outward signs of compassion: of touching, of holding, of petting. Emotions that I would have thought would have been reserved for a kinder, gentler time. I would have thought that, in the midst of all this chaos, people would just be running around doing things, and wouldn't have time to stop, to talk to a patient, to stop and pet a patient. But just the opposite occurred. Everywhere you looked, there were nurses and doctors petting patients. Men don't do a lot of hugging, but there were men hugging each other, patting each other on the back, and I said, gee, why is this?

Then it was so obvious to me, it was almost like one of those duh moments. For a nurse or a doctor to express compassion to a patient, to touch a patient, it's therapeutic not just for the patient, but for the caregiver. I think we were all scared. Not scared that we were going to die, but scared because we were trusted to take care of these patients, and honestly, we didn't know how it was going to turn out. Because we were scared, we needed that touch, and we got it by giving it.

I didn't realize how much technology shrouds the patient. We cover them in this veneer of technology and insulate them from ourselves. They become diagnoses, the guy with Good Pasture's, the woman with the stroke, the man with the appendicitis. When we lost that technology, it was almost like a little blossom erupted into this beautiful flower of a human being. We discovered the humanism in medicine again. And that very act seemed to make us more human. Made us vulnerable. Put us on the same level as our patients. No better, no worse, just different. Different responsibilities. But all equal.

It was interesting to watch the most senior physicians, our Chief of Neurosurgery, a Boyd professor, the highest academic rank you can achieve in the LSU system, sitting on the concrete, squeezing a bag on a patient, petting her on the forehead, not asking for anyone to help him, to relieve him, doing what he was moved to do. That day, that Thursday on the rooftop, was singularly the absolute pinnacle of my experience during Katrina. It was just a beautiful thing to watch.

To read the whole essay, please go to www.thekatrinaexperience.net.

* * *

A Few Thoughts As To Why I'm Doing This

Like many, I spent those first Katrina days horrified by our government's response. I felt distinctly unqualified to help anyone. I didn't have a boat. I didn't have medical skills. I didn't have a spare room in my apartment. And Lord knows I didn't have any money. And if I did, I wasn't convinced the agencies would give it to those who needed it.

I felt consumed with helplessness. A passivity that seemed to have a direct correlation to how much Katrina coverage I watched. I felt like I had wet sand in my veins, keeping me useless on my living room floor.

I quickly grew frustrated with the coverage itself. Why weren't the cameras leaving the French Quarter and the Central Business District? What about the rest of the city? Not until I heard Jeanne Meserve's report the night of the 29th, when she ventured in a boat and told of the screams of those trapped in their attics, did those premonitions take shape into reality: New Orleans had not dodged the bullet.

I worried about the Superdome as well. Why weren't there live reports from inside? Only on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams did I see any pictures from inside, and it was clear that they were captured secretly--or at least without official permission. As someone who has some experience with creating events, I grew suspicious. What exactly were officials trying to hide?

I haven't even talked about the rest of the Gulf Coast. How unfair it was that New Orleans received almost all of the attention...

The next days made me sadder. I felt coverage concentrated on black looters and the oil industry and what "Katrina will mean at the gas pump."

I worried. I know I wasn't the only one slow as molasses those first days. Where was the help? What dynamics were at work? The more they showed people screaming outside the Superdome, the more we heard of the city's Leviathan-like descent, the more I worried that fear and loathing slowed the response. I wasn't sure if I was right about this. But I wondered about it. A lot.

And the TV pictures showed looters. Guns. Lawlessness. The pictures showed angry black people. People who had every right ever known to man to be angry. But they were angry. Read: scary.

The earth seemed to have ruptured, allowing hellfire itself to lap at that city.

Where--was--the--response?

I was born in Detroit. I grew up north of 8 Mile. If something went down in "deepest" Detroit, I wondered how many suburbanites would be brave enough to go to the ghetto to help. How many would be too scared, or indifferent. And I'm talking about myself and my own family. I think about this often. What kind of person gets in a boat and rescues people? And what keeps a person just stuck in their place?

I worried about the way we learn about people. News coverage is about pictures. It's a visceral, emotive experience. At the worst times, it bludgeons. It's too much. Out of self-protection, we change the channel.

If I have one goal for this project, it is this: to present the lives and experiences of people who survived this catastrophe, in a way that isn't alarmist or sensational or about grabbing you by the neck.

I've completed 91 interviews so far. I feel it's important to tell as many different kinds of stories as possible. As with anything that has to do with human beings, this is a complicated story, with no clear-cut answers, and few clear-cut villains. As best I can, I want to show full human beings, with their own motivations and desires, doing what they thought best at the time--no matter how right or wrong their attitudes and choices seem now, in hindsight.

I plan to go to every state where evacuees have made new lives. I want to talk to different kinds of people, from different kinds of backgrounds, with different POVs. When all is said and done, I wish to present for readers a truly representative mosaic of experience.

Thank you for reading.

For more, please go to: www.thekatrinaexperience.net.