Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hurricane exhibit packs category 5 punch

By Bruce Eggler
Staff writer, Times-Picayune

Hurricane Katrina barreled toward southeast Louisiana in late August 2005 with winds as high as 175 mph.

The Louisiana State Museum's new Katrina-focused exhibition about hurricanes, by contrast, has taken its time in arriving, finally opening more than five years after museum staff members began collecting Katrina artifacts and thinking about how they should be presented.

But those who visit the exhibition, whether or not they experienced Katrina firsthand, will find that it, too, can pack a powerful emotional punch.

On the way to the show's opening, the museum has gone through managerial turmoil, a legislative battle over its direction and control, budget cuts and staff reductions. Raising the $7.5 million needed to design and build the exhibits took years.

But after a gala opening party Saturday night, "Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond" opens to the general public Tuesday at the Presbytere on Jackson Square.

The show is billed by the museum as the largest hurricane exhibition in the world, and it covers a lot of ground: the nature of hurricanes, Hurricane Betsy and other storms that hit New Orleans in the past, levee engineering, coastal marshes, Hurricane Rita and, of course, the full story of Katrina's impact -- from evacuation to flooding to the city's gradual repopulation, rebuilding and recovery.

The first object that will meet visitors' eyes is one of the most striking: a ruined Steinway baby grand piano recovered from Fats Domino's flooded Lower 9th Ward home.

Stories to tell

Scores of other objects have their own stories to tell: a pirogue used to rescue stranded residents, a re-creation of a St. Bernard Parish home's attic and the actual ax its residents used to chop an escape route to the roof, a waterlogged teddy bear, sacred objects from a flooded synagogue, a flag that flew at Charity Hospital during the storm, seats from the Superdome where tens of thousands took refuge, one of Pete Fountain's clarinets from his home in coastal Mississippi, a Mid-City garage door covered with the spray-painted markings and messages so ubiquitous after the storm.

A pair of blue jeans shows the identification and medical information their owner wrote on them in case he was injured or killed as he sought help.

One of the most memorable items is the "Mabry wall," the daily diary that B.W. Cooper housing complex resident Tommie Elton Mabry wrote on the walls of his apartment with a black felt tip marker, starting the day before the storm hit and continuing for weeks afterward. The museum staff painstakingly peeled off the paint bearing his journal before the building was demolished.

Visual, oral records

Besides actual artifacts, exhibits incorporate some of the hundreds of oral histories the museum has assembled. Some of them play while a simulated helicopter hovers overhead, recalling the aerial rescues of stranded residents.

Videotapes of actual TV broadcasts recount Katrina's approach and arrival. Another 20-minute video provides a visual record of the mile after mile of devastation the storm left behind.

Exhibits discuss how levees were supposed to protect New Orleans and why they didn't. They look at the role the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet played, at climate change and wetlands loss, at lessons learned and new strategies for disaster management.

They take note of major changes since Katrina such as consolidation of levee boards, infrastructure improvements and new initiatives in politics and education. Carnival costumes made from the blue tarp roofs seen everywhere throughout the city post-Katrina recall the sense of humor that helped people get through the ordeal.

A concluding eight-minute video montage shows people remembering the bad days and looking hopefully to the future, cleaning the muck out of buildings and thanking the thousands of volunteers who arrived to help the Gulf Coast rebuild, and celebrating the survival and revival of the region's myriad of distinctive cultural phenomena.

Emphasis is on the future

Museum Director Sam Rykels said the exhibition presents a more optimistic picture than was originally envisioned in the immediate aftermath of the storm, when New Orleans' continued existence seemed in question and anger was raging toward what many saw as failed leadership as well as failed levee engineering.

"We've taken the personalities out," he said. "We're critical of the process, not of individuals."

There also is more emphasis on recovery and facing the future than on the storm itself, and a broadening of geographic scope, though the focus is still squarely on Katrina and its impact on the New Orleans area.
About 80 percent of the visitors to the state museum system's main local buildings, the Cabildo and Presbytere, come from outside Louisiana, and Rykels said he hopes they go away from the Katrina exhibition thinking that New Orleans and southeast Louisiana are important to the country and should be protected and rebuilt.

He hopes they also go away realizing that natural disasters can happen anywhere and everyone needs to find ways to live with and minimize risk.

Finally, Rykels said, he hopes visitors go away thinking, "This is a different museum," one interested not only in Louisiana history but also in the state's entire culture.

"We really see it as a game-changer for us," he said.
. . . . . . .
Major support for the exhibition was provided by the National Science Foundation, Louisiana Museum Foundation, W.R. Irby Trust, Booth-Bricker Fund, RosaMary Foundation, Entergy, Ella West Freeman Foundation, Selley Fund, Iberia Bank, Goldring Family Foundation, Woldenberg Foundation, Lupin Foundation and National Park Service.

Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3320.

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