In the “wake” of Katrina Came Calling, I was approached to write the foreword to a new book of photographs. Called Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina, the book gives us a look at the multitude of hand-made signs which proliferated throughout the Gulf Coast following the storm. It’s a remarkable — and beautiful — collection, and it goes on sale today, Katrina’s one-year anniversary. [http://www.signsoflifebook.com — also, you can check out a Flickr.com slideshow of images here.]
All the proceeds from Signs of Life go to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, so I encourage you to make the investment. As Rob Walker (Titans of Finance, Letters from New Orleans) writes, “It’s impossible to speak for the people who lived through Katrina. Far better to let them speak for themselves. That’s exactly what these images (sad, hopeful, funny, enraging) capture—and it’s exactly what Signs of Life is about.”
My introduction follows.
Signs of Life Foreword
Like most people outside of the path of Hurricane Katrina, my understanding of the storm’s destruction was through images. Those images — of people trapped on New Orleans rooftops and abandoned outside the Superdome, of downed trees and boats chugging past flooded homes — motivated me to sign up with my local Red Cross chapter, and eventually to be deployed as a volunteer to Biloxi, Mississippi.
The coast road in Biloxi, Route 90, appeared to have been bombed flat: buildings, trees, everything washed away. But just six weeks after the hurricane, most of the area — with its collapsed buildings, gray trees, and brown grass baking in the sun — had the feel of ancient history, as if the disaster had happened long ago. The water had receded and the skies were clear, and I had trouble envisioning the immensity of the storm, the way the rain kept pouring down, the wind never stopped, and the water just kept rising.
I spent my three-week deployment on an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV), bringing hot meals to Biloxi’s inland residents. (I spent my one “day off” visiting the formerly flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans.) Traveling around what was left of Biloxi, I began to notice the hand-made signs, painted on wood or cardboard, posted at intersections, on rusted-out cars, and on the sides of abandoned buildings. Or the occasional chalked sign on a flight of steps leading up to a concrete slab, giving the address and occupants of a house that no longer existed. These messages, this new kind of graffiti, were a constant reminder of the scope of the disaster. In many ways the reverse of the missing posters I remember so well after 9/11, they are records of survival, not of the dead. Driving through the area where the 30-foot storm surge swept through, or the ghost towns of New Orleans’ Sixth & Ninth Wards, the signs bore witness to the storm, speaking of the chaos and destruction, and carrying on a conversation until the residents returned. Long after I came home to my Brooklyn apartment, I remembered those signs, and through them the profound impact of the hurricane on so many lives.
Signs of Life is a remarkable collection of images. Brought together primarily through the online community of bloggers, pbase, and Flickr.com, and compiled by editors Lori Baker and Eric Harvey Brown, the collection displays photos of the most striking Gulf Coast signs that appeared following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Taken by over thirty photographers — local residents, relief volunteers, and those passing through — the messages in Signs of Life are sacred and profane, defiant and defeated, heartbreaking and humorous, frightening and encouraging. They remind us that everyone has a story to tell.
The declarative signs strike me first. Like this reassurance, painted on a brick wall: “Mom is okay.” And “Katrina was here,“ on the side of a New Orleans building. That just about sums it up. As does this memorial, written on the sidewalk in front of a rubble-covered Mississippi slab: “1911 Deslonde St. Keasley’s.” The signs are sardonic — “Our house,” on the side of a mini trailer; they are defeated — “U win. We are leaving,” on a garage door. Sometimes they are simply a cry into the void, like the wooden sign tacked onto a tangled pile of knocked-down trees: “Alive.” The signs are often angry — at FEMA, at absent clergy, at the insurance companies, and of course, at the hurricane: “Katrina, you bitch.” They are also defiant, as in the Biloxi storefront boasting, “I’m still here. We will rebuild Gulf Coast.” The most heartbreaking are the pleas for assistance, like the New Orleans window sign begging for food: “Drop food. 20 of us.” Or, “Help, 8 souls,” painted on a steeply sloping roof.
Animals made up many victims of the storm, and a number of signs speak of the pets left behind. They range from the chilling “Dead dog inside” to a rundown of the domestic menagerie: dogs, cats, snakes fish, birds, and chickens. One New Orleans garage door, in faded, crossed-out words, tells the heartbreaking story of a collection of pets still inside. As time passes, fewer animals survive.
In my time down South, I was struck that, despite losing everything, survivors often were able to make light of their misfortune. That resiliency — and sense of humor — is evidenced in such signs as this one on a wrecked New Orleans Lakeview home: “For sale — needs ‘some’ work. Slight water damage.” And don’t forget the NOLA rug store with this warning to would-be trespassers: “Don’t try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns, and a claw hammer.” Such signs remind us that we are more than the sum of our possessions, and that part of what makes us human is our stubborn refusal to give up.
Signs of Life is not an art book. Yes, many of the images are poignant, even beautiful. But these are documentary photos, a recording of history, giving voice to those who left, those who stayed, and those who were left behind. Since it was largely images that awoke us to the reality of the storm, it is fitting that this book of images commemorates Katrina’s one-year anniversary.
As many of the more recent photos in this book show, the residents of the Gulf Coast are still digging their way out of the mess left behind by the storm. New “signs of life” are still appearing. As we enter a new hurricane season, therefore, it’s comforting to know that all proceeds from the sales of Signs of Life will be donated to two organizations providing ongoing and active volunteer work in the Gulf Coast: Common Ground Collective and Hands On USA. So spread the word about the book — and keep your eyes peeled for Signs of Life.