Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.
Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.
Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.
Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.

Curtis Reliford still remembers the story of the man who watched his granddaughter drown.

He recounts the stories that he’s been told, an appropriate feat considering Reliford’s belief that the spirit of New Orleans can be passed down through the tales of its people. But the New Orleans that Reliford knew, the one so brimming with life and known for wearing “its heart and history on its sleeve,” doesn’t exist anymore. As he himself says, New Orleans sank four years ago.

And in those four years, the plight of New Orleans has stayed remarkably stagnant, leading many to wonder if anything’s changed at all — a question that Reliford and others answer with a resounding “no.” Because the most important thing to remember about the drowning of New Orleans is that it was much more than just a natural disaster; it was a cultural disaster, one that Louisiana natives are still feeling the effects of.

Reliford, born and raised in Louisiana, moved to Santa Cruz 24 years ago in hopes of getting clean and starting over. Instead, he found himself drawn back to his homestead with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I didn’t know what I was meant to do,” he explained, tugging on his denim overall straps with vigor, as if to remind himself that they’re still there. “Then the storm hit and changed everything. Everything.”

He began to contact his family, still located in Louisiana, asking about the state of affairs post-storm: “I talked to my sister, and she told me all the problems and how there was no help.”

So Reliford took matters into his own hands, recruiting 10 volunteers to take five trucks and five trailers all the way down to New Orleans. It was the first of 13 visits since 2005.

But in today’s trouble-ridden world, thoughts of “Hurricane Katrina” are akin to hearing the tales and priorities of yesteryear, especially in the midst of financial deterioration and the necessitation of health care reform. However, Reliford is quick to remind that the repercussions of Katrina are still very much present.

“[We] were all volunteers,” he said. “No officials. They think it’s over with. So I guess it’s up to the people here.”

According to The Women of the Storm, an organization formed by the surviving women of Katrina, nearly 80 percent of New Orleans became flooded — the equivalent of seven Manhattan Islands. Over 1,500 deaths were reported, with 60,000-plus citizens homeless, forced to live outside of their homes until temporary housing became available. That’s 87 percent of the African-American population — a number far greater than the 1930s Dust Bowl, which left thousands displaced at the hands of widespread droughts and dust storms.

To this day, tens of thousands of New Orleanians still reside outside of New Orleans. But in the last four years, what the post-Katrina reconstruction has managed to complete is something completely different.

“They just finished a Wal-Mart,” said third-year College Nine student Rachel Doblick. “So I guess that’s something.”

Doblick first visited New Orleans as part of UC Santa Cruz’s Alternative Spring Break program back in March of this past year. She found herself so moved by her visit that she returned during the summer for two and a half weeks, arriving just in time for the fourth anniversary of the storm.

“It’s still so real when you’re down there,” Doblick remembered. “Dealing with the houses, the individuals, just coming back now to try and build their homes. It’s just a very real experience.”

Natalie Colona, a former student at Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, took a year of absence in 2008 in order to go and volunteer in the Lower Nine, a particularly devastated area within New Orleans. Now, over a year later, Colona is contemplating staying for an additional few months, citing the amount of work that still needs to be done as both daunting and inspiring.

“Seeing how much is left to do really does make it difficult to feel good about your work,” Colona said. “You just feel like you’re making such little difference, but then you see a finished house, or a cleaned up area … you realize you’re making a difference. You realize someone has to.”

Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.
Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.

The ‘New’ New Orleans

The volunteers in New Orleans have been, more often than not, the only real purveyors of reconstruction that the storm site has seen in the last four years. While an initial evacuation was attempted, many citizens were left behind, waiting for buses, supplies and answers that never came.

“They sent two buses to help evacuate people,” Doblick said. “They’re supposed to have evacuation plans, resources for when they’re moved, but they hadn’t ever created a plan that would accommodate the mass numbers of people that needed help. They could never have predicated a category 5 hurricane.”

Jahnai Eldridge is a College Nine third-year and the former head of Praxis, a College Nine organization centered on social justice. She also attended the Alternate Spring Break trip this past year and helped put together a Katrina and New Orleans workshop at this year’s Practical Activism conference. Eldridge says that the efforts to restore Katrina have evolved remarkably over the years.

“When I first heard about Katrina [in high school], I remember wondering ‘Why aren’t people leaving?’” Eldridge said. “But now I know: they couldn’t. They didn’t have a way to. No one was helping them. No one.”

It was that unavailability of aid from the state government that roused Reliford’s passion to help his home state. Reliford remembers walking past citizens, disheveled, aimless and begging for basic supplies like water and sustenance. The area, as Reliford remembers it, smelled like urine and garbage. The location was unsanitary and the officials were unwilling to do anything about it.

Reliford spoke of meeting people who told him stories of rape, theft, murder and crime, all within hundreds of feet from where officials were supposed to be located.

But this wasn’t a post-Katrina New Orleans street; this was the Louisiana Superdome, the FEMA-sponsored ‘safe zone’ where Katrina survivors were temporarily, albeit unwillingly, ushered. As Reliford remembered it, the Superdome was more terrifying than the world that lay just outside the coliseum doors.

“You’re walking over dead people, building leaking, raining,” Reliford explained, recalling the scene. “All these beds just jammed together, half arm-length [from each other]. Each row was divided by people in various zip codes. It was sad. It was a majority of black people — looked like slave quarters. The handicapped people laying around, begging for help. The kids were just bouncing around, they didn’t know what was going on.”

And as for the government help that had arrived to secure a “safe” environment for the now-homeless New Orleanians?

“[The officials] were just walking around, sitting with their feet cocked up on the tables,” Reliford recalled. “They were just there, not doing their jobs.”

In June 2006, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock of the Army Corps of Engineers accepted responsibility on behalf of his army branch for the failure of the flood protection in New Orleans’ levies, calling it “a system in name only,” and stating that post-storm reports showed that “we missed something in the design.”

Eldridge cites more than just engineering oversight.

“It wasn’t just any levees,” Eldridge said. “It was these levees. Where the levees were going to go, which ones were higher, which levees were getting fixed as often, which weren’t — these policies were initiated and perpetuated because most neighborhoods that didn’t get the top-of-the-line levees were predominantly poor African-American neighborhoods.”

According to Strock, Corps leaders are still in the process of fixing the system that failed when the storm hit. However, rebuilding to include the protection that should have already been implemented before Katrina is a slow process.

“Rebuilding New Orleans levees will still take four more years and billions of dollars more just to protect the city from a 100-year storm,” Strock said.

Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.
Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.

Reflections in the Water

The neighborhoods that Eldrige, Reliford and Doblick all remember have hardly changed over the course of the last four years. To Doblick, the lack of progress was all the more evident during her second trip back.

“Nothing had changed over those few months,” she remembers. “Nothing. By the time I got back, a medical clinic had finally opened, as well as a dental clinic. But it was as if everything just stood still.”

Reliford, who has visited New Orleans 13 times, said that “every time, everything looked exactly the same.”

Everything, that is, except for the French Quarter — the notorious tourist attraction of New Orleans that found itself almost fully repaired and fully functional within a year of the storm, while the more financially-challenged areas have yet to dry.

“We went down to [the French Quarter], and you would have never known that a hurricane hit there,” Eldridge said. “But once you cross that bridge, you still see houses with black Xs on the doors; it’s been four fucking years.”

As of now, those who have seen the continued devastation firsthand say the best that can be done is to make certain that New Orleans is never forgotten, either in spirit or strife.

Lewis Watts, a professional photographer and UCSC assistant professor of art, is working alongside American studies associate professor Eric Porter on a book chronicling New Orleans’ overwhelming history. The book acknowledges Katrina’s important role in New Orleans’ story, but is careful to note that the storm by no means defines the city.

First sent to New Orleans on an assignment in the Nineties, Watts became enamored with the locale. Originally slated to complete residency at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the storm struck before Watts had a chance to begin.

“I was so interested in the evidence of culture, and was immediately taken by the unique architecture the city had to offer,” Watts said. “When I came back in 2005 [after the storm had hit], I saw that the damage and devastation was much worse that I had seen in any photograph.”

Watts began to photograph the damage firsthand and found himself unable to handle the intensity of the surroundings.

“I had to leave because of disaster fatigue, and I was interested in that,” Watts explained, commenting that he found his emotional reaction to the city staggering. “But I was more interested in how so many people [had] to evacuate and leave this immense culture behind.”

But even through it’s difficulties, and regardless of its current nature, New Orleans still manages to inspire.

“I took homeless people down there, and a year later they told me that they got clean and sober since the trip, went back to school, knew their priorities again,” Reliford said. “The trip changed them. New Orleans changed them.”

Watts hopes that in the future people can continue to view Katrina as just one part of New Orleans’ now infamous history, instead of defining its history as a whole.

“These images will [be] part of a larger continuum of history,” he said. “They reflect some issues, within a political and historical context.”

As for progress, Eldridge remains hopeful but realistic, understanding that the rebuilding of New Orleans may simply come down to the volunteers.

“Some of these people will never be able to come back,” Eldridge said. “They don’t have the means to come back. I want to say that the people of New Orleans will gain enough clout to attempt [to gain] more national attention, but sadly I think that it will be rebuilt solely by volunteers.”

Doblick agrees, already aware of her involvement, and her desire to further it.

“I will graduate college and still be going down to New Orleans,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind. There will still be things to fix, people to help, and I’ll keep going back. I will continue to tell these stories.”

Photo courtesy Lewis Watts
Photo courtesy Lewis Watts