Mike, meet Katrina
For us, Katrina is and will be a defining moment of our lives, a story we’ll be telling till the day we die. Being a part of the plot is both riveting and deeply unsettling. We don’t yet know the end of this story … It’s the story of our lives, and we must both live and chronicle it. – Jim Amoss, January 14, 2006.
In the early hours of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made first land contact with the coast of New Orleans after massing to a Category 5 storm over unusually warm Gulf waters. Levees had already broken by the time a wall of water 21 feet high crossed the Mississipi River and submerged the Plaquemines Parish. Thirty minutes later levees protecting East New Orleans were breached and the district disappeared under water. Next was the 17th Street Canal, followed by the Industrial Canal, inundating the heavily populated poverty stricken areas of the Bywater and Upper and Lower 9th Ward. Witnesses reported houses and cars being thrown into the air like toys.
One of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, Katrina left a death toll close to 1600 and estimates of over $80 billion in damages. International media was awash with horrifying images of a city torn apart, corpses floating in flooded streets and a scramble for survival in a lawless dystopia. Hurricane Rita followed Katrina three weeks later, crushing what little was left of the city.
Seven months after the storms Indiana native Mike Regan and his father John travelled to Louisiana and spent a week working on rebuilding walls and helping patch together houses. Mike was on spring break from his last year studying at Chicago’s Columbia College and the trip was a chance to help out and to spend some time on the road with his father. Mike and John arrived at a temporary campsite in City Park, New Orleans and shared a space in one of many huge tents each housing about thirty other people from all over the country also volunteering. The devastation was staggering, entire districts were flattened and everywhere there were heartbreaking signs of lives lost.
Usually upbeat and genial, Mike’s tone drops as he describes the scene around the canals. “We saw houses with Xs spray painted on the doors. The X meant the Coast Guard had been through the house. Surrounding the X they’d also mark the date, the number of bodies, any pets found and pertinent notes, so subsequent groups would know what to expect inside.”
Entering one house in the Lakeview area situated near where the levee broke, Mike described how “there were entire rooms full to the ceiling with dirt. The fridge was face down in the kitchen buried under mud, doors had been ripped away and random assortments of clothes and personal affects lay in tall heaps pushed against the walls by the rising water. The attic ladder was still hanging down. We’d seen how in other houses when the water rose up to the attic people had cut holes into the roof with axes and climbed out on top.” Neither Mike nor his father had been able to locate the front door of the house, or any X marked outside. Mike baulked at the dangling ladder, “I just didn’t want to know what could have been left up there.”
Further out towards the commercial wharf area sections of the landscape looked peculiarly uniformly flat. Someone had spray painted “Who was watching the barge?” repeatedly on the few remaining walls. A local told Mike and his father that in the melee the enormous commercial barge had not been secured, and it had broken through the concrete canal wall and been launched forward, crushing the surrounding shanty houses clustered along the edge of the wharf. In some areas barely anything was salvageable.
Graduating later that year with a Bachelor of Fine Art majoring in Film and not quite ready for graduate studies, Mike packed up the Chevy and set off for New Orleans again. Working his way around the country taking carpentry and home renovation work, Mike’s indirect route included stops in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Travelling was initially Mike’s way of coping with a crushing press of questions relating to life’s meaning, later it became a way of observing the essence of what drives us as a species.
“New Orleans was always my end point, but I knew there were a few things I wanted to work out first. I needed time to work out what made me the way I am, and what makes us the way we are.”
Doing carpentry work was a comfortable fit with his Midwestern sense of community and selflessness and Mike considered it a good way of getting by and helping people out at the same time. Turning up in New Orleans a second time in October 2006 wasn’t entirely altruistic though, the writer in Mike wanted to hear and collect the stories that reflected our human condition. It was a chance to see humanity at its most raw, to observe and engage in survival.
Exercising a penchant for philosophy honed on long, solitary road trips, Mike theorised individual cities to be like unique machines made up of various ratios of identifiable components, and this was an opportunity to observe a city that had to rebuild itself, that had to redefine and recreate its component parts. Forays into cities he’d stopped in along the way had afforded conditions to observe these machines at work. Now he could be a bit part in the wider drama of the resurrection of the unique and beautiful machine of New Orleans.
Though it had been months since his first visit New Orleans was still physically in very much the same state of chaos and disrepair. Despite this, the city was starting to show signs of its spirit and Mike was interested in how this highlighted the values of the people living there. “I came across a family living in a house with a tarpaulin for a roof, the walls completely rotted and teeming with cockroaches, but they had a pot of crawfish cooking, and were preparing for a jazz parade. They were more concerned about cuisine and music than anything else.”
Working on rebuilding houses was often emotionally challenging. Sent to work on one house in the swamp area of the Goose Bayou that had belonged to a newly married couple, Mike had the task of cleaning out not only the tonnes of mud and debris but also had to deal with abandoned photo albums and mementos. Simple, everyday items that spoke of domestic normality, like plates in the kitchen took on more profound meaning and carried an emotional weight.
“They’d come back after Katrina, taken one look at the house; their first house together, and just literally turned away and left everything inside. They’d wanted nothing more to do with it. It was heartbreaking standing inside the remains of someone else’s dream.”
Initially planning on a two month stint in New Orleans, his visit extended out to a year, with much of it spent in the remains of a guest house run by an El Salvadorean widow. Small and frail, Marie had miraculously survived the flooding by clinging to floating furniture on the second storey of the guest house. The ground floor had been completely destroyed, but the second floor was in a state that it could be rented out to anyone desperate enough to consider a room for $25 a week. In return for working on the house and being some kind of security guard, Mike shared a bedroom with another Chicagoan.
“Marie gave us sheets of black plastic to block out the gaping hole left where the window had been blown out. One room still had electricity connected and Marie was running a tangle of extension cords to four other bedrooms. I slept on a lawn chair for two months and my room mate had the mattress. We shared a bathroom with Marie and her ten small dogs. At times it was pretty scary.”
Mike worked on fixing up the house as best as he could as the surrounding community devolved into the insanity of prostitution and drugs. The flood waters had long since receded, but the remaining inhabitants of the city were swept over by a tide of addiction and desperation. The other guests in the house ranged in character and means, and at times Mike and his room mate had the unenviable task of keeping the peace. Mike and Marie made an odd pair as he escorted her down the street on weekends to visit her friends and play cards.
As part of his theory on the machine of the city Mike explored religion. His Catholic father and Protestant mother had ensured Church was a regular part of Mike’s childhood, but hadn’t pressed him to dedicate to it. He’d developed an interest in faith, and read widely. In New Orleans on a Sunday morning he’d put on his ‘whites’ and go to church. Mike visited services ranging from Baptist to Methodist, witnessing everything from faith healings and gospel singing to water baptism. He volunteered his time and skills in exchange for food.
“I was on a big service kick. I’d been reading a lot of different religious texts trying to understand this idea of having faith, and trying to understand some of the motivators. A lot of these texts had this idea of service to the community and I decided that’s what I needed to do, I needed to be of service somewhere. When I saw Marie’s guest house I was a bit taken aback at first, but I knew that if I really wanted to explore this idea then this was it.” He jokes good naturedly that ‘you should be careful what you wish for.’
In the one year that he’d spent there progress had been slow. Many of the city’s inhabitants had died, gone missing or simply chosen not to return. Volunteers came and went, money and donations leaked through cracks in the system and disappeared. Thousands of the dispossessed still lived in squalid conditions in tents, trailers and make shift squats. The controversy that had erupted over the handling of the declaration of the State of Emergency and the response of government aid agencies had resulted in resignations and investigations. None of that affected people on the ground level, people who had lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones.
Mike had spent a year putting up dry wall, excavating dirt, hanging doors and patching up gaping holes. Two months sleeping on a lawn chair and countless nights listening to the sounds of a city gone mad with grief and desperation. Emerging from the rubble there were signs of what had made New Orleans unique, its language, art, food and eclectic sense of identity. New Orleans post Katrina was unlike any other city Mike had encountered. A potent mix of spirituality, hedonism and survivor stories melded with the aftermath of catastrophe and made the city vibrant and violent.
What kept a Midwestern, well mannered philosophising carpenter living in a crack house in a bad part of a broken town? What led him to the Southern Baptist gospel singers and the families gathered around craw pots in houses without a roof? What kind of 22 year old spends a year roaming around looking for people to help?
Mike’s habit of rolling into new towns every so often keeps him from being too attached to one place or one idea, and when he talks of the other cities he’s visited it’s with a sense of transience and an idea that he should ‘tread lightly’. His description of New Orleans however is different, the focus is more acute and the stories are more personal. There’s a kind of love story mixed in with it all, a sense that perhaps he loved the city, both for what it was and for what it had become, and for what it made of him.