[StBernard] With $7.5M exhibit, Katrina tragedy finds place in history

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Oct 27 09:08:40 EDT 2010

With $7.5M exhibit, Katrina tragedy finds place in history
By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY

NEW ORLEANS - A small hatchet enclosed in a glass case, once used to free a
family from a flooding home. A wooden pirogue in which survivors paddled to
safety through neck-high floodwaters. A mud-caked teddy bear and clarinets,
ruined reminders of the water that emptied into New Orleans five years ago.

Memories of the disastrous effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005
line the dim-lighted halls of Living With Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond, an
exhibit that opened Tuesday at the Louisiana State Museum in the French

Five years in the making, the $7.5 million interactive exhibit depicts the
events leading up to Katrina, the storm's effect on the region and
computer-generation explanations on how it happened, says Sam Rykels, the
museum's director. The storm, which hit southern Louisiana in August 2005,
and the subsequent breaching of the federal levees flooded 80% of New
Orleans, left about 1,800 people dead across the Gulf Coast and caused more
than $180 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in
U.S. history.

"We realized this storm was something that would change the course of
history in Louisiana," he says.

Organizers wanted an exhibit that depicted the horrors of the floods and the
science behind issues such as global warming and coastal erosion, but told
through the voices of people involved in the disaster, Rykels says.

"We decided really early on that we wanted personality," he says. "We wanted
the people who lived in the midst of this, the coping that they did and the
way that they stepped forward."

One of them was Larry Thomas, a New Orleans resident, 26 at the time, who
helped deliver a baby in floodwaters while rescuing residents with a canoe.
Thomas' voice narrates his story while pictures flash showing the rescue and

Judith Buffone, a St. Bernard Parish resident, bought a small hatchet the
day before Katrina's landfall and later used it to hack through her attic to
get herself and her teenage daughter onto the roof, where they were rescued.
Her hatchet and recorded story are on display.

Stephen Ford repeatedly picked up stranded residents from their Lower 9th
Ward roofs using a wooden pirogue, which stands upright inside the exhibit.

In one section, a Coast Guard helicopter rescue basket used in the rescues
hangs overhead as the tear-strained voices of Coast Guard members recount
how they saved stranded babies from balconies and rooftops. In the same area
sits a section of seats pulled from the Louisiana Superdome, where thousands
of residents waited in squalid conditions to be evacuated. The site became a
symbol of the government's slow-footed response.

"It's important to have something like this," says Lorraine Gueringer, 55, a
local resident who toured the exhibit with her daughter and granddaughter.
Gueringer lost her home in East New Orleans to Katrina. "People need to see
exactly what transpired."

In the front foyer sits one of the exhibit's prized displays: musical legend
Fats Domino's flood-ruined baby grand Steinway piano, extracted from his
flooded Lower 9th Ward home.

In one section of the exhibit - titled "What Happened?" - computer-generated
graphics give an hour-by-hour recounting of the levee breaches, showing how
they toppled and how water from nearby Lake Pontchartrain rushed into the
city. Other displays show how the loss over time of wetlands, which serve as
natural buffers to hurricanes, contributed to the disaster.

"This really isn't limited to Hurricane Katrina," says Doug Meffert, a
Tulane University environmental sciences professor and the exhibit's science
adviser. "It's about living with disasters wherever you are."

Some residents initially opposed the exhibit, saying they didn't want to
relive Katrina, says Jane Irvin, curator of special projects. Many more
supported it.

Staffers collected more than 2,000 artifacts from residents, Rykels says.
Only about 100 made it into the initial exhibit. Once residents heard the
museum was putting together a permanent exhibit, more items rushed in, he

Still, the exhibit nearly never was. Organizers struggled to raise enough
money during the recession, Rykels says. Last year, a National Science
Foundation grant of more than $1 million helped push the effort to
completion. Since then, it has drawn national and international attention -
from Jerusalem to Jakarta, he says.

"Seventy percent of the population of the world lives in the floodplain of
the ocean," Rykels says. "This is a problem that affects us all."

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