To mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this week Curbed is looking at how the housing, architecture, and neighborhoods of New Orleans have changed since the storm. Here, writer Christopher Romaguera and photographer Michael Winters on the FEMA markings left on New Orleans houses.
"I see you still got it up?"
I was talking to my neighbor, local writer and woman-about-town Pamela Davis-Noland, when someone leaving her house asked her this question. She had a retort ready: "Baby, you know that's never coming down." She was talking about the FEMA markings placed on New Orleans houses weeks, and sometimes months, after the levees broke.
The FEMA markings form an X shape, with four blocks to be written in. The top block shows the date that the house was checked. The left block is signed by the task force that inspected the house. In the right quadrant are special instructions, anything from "Gas Off" to "F/W" (food and water left) to any pets or other issues the houses might have had. The bottom block records how many people were found in the house. Often, the solitary number counts those who have died. But sometimes, the block contains two numbers, one with an A ("alive"), another with a D ("dead").
A bungalow bears an X and high water mark across the doorway in Lakeview near the Lake Pontchartrain levee.
The markings were drawn by task forces deployed to New Orleans in the aftermath of the levee breach. Despite being spray-painted on the exteriors of houses, and despite the resurgence parts of New Orleans have seen since, the Xs are still visible around town. From the Lower Ninth Ward to Lakeview, St. Roch, and Gentilly, there are markings everywhere. They stick out to people born and raised here, the people who were here for the storm, who have seen the city grow around the damage like a vine up an old tree. They mean something to people like me, too, who arrived years later, who didn't know what they meant until someone explained them. So I decided to talk to people about the markings.
FEMA markings by Texas Task Force 1 dated September 6 denote no issues during search and rescue of this Bywater house.
Noland lives at the Bywater Bed & Breakfast on Clouet Street, a business she manages. Her FEMA marking is right above the doorbell. She "gets lots of questions [from out-of-town guests]. People want to know what it means."
"I think spiritually and historically it should never be removed." To her, "this house was protected, we got proof that no one died here. We got proof that this house was blessed, that it's still standing…[it's a] reminder of how blessed we are, this city is. Even if people want to say it's cursed." She laughed.
New Orleans writer Pamela Davis-Noland rests her hand on the lower quadrant of an X, denoting no one died in the house, at the Bywater Bed & Breakfast she manages.
Noland didn't just leave her markings up; she had them redone when the house was recently painted. As she puts it, "Always being so close and personal to the history here, even tragedies, you'd think that we'd want that erased and covered, but it's just the opposite."
New Orleans blues musician Andy J. Forest stands beside the FEMA markings on his Bywater home.
Andy J. Forest is a blues musician who plays the harmonica, guitar, and washboard. Forest is a tall, lanky man, and throughout our entire conversation, which happens indoors, he wears his sunglasses. He was living in the same Bywater home (which he owns) during the storm. The X was spray-painted on the plastic exterior window frame, making it hard to remove without discarding and replacing. Forest says he kept the X on because he "just didn't get around to taking it off." He doesn't really think about the piece much—only when people from out of town bring it up.
FEMA markings on Spencer's Place Apartments in Lakeview dated September 5.
FEMA markings by Texas Task Force 1 dated September 6 denote no entry attempt was made during search and rescue of this Bywater house.
Forest tells me a story about being in the house with his youngest daughter during the storm and putting batteries from her toys into a radio to get reports. At one point, a man with a thick Southern accent said, "I'm from the Army Corps of Engineers. I just called to tell you, there's a breach in the levee." Forest tells me he got chills just from hearing himself tell it to me. Forest wrote a song, "Breach in the Levee", that he's played at least once a week since I met him. But telling the story, with no instruments or routine attached to it, seemed to affect him.
New Orleans Locals on a Decade of Post-Storm Change, Part 1
New Orleans Locals on a Decade of Post-Storm Change, Part 2
Uncovering a New Orleans Shotgun House's 'Good Bones'
Revamping and Living in a 'Love Project' of a House in New Orleans
Turning a 'Falling Apart' NOLA Colonial Into an Artist's Home Base
Using the Lessons of Katrina to Rebuild Smarter After Disaster
Later that day, at a dive bar in the neighborhood, a bartender walks outside and sees us taking a photo of a marking. He asks us if we were here for "the troubles." He says "the troubles" the way someone might mention "the accident" or "that night," evasive, with a nervous twitch.
An X features prominently in a Bywater mural collaboration between NOLA Preservation Society member Ivan Petrovsky and NoLA Rising founder Rex Dingler entitled "Rise & Preserve."
Chuck Perkins is a spoken word poet, hosts a radio show, and owns and runs Café Istanbul with his partner, Suleyman Aydin. Perkins is a native of New Orleans raised in the Pigeon Town neighborhood. He got rid of his markings without really having to think about it; they were painted on the wooden boards he used to shutter his house, allowing him to dump the boards and get rid of the marker.
When Perkins sees the markers, he is reminded of the rebuilding process after Katrina. "You don't have some kind of magic machine where you wave a wand over the city and have it done in a neat sterile way. They found dead pets, they found dead people, they found stranded people, they found people who needed help."
FEMA markings by Florida Task Force 2 dated September 20 indicate the time of entry at this Lower Ninth Ward house.
He thinks at first everyone wanted those markings off the houses. And he doesn't blame them. "Imagine if the sort of pain and trauma that we felt the day after Katrina, when we saw those, imagine if now, you couldn't walk by one without thinking of that same thing," Perkins said, "For some people, that would be too much."
An X made by a Missouri task force is partially obscured on the broken window of a vacant Lakeview house.
Jose Torres-Tama is an Ecuadorian artist/activist who has lived in New Orleans for over three decades. Tama lives in the St. Roch neighborhood, but during the storm he was living on Dauphine Street.
Even though the marker pains him, to forget would be worse, he says. "It's another reminder of that storm trauma. Maybe we need reminders because it's so easy to forget. Look at how easy we forget: there is another Bush being considered for president and the last Bush abandoned New Orleans during its most desperate hour."
FEMA markings by a Florida task force dated September 24 denote no hazards or issues during search and rescue of this Lakeview house.
He continues "The X is such a strong symbol, you know? I didn't know how to read them. I think psychologically they just remind us of a very difficult time, just like the water lines remind us of a very difficult and traumatic experience."
An iron replica of the X by a New Orleans artist, placed over the original FEMA marking, adorns the side of a vacant building on Chartres Street.
Tama says the Latin American artist has a responsibility to talk about "La luchar de la gente" ("the struggle of the people"). His voice cracks and his eyes water as he talks about the experience of the storm. "In many ways, those symbols on property are scars of that psychic displacement. And how valuable property became, more valuable than the people who were abandoned, and screaming for help on rooftops, and because they were of color, and predominantly African-American, it was easy to abandon…abandon them, in addition to spin them, as not worthy of rescue. We were called refugees. In our own country. A refugee is someone that basically leaves a war zone."
FEMA markings by Texas Task Force 1 dated September 6 denote no entry attempt was made during search and rescue of this Bywater house.
If New Orleans is a bowl, there is a fork sticking out of it, and one of the fork's teeth is Gentilly Ridge, says David Johnson, who has been the executive editor of Louisiana Cultural Vistas, a magazine that focuses on Louisiana's arts, literature, history, and culture, since 1992. Johnson was living in Gentilly Ridge when the levees broke.
At first, the Xs jolted Johnson. But he doesn't "look at those now with any PTSD. As some people do. The few that remain are very far and few in between."
FEMA markings by Texas Task Force 1 are partially obscured by the shutters of this Bywater house.
Johnson says he has "a certain respect and admiration for people seeing something artistic in something that is initially so tragic." On the other hand, "The ones that are in homes that have not been rehabilitated or repaired, it is a sad statement on displacement. Or folks who after ten years have still not found the means to return to the city… We know there are families that never got full compensation from their insurance claims or Road Home. They're obviously symbolic of that."
Johnson did say he thinks he'll see the Xs in New Orleans five years from now. "There will still be abandoned property in New Orleans, there will still be artistic minds that would like to keep them…Of course paint is going to fade, over time.… they will start to vanish from our landscape."
FEMA markings by Florida Task Force 2 denote no issues during search and rescue of this Lower Ninth Ward house near the Industrial Canal levee.
A common theme in my interviews was Haitian voodoo. The markings are eerily reminiscent of the Haitian voodoo symbol, the veve. The symbol looks like an X, with designs and a line running through it. The veve is used as a beacon to the Loa, the spirits of the Haitian and Louisianan version of voodoo.
I first found the comparison between the veve and the FEMA markings in a few books written about New Orleans after the flood, but Johnson, Perkins, and Tama all brought it up without me mentioning it. None of them think that Texas Task Force teams went across the city casting voodoo spells on houses, but some thought its appearance wasn't entirely coincidence, either. Johnson told me, "New Orleanians have incredibly creative imaginations. I can see where folks were trying to see a deeper symbolism in them."
The markings "TFW," whose meaning is still a matter of debate, adorn the doorway to Vaughan's Lounge in the Bywater.
Hugo Montero is the owner of Casa Borrega. Born in Mexico City, Montero has lived in New Orleans for a long time. Even though the I-10 was closed after the storm, he knew how to find his way back into the city in order to check on his house.
When he arrived at his house, it was still unmarked. He and a friend stayed there, deciding to check on friends' houses during the following day. Montero is a believer in Santeria (which combines the Roman Catholicism of the European colonialists, along with the Yoruba mythology of enslaved Africans, with the traditions of the indigenous Taino), so he lit several candles at his statue.
Two sets of FEMA markings, by the Drug Enforcement Administration dated September 11 and the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines infantry battalion dated September 16, denote no entry attempt was made during search and rescue of this Lower Ninth Ward house.
Around six in the morning, Montero and his friend woke up to a loud pounding at the door. It was the National Guard, who asked what they were doing there. While Montero stated that he lived there, the young men stared at the statue and candles. Montero explained the practice and the National Guard told him to leave the city. One of the guards spray-painted the FEMA marking right in front of him. The X, looking much like a veve, horrified Montero. While he doesn't practice voodoo, he felt it was a bad omen, carrying negative energy. With some pride, he says he painted over it the very same day. It was the first thing he cleared from his house.
A handwritten message dated September 27 to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the side of this Lower Ninth Ward house illustrates that animals too were among Hurricane Katrina's many casualties.
The Lower Ninth Ward has the most markings remaining on houses. Driving down St. Claude Avenue, taking the bridge from the Bywater into the neighborhood, a huge FEMA marking is visible on the right side. During the day, there will be a block with nothing or no one on it, and then, around the corner, everyone is in the street, talking, having a beer, barbecuing. For a second, on a block like that, you get a glimpse of what the Lower Ninth Ward might have been like before the storm.
At one of our stops, I saw a group of people hanging out in the bed of a Ford by Ronald Lewis' House of Dance and Feathers museum on Tupelo Street. As I walked by, I nodded toward the group, who nodded back. When I was doubling back to the car, a man named Steve (all names for the rest of this segment are pseudonyms, at the request of the individuals) asked me what I was doing here. I told him I was working on a story, to which he replied, "If you're just trying to finish your work, do your thing. If you want a story, I got you one."
Multi-colored and nearly-illegible FEMA markings by the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines denote no issues during search and rescue of this Lower Ninth Ward house.
Spray-painted FEMA markings by the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines infantry battalion at Lower Ninth Ward's Children's Kingdom Academy day camp.
They were a group of four people, all black native New Orleanians. Steve, the tallest one, skinny, was wearing a tank top and had grills. JC also sported a tank top, with a heavy French-Creole accent. Mary was the leader of sorts, or at least the person who kept Steve and the others in check. Dan sported a red collared shirt, the shirt matching the veins in his eyes. It was his house we were standing in front of. There were no markings left on his house, or any on the street, but they were sprinkled around the streets adjacent to us.
Mary told me, "I think it's sad that they're still up there. You shouldn't be able to ride around here and see them ten years later. That's ridiculous." JC thinks the markers have been left up there to "play with their minds." Steve talks about how, in other places, if you see something you don't like, you call someone, the government or a neighborhood group, and they'll take care of it. "If the road is [messed] up, you call and they come fix it." But no one fixes the roads here, he says, and the effort to spray-paint over the markings that let someone know how many people died in the house in front of you hasn't been made.
Faded FEMA markings near the entry of a Lower Ninth Ward house remain with severe structural damage to the house's interior in the background.
Dan mentioned how the house we were at had "five or six" markings by the time he returned after the storm. (This is common to see in the Lower Ninth Ward: we found a few houses that still have three Xs on their walls, recording each time the house was checked.) In each X, Dan says, there was a 0 on the bottom. When he came back, he found someone dead in the house.
Two sets of FEMA markings on this Lower Ninth Ward house near the Industrial Canal levee show two occasions when the house was searched. The markings dated September 16 denote no entry attempt was made during search and rescue, while on September 20, the house was searched inside with no issues found.
The X means different things to different people. For some it has become a symbol and a needed reminder. As Perkins, the spoken word poet and café owner, told me, before someone removes it nowadays, they'd have to "think about it, and wonder if it was worth, just keeping as a reminder, not just to us, to them, but to everyone, about what happened 10 years ago….So now 10 years later, that symbol has taken on a special kind of meaning." But not everyone shares that opinion. Mary told me when her family got back in February of 2014, and the X was still there, they felt they had to do something. "Once we moved back in there, we in there, but it's still there. My momma got so tired of it, so one day she just got a can of spray paint and sprayed it off. Forget this, we here. This a home now. That shouldn't be here."
Editor: Sara Polsky
· Eye on New Orleans archive [Curbed]