Notes from the Field,

Excerpts from Post-Katrina Louisiana

By Shannon Lee Dawdy
Assistant Professor
University of Chicago

The following are excerpts from my field journal, which I kept between October and December of 2005 when I served as a liaison between FEMA and the Louisiana Division of Archaeology. Names have been abbreviated to initials and occasional misspelling corrected. Clarifications added in square brackets. Otherwise, unedited.

6 October 2005

How to catch a hurricane in my head. In BR now [Baton Rouge], after 48+ hours of prep, travel, rapid settling. In the truck writing the other book in my head..,A House in New Orleans: Memoire of Place and Love in an Age of Disaster . . . I arrived tired and stinky-sweaty at FEMA offices yesterday afternoon at 3:00, circling the 2-block long windowless building, searching for an entrance only to find my entry would be barred altogether until I was "processed" at the security office halfway across town in another safe commercial house, casually dressed g-men escort me up, peopled by FBI, homeland security, National Guard. Surreal long wait for high-tech fingerprinting by laser - every finger, still and "rolled." Now I have an FBI file. Young jarheads and their middle-aged G. Gordon Liddy/Gonzo counterparts -- Young man pushing papers had gun in holster with two extra clips, as if to defend his masculinity against the pink collar nature of his task. Symbolic of the overall military superstructure overlaying the entire federal presence here. People exceedingly polite and kind - apparently trained to diffuse stress before it builds.

Long delay waiting for fingerprints accommodated by DVD playing [in a special holding area with an audience of new employees awaiting next step in the process] -- not surprisingly, Spiderman saving the city from evil disaster. Our heroes -- one marvels at the choice.

Comically predictable screw up with my paperwork - they discover after I fill out a stack of forms " thick that I'm neither a local hire nor a GIS technician. Never do get through.

From there, go to meet my new (and as it turns out temporary) housemate, ML. Hilly, forested, artificially professorial neighborhood, but charming. He emphasizes that it is a safe neighborhood. A concern with safety and crime continues at dinner. His specialty is crime and GIS. Perhaps it's he FEMA really wanted. He followed the recent BR serial killer cases, went to court hearing for one of them. When I mention my experience at FEMA security office made me feel like we were now living in a police state, he seemed to say 'what's wrong with that?' He proceeded to tell me of his law enforcement students showing up to class with their guns, concealed or not. More fascinated than alarmed. Told me he would be going to NOLA [New Orleans, Louisiana] soon to check out friends' houses and neighborhoods - that he'd be curious to see if it felt safer, if he'd encounter gangs of people ready to 'loot' him. He laughed and said maybe New Orleans would soon be a white city, a safer city. He blushed in my shocked silence...

8 October 2005

First day back into New Orleans. In a van with FEMA people and DF. Pick up B from New Orleans FEMA and K from PRC [a local preservation organization] along the way. Trees down, wind damaged to roofs, windows, awnings as expected. We approach via Airline [highway] and so didn't see much. Lots of cars, people getting busy getting back to normal, so not a ghost town so much. Missed that stage.

Went to Bywater [neighborhood]. A few houses in bad shape already hit hard by wind and trees, a warehouse a dramatic ruin. St. Claude [street in Bywater] burned hardware store, obvious looting. But overall, not bad. 2 tattooed girls looking more outrageous than ever - one in undies and chaps, another with a wild, hostile Hollywood once-over look at us. Both reveling in the Mad Max apocalypse atmosphere and I suspect about to be deeply disappointed and resentful about its imminent demise as normalcy of a more mundane kind returns.

D.'s company delightful - love of food and modernist architecture and travel - quietly humorous person consuming life. K the epitome of Creole charm, though 2/3s through trip we learned he lost everything in his house and had to evacuate his family from the Causeway FEMA point. Classless FEMA people hadn't even thought to ask. Lower-down bureaucratic and officious. K said there's to be the first second line [a participatory street parade] tomorrow, to start at Pampy's [Pampy's Tight Squeeze, a neighborhood bar]. Great sign.

Only hamburgers available at the few restaurants open, but sense that is soon to change. Saw stray dogs, graffiti of dead cats and "U Loot U Dead."

K said eerie part was people looking past one another, windows up, even police afraid of "the mob."

9 October 2005

Only have energy for one anecdote. Called P and L today. They're back in the city. He seems better to be back - she worse - faced with the challenges of day to day. Great quote of their neighbor's: "The greatest challenge to the rebuilding of New Orleans is conversation." Running into friends, exchanging evacuation stories with strangers at one of the few re-opened bars or restaurants. By the time you finish talking, it's dark and the curfew's approaching and you haven't got a damn thing done. Sounds like a new kind of New Orleans normal . . .

11 October 2005

Dear me, prickly bureaucrats and insecure specialists. Bumbling good intentions. But good company at the margins. And pleasant drive along the old river road. Old haunted slave quarters still haunted by the living. Saw Bucktown [a New Orleans neighborhood] today, where boats were deposited on other boats, storm surge left shells of buildings. But R & O [seafood restaurant] rebuilding, coming back. Lakeview, UNO area, Gentilly - the dryness and dead vegetation, piles of gutted materials, more devastating than water to the eye I think. Water more natural here. A more indigenous grave. Think I saw my first DOA on Elysian Fields - "2 DOA in attic" spray-painted on grandfatherly modest brick houses. How long did they last? How quick did they go?

17 October 2005

Getting more accustomed to strangeness, to biting my tongue, to love in the time of homeland security. Last night at Lafitte's [a bar] with MD met a real New Orleanian - AL. Stayed 10 days in her home, the old Whitney bank building in Bywater, looking after neighbors' houses until Guard pointed guns at her son and 76-old grandfather one too many times. She's angry, used to be in broadcasting. Encouraged to run for city council, also talks of escaping to Grand Caymans and leaving this corrupt old city behind. So much fight, I told her we needed her and proceeded to peck her on the cheek. People walking around with lots of heart, hanging round their necks like Mardi Gras beads. Saw a Krewe of Nutria-like second line [a Mardi Gras style satirical street parade] in quarter [French Quarter] with coffin and teddy-bear driving an army tank. Hallelujah, though near all white. The spirit's yet there if the body's willing. Body politic and the bodies of buildings. Wrote a few paragraphs about the dirt - the least injured at least here in the city. Need help sleeping. Worry that the work ethic - that delightful laissez-faire will spell the final wave of decay to swallow up this sexy old corpse.