How should history be written? And when we do write it, whose voices should we hear?
Two of my colleagues and friends, Roy Rosenzweig and Michael Mizell-Nelson, both now sadly deceased, believed that we can only really understand the past if we listen to the voices of the too often faceless and nameless majority. It is, as Roy and Michael argued throughout their careers, the lived experiences of average people that often teach us the most important lessons of history.
And so, on this the 10th anniversary of the day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, I want to say something about a group, tossed by the storm, whose voices are almost never heard in the many accounts of Katrina and her aftermath: Katrina’s children.
In the fall of 2005, Roy, Michael, and a team of collaborators at the Center for History and New Media and the at the University of New Orleans, began a digital archiving project–the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank–with the simple goal of capturing as much of the digital record of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, all three of which battered the Gulf Coast that summer. Stories, pictures, recordings, and just about anything else they could get their hands on found their way into the memory bank. [A nice overview here]
Among the 25,000 digital objects in the archive, you can find more than 8,500 individual stories. Over the past month I’ve been reading back through those stories–stories that are still being written and deposited into our collection. Along the way I found myself gravitating to accounts written by those who whose childhood ended abruptly on August 28.
I can’t claim to have read them all–there are 8,500 stories after all. But I have spent a fair amount of time searching the story collections, slowly narrowing my results to stories about childhood, high school, teenage life, and other keywords identifying those who were children that summer. My colleague and one of the people who really made this project work, Sheila Brennan, has done something similar in the ways that an advanced digital historian might, using topic modeling techniques to find patterns emerging across all the stories in the collection. [Read about Sheila’s results here.]
What did I learn about Katrina’s children by reading their accounts of the storm and its aftermath?
As you might expect, there were those who were not devastated by the storm. They had to evacuate. They lost some possessions. They missed some school. They came home. They rebuilt. They persevered. They went on with their lives. As one put it, “we were some of the lucky ones.”
But for so many of Katrina’s children, the stories of their lives after August 28 are of disaster, indignity, fear, loss, confusion, broken families, and the rootlessness that comes with the loss of home, possessions, and friends.
“I felt helpless. I felt numb the whole time.” [Full story]
“Katrina didn’t just take my house. She took my home, my childhood, and my mental state. The person I used to be was lost along with everything else.” [Full story]
My father “saw an elderly woman being beaten to death for a 6-pack of kiddie water.” [Full story]
“Not only did I lose my home but I lost my family. Katrina not only caused an uproar in the home but a divorce that should’ve never happened…Katrina caused pain and nights of constant cry. Katrina ruined it all; Katrina ruined me.” [Full story]
These are the voices of Katrina’s children–the ones whose lives were irrevocably changed by the storm. Were it not for the efforts of pioneering digital historians like Roy and Michael, and their many colleagues and collaborators who helped build the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, these voices would be lost to us. Of course, these stories represent a tiny, unrepresentative sample of Katrina’s children.
But for now, it’s what we have.