Hurricane Katrina is still present in every aspect of New Orleans life. It is as much a part of our culture and community here as is our speech, our streetcars, our bars and our music. It is as defining an event as the Civil War, Emancipation or Brown Vs. Board of Education: more so, as everyone here experienced it in their own lifetimes. If you want to strike up a conversation with anyone in New Orleans, you simply start by asking “were you here for Katrina?”
Often I don't even say the hurricane's name. It has too much emotional impact. I say “the storm.” My friends down here who bear that name have come to spell it with a C, Catrina; one friend goes by Karina. Some just go by Kat.
Back in May, just days before I left New Orleans to go on tour, Lauren and I were at a favorite cafe/headshop/herbal/botanica on Canal Street. The cafe portion borders Saint Patrick Cemetery, and as we had some time to kill, we decided to walk through the cemetery, which occupies sites on either side of Canal Street. When we crossed Canal, we found something new to either of us: the New Orleans Katrina Memorial, a tiny area wedged along the side of Saint Patrick. Armed with only my phone's camera, I took a few shots, unworthy of posting, and swore to come back after my tour to do a proper blog post on this very creepy, very beautiful shrine.
Like many things Katrina, the shrine itself was built around emotional outpouring and heated controversy: though by 2008 the mayor's office had allotted a million dollars for the shrine to be built, and $200,000 more had come from private donations, as the third anniversary of the storm approached there was still no memorial, and 85 unidentified bodies were still unburied. But weeks before the 2008 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, heaven and earth were moved, permits were pulled, and the memorial was built. On the third anniversary of Katrina, August 29, 2008, a jazz funeral second line marched along Canal Street; amidst weeping and a few sighs of resolution, the final seven unidentified victims of Katrina were carried to the memorial and interred. It was not until the following year that work was completed, and a marker stone laid.
The Katrina Memorial sits on a plot once used to bury the poor and indigent of Charity Hospital, and the gates of the memorial still carry Charity's name above them; along the edge of the gate is the current name, New Orleans Katrina Memorial. As one enters, a small reminder of Charity sits off to the side: a stone commemorating those who donated their bodies to scientific research upon their death.
The memorial is built in a huge spiral, the shape of the hurricane itself as seen from the air.
The spiral of the memorial, and neighboring Saint Patrick Cemetery #2, can be seen in the reflective surface of two of the crypts that house the unidentified Katrina dead.
At the center of the spiral, the hurricane's eye, sits a carved stone marker, which reads:
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall upon the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coast, bringing devastation to many communities. In New Orleans, storm surge and the failure of the levee system caused flooding in over eighty percent of the city, trapping thousands. In the chaotic aftermath New Orleanians faced desperate circumstances in homes, hospitals, the Superdome and other makeshift shelters. Despite the heroic efforts of first responders, medical personnel, volunteers and the military, over 1,100 citizens lost their lives in the disaster.
Most of the deceased were identified and buried by loved ones in private ceremonies throughout the nation. Here lie the remaining. The unclaimed and unidentified victims of the storm from the New Orleans area. Some have been forgotten. Some remain unknown.
This memorial is dedicated to these individuals and to all who suffered or died during Hurricane Katrina. Let the victims here forever remind us of those harrowing days and the long struggle to rebuild our city. Let their final resting place call us to constant preparedness. Let their souls join into an eternal chorus, singing with the full might of the indomitable spirit of New Orleans.
Jeffrey Rouse, MD, Chief Deputy Coroner
August 29, 2009
Around the marker sit stone benches, and beyond these, forming the outer spiral of the storm, are six crypts, the final resting places of the bodies of eighty-five victims of Katrina. They are made of dark, reflective stone. One cannot sit or stand at the memorial without seeing one's own reflection, as well as the street beyond, the traffic, the bright red street cars: the constant reminders that New Orleans has been rebuilt; and that for the living, work continues, music is played, tourists visit, old men argue on the decaying sidewalk outside the liquor store, children in plaid uniforms hurry off to school: despite the best efforts of Katrina, life in New Orleans goes on. I am certain that those lying here take satisfaction in that.
The place is still, peaceful, as if the souls of those victims, unidentified for three years and finally mourned and interred with a jazz music second line, are now at rest. As I sat on a bench around the marker, preparing my camera equipment, a bird sat in the huge oak tree above the gates, singing to me. It sang for long minutes, a joyful song that rose above the sounds of traffic or the street car on Canal, just beyond the memorial gates.
“Let their souls join into an eternal chorus...” the bird seemed to sing to me. And I thought: perhaps they have done just that.
The stone marker, benches, and reflective, spiraling tombs of the memorial.
From the New Orleans Katrina Memorial on Canal Street, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.