“Dear America: I guess we should reintroduce ourselves. We’re still New Orleans.”
Prize-winning writer Chris Rose stood on the small stage in a gallery in the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, reading words resembling those he had penned from the Baton Rouge airport almost 10 years earlier.
He recalled the days after Hurricane Katrina came barreling through the Gulf of Mexico, bringing with it floodwaters that killed more than 1,800 people and devastated the city he had learned to call home.
“It’s been 10 years since we showed up on your doorsteps unannounced, unprepared and, in many cases, unwilling,” Rose said, eliciting tears, laughter and the occasional “Yeah, you right!” from attentive spectators.
“But please take it as no insult that most of us did come back, like we promised we would,” he continued. “You’ve got your own music and food and rituals that make you happy, and if there’s anything we understand here, it’s an unconditional allegiance to our foods, our music and our rituals.”
The piece, a love letter to New Orleans, was a follow-up to the introduction published in “1 Dead in Attic,” the collection of short articles he wrote in 2005 as a journalist for The Times-Picayune. It also served as an introduction to “Love, Write, Light,” a crowdsourcing and fundraising campaign launching Monday in anticipation of Katrina’s anniversary.
The idea behind the campaign is to give New Orleanians a voice and the opportunity to share stories of joy, heartache, love and triumph of the city’s recovery through letters and photographs, according to David Morris, one of the organizers behind the project.
“It’s an indirect answer to the question that the city does a great job of answering: Why rebuild?” said Morris, who serves as the executive director of Evacuteer, a nonprofit designed to help residents evacuate safely, and for free, in the face of a future storm. “We want to capture some of that magic.”
But “Love, Write, Light” isn’t just a way for people to tell stories. It’s also tied to a fundraiser initiated by Evacuteer, a project co-founded by local journalist and photographer Robert X. Fogarty.
Money raised from the project will help light up statues erected in 17 locations, called “evacuspots,” around the city, so they’re visible 24 hours a day. People needing help in evacuating are supposed to gather at those spots.
The project also marks the first time that Evacuteer has partnered with “Dear World,” Fogarty’s messages-on-skin photography project that has gotten international acclaim for its work with survivors of natural disasters, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Syrian refugee crisis.
“It accomplishes something that’s going to be different as we ramp up to the 10th anniversary: How do we strike a balance between respectful reflection on what happened and paying homage to what we lost, and showcasing progress?” Morris said. “This is the sweet spot.”
Letters of love, heartache
Although the campaign officially kicks off Monday, Fogarty and his team have been working for months to gather letters from New Orleanians reflecting on the city 10 years after Katrina.
On Saturday, during a preview event held for the campaign, Rose spoke about the things that have always made New Orleans special. He praised the city’s culture — a place “where music falls from the sky like rain” — and the smells, like coffee, sweet olive and fried fish.
“Educated folks like to call that the lure of indigenous culture,” Rose said in his slow, metered cadence. “We just call it home.”
He also acknowledged the city’s changes, mentioning “Hollywood South,” proposed sound ordinances, smoking bans and the effort to jail corrupt politicians. And he praised the spirit of the people who rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt in the face of adversity, doubt and fear.
“It’s always been one of New Orleans’ unique charms, the way it changes so much, so fast and so often, and yet it remains exactly the same,” he added. “It’s the glorious paradox of life here in the city where irony is a birthright.”
Rose wasn’t the only one called to share his letter. Some, like his, were uplifting and hopeful — such as one by a firefighter who felt it was fate that brought him back to Louisiana after Katrina so he could meet the Xavier student who would eventually become his wife.
And Brandan “BMike” Odums, a local artist and producer, wrote in his letter how he was inspired by how New Orleanians took their struggles and managed to make them into something beautiful.
“That’s what the culture of New Orleans has been able to do so well historically, traditionally,” Odums wrote. “I think we’ve found ways to take the pain, take the struggle, and make it valuable, make it art — whether you call it art, or call it music, or call it soul.”
‘A punch in the gut’
Other experiences, when read out loud, felt like what Morris called “a punch in the gut,” such as Xavier University professor Joseph K. Byrd, who recalled such profound violence as he was trying to evacuate his students that he feared they wouldn’t all make it out of the city alive.
After the water began rising at the Xavier campus, where Byrd stayed with about 100 students who had been unable to evacuate, they eventually made their way to Interstate 10.
There, he said, the situation went from bad to “horrifying” as people brandished guns and knives, trapped while waiting for buses to carry them to safety.
Amidst the chaos were his students, and the wounded: A man with no legs struggled to keep himself dry with a tarp as the rain kept coming down.
“A National Guardsman said, ‘We’re going to come back with the buses,’ and he asked me a strange question,” Byrd recalled. “He said, ‘How should we come back?’ And I said, ‘Come back ready.’ I guess he understood because when the Jeeps came back, they came back with men with M16 rifles.”
Another reader, a blind woman, recalled how she returned to help her community, only to then go deaf from the toxic mold that had infiltrated her neighborhood.
But even she said she couldn’t imagine her life anywhere besides New Orleans.
“Even if I had known I was going to be deaf-blind, I would have come back,” said Rox’e Homstad. “I would rather be deaf-blind in New Orleans than hearing and sighted anywhere else, because this is where I belong.”
Like Homstad or Byrd or Rose, anyone from around the world can share their feelings about the city on the free website, lovewritelight.org.
Ultimately, Fogarty and the rest of the Evacuteer and “Dear World” crew are hoping that those who contribute letters will also be inspired to contribute funds or volunteer for a project that was started three years ago but never quite finished.
In a move that Mayor Mitch Landrieu called “integral to the city’s emergency response plan,” Evacuteer installed public statues at each of the 17 neighborhood pickup points for a new emergency plan that replaced the idea of using the Superdome and Convention Center as “shelters of last resort.”
Reaching 14 feet high, the 800-pound, stainless steel “Evacuspot” sculptures are located around the city. Shaped like a man waving his hand, they signal to the roughly 35,000 people who don’t have access to transportation where to go in order to get a free ride out of town.
During an emergency, volunteers will staff the spots and help residents board RTA buses, which will bring them to the Union Passenger Terminal. There, the volunteers will help manage lines and load luggage into chartered buses to take the residents out of town.
The problem, Fogarty said, is that the Evacuspot sculptures aren’t lit at night.
“The core strategy of public art as a place to meet is that people who are waiting for the bus, or reading the paper, or leaning up against it, they know what this man means,” Fogarty said, pointing to an image of the statue. “We are recognizing that we are missing tens of millions of impressions per year” because the sculptures aren’t clearly visible at night.
To light the statues, Evacuteer members are trying to raise $250,000. They’re encouraging donations on the website and asking volunteers to underwrite the cost of dinner parties, where guests can pay anywhere from $100 to $500 per person to attend.
“If we can double the amount of impressions by lighting them, it’s an honor and a tribute to those we lost and left behind 10 years ago,” Fogarty said. “It’s about adding a positive and real change to make sure this never happens again.”
“This is the lesson learned,” he said.