After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Cynthia Joyce evacuated to Oxford, Mississippi, where she now lives and teaches. Numbed by seemingly unbelievable national news reports, she turned her gaze to blogs by New Orleanians to gain a grasp of the city’s destruction.
Ten years after the storm, she anthologized that New Orleans online for University of New Orleans Press in the book “Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina.” Press Street, the art and literature organization at 3718 St. Claude Ave., will host a reading by Joyce and her contributors at a book release event on Aug. 18 at 7 p.m.
Joyce said she wanted to pay homage to the bloggers because their writing allowed her to find out what was really going on in the city.
“I don’t like the term citizen journalist, but it was around that time the term was first tossed around,” said Joyce, a former editor and writer for Salon.com and editor of the collection, who moved to New Orleans in 2001 and departed in 2007. “(Blogging during Katrina) was that before anyone was aspiring to do that. No one was claiming that role. They just said, ‘Here is what I saw. There’s so much misinformation, so I’m bearing witness.’ ”
Contributing to that conversation also helped those New Orleanians who felt they were taking a passive role in the catastrophic results of the natural disaster.
“It really was such a self-actualizing moment for people who had been stuck,” Joyce said. “Because if you were lucky enough to evacuate and had access to TV or a computer, you felt so powerless. You were sitting in some random place watching the news like everybody else, but if you started writing it down, you became an active witness rather than a passive victim.”
The book collects points of view from a number of individuals — including Andrea Boll and Bill Loehfelm for the NOLAFugees, Deborah Cotton, Chris DeBarr, Michael Homan, Bart Everson, and many others — from across the city who had one single goal: to explain how they felt and what was going on. The entries are personal and poignant, providing insights into the tumultuous situation after the storm from various vantage points.
The mainstream media and the nation gave New Orleans a focus the city had never experienced. Loehfelm said the blogging culture took hold in New Orleans to take advantage of that attention during a very trying period.
“The Internet was a natural alternative to the mainstream media, it was a place to say everything we felt was being ignored and misreported,” said Loehfelm, a contributor to the book and author of the Maureen Coughlin crime series. “There was a real guerrilla media feel the first couple of years. We knew what was going on in the city. We were blogging to broadcast that experience to the rest of the world.”
We might think that once a blog is online, it lives forever. As she researched her book, Joyce found that this is not the case. Though the Web is a limitless frontier in some ways, early portions of it continue to get buried. Joyce compared it to an ocean that is constantly filling with water. She believed printing a book was the only way to preserve these blogs, many of which had gone defunct.
“The early Web is the floor of that ocean, and no one is digging that stuff up anymore,” Joyce said. “There’s a whole sedimentary layer that is virtually inaccessible by the conventional means that we use the Internet now.”
Loehfelm said those blog posts might be of interest to those who experienced the storm, as well as for recent transplants.
“For people who were here, maybe the collection reminds us we didn’t go through it alone,” he said. “For people who weren’t, maybe it provides some real time insight to what was happening and how it felt.”