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50 Years/50 Collections: Preserving the Voices of Hurricane Katrina Survivors

Outside a New Orleans home damaged by Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina represents a major paradigm shift in the history of New Orleans—so major that life in New Orleans is now described into bifurcated eras of “pre-Katrina” and “post-Katrina.” The historical significance of Hurricane Katrina to city of New Orleans, or more broadly to the U.S., will not be enumerated in this post, but the survivors of it will be. The voices of Hurricane Katrina survivors can be found in the Saddest Days Oral History collection located at the Amistad Research Center. The collection was donated by Dr. D’Ann R. Penner and the Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis in 2007. The collection consists of 175 interviews conducted of individuals displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The interviews were conducted between September 2005 and July 2006 in connection with an oral history project entitled, “Saddest Days: An Interview Project.” The project was managed by Penner with the assistance of Dr. Cynthia Pelak, Clyde Robertson, Jason Ogle, and Baderinwa Ain. The majority of the interviews were performed in seven southern states and in twenty different cities and towns where many of the evacuees relocated to. The interviews took place in shelters, homes, hotels, churches, offices and restaurants, and even on park benches. Seventy-five percent of the individuals interviewed were African American, with the remainder being a split between Afro-Hondurans and Whites. The oral histories were transcribed and print copies of the interviews are found in the collection.

Inside a New Orleans home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina

The interviewees provide insight into their lives before the hurricane, events leading up to the storm, and life afterwards. Some of the interviewees expressed not being able to return home because of the infrastructure challenges that their former cities were facing at the time of the interviews. In this January 15, 2006 interview of Cynthia Banks, she discusses her thoughts on living in Dallas, Texas after leaving New Orleans:

Question: So are you committed to Dallas then? Banks: I’m committed to Dallas as long as my son has to be here. I’m committed to Dallas as long as it takes New Orleans to come out of their blight and begin to do something to create an environment that would look anywhere near healthy for my son to move back to. You know, and it’s not going to be in a trailer in a contaminated area, you get what I’m saying?”

One interviewee was determined to return to New Orleans and his resolve displayed the strong ancestral and spiritual connections many New Orleanians felt to their hometown. In this December 15, 2005 interview, Roger Branche details his deep familial roots within the city going back to his great-grandparents. Branche was living in Birmingham, Alabama when he was interviewed and made this poignant statement:

Branche: Like most New Orleanians, I’m born there. And like most New Orleanians, no matter what, if you leave thirty or forty years….. Question: You want to die there? Branche: I want to die there. And that’s the one thing, the one hope that all real new Orleanians have. You return home. … The major incentive and the major hope for New Orleans’ rebirth, not in the next couple years, and not the physical rebirth, but what makes the spirit and the culture so alive.”

The quotes above represent only a snippet of the topics covered in the interviews. The oral histories in Saddest Days provides a nuanced portrait of individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina. First-hand accounts of Hurricane Katrina are crucial due to the biased and false media coverage that was being reported about survivors, particularly African American evacuees from New Orleans. The accession record for the Saddest Days Oral History collection can be found here.

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