As a spectacle, Katrina overwhelmed all else in recent memory, yet New Orleans has always experienced periodic flooding, and this City of Hope show at the Historic New Orleans Collection undertakes the admirable, if somewhat daunting, task of putting Armageddon in perspective. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking expo that deals with flooding as not only a recurring phenomenon, but almost as a kind of culture, just as cold and snow shaped the traditional lifestyles of places like New England. And while Hope has its share of intriguing Katrina artifacts, it's the images from the earlier storms and deluges that are the real eye openers.
For instance, there's an old sepia photo of the common, early 20th century street scene of a horse-drawn fruit vendor's wagon stopped in front of some shotgun houses. A customer in the street holds an armload of bananas as the vendor chats with a fellow on his stoop. A lady on the porch next door looks on, and it's such a normal scene of laid back New Orleans life in the old days that you almost have to look twice to notice the customer is standing in water up to his waste, and that waves are lapping the porches of the houses. But no one seems too concerned, not even the horse. Perhaps they knew that plaster, unlike sheetrock, resists water and mold, and that most buckled floorboards will eventually become flat again as they dry out. A caption identifies it as the Good Friday, 1927, rain on Baudin Street in Mid-City, and it's just another day in life below sea level.
Some of the imagery gets a little repetitious, but in ways more illuminating than redundant. For instance, there's an emblematic photo of a storm-sundered house by legendary local press photographer G. E. Arnold. In the foreground, a headline in the "Red Flash" edition of the old States-Item blares: "Destructive Betsy Kills Four," in what would become a tragic understatement as corpses turned up in flooded attics for months thereafter. Other Arnold photos document evacuee boats moored at the up-ramp of the bridge over the Industrial Canal, among other eerily familiar scenes. The wrecked house looks a lot like another storm-tossed heap in a photo captioned simply, Storm of September 29, 1915, and it's also similar to some of the houses in some picturesque engravings by Alfred Waud depicting the flood of July 8, 1871, a deluge that became replicated to some extent in 1883 and 1888. And then there was the annual threat of flooding from the river each spring, when levees were often reinforced with sandbags.
Of particular interest are the photos of the deluge that inspired the classic Randy Newman song, Louisiana, 1927, which also affected vast stretches of Mississippi. The flood inundated farmlands up and down the river, drowning residents and livestock or leaving them stranded on thin strips of land. The lucky ones evacuated by train just in the knick of time. There is also a photo of the infamous dynamiting of the levee, a deed intended to lessen the danger to New Orleans at the expense of untold numbers of residents of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. There were no MRE's, FEMA debit cards or Red Cross rations back then, but those cataclysmic accoutrements are displayed here like so many routine souvenirs of a modern day Atlantis. City of Hope shows us how people coped --Êwith Katrina's devastation as well as with the deadly deluges of the past in an instructive exercise of putting the unthinkable in context.