Masking New Orleans’s Tragic Pasts

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“Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, LA”, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, March 8, 2011, Part of Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New Orleans has just roared through its season of celebration and excess that ends on Mardi Gras – or Fat Tuesday. A big part of the annual carnival is the donning of masks. Celebrants tossing beads from floats hide their true identities; members of marching crews disguise their faces; and one of the trademark gifts of the season, sold by the thousand, is a mask.

The impulse to mask spills over into other seasonal celebrations. Halloween and other events where masking is allowed take on an even more significant role here in New Orleans. And I would argue, the spill over does not end there. Certain aspects of the city’s past, most notably tragic events, tend to get obscured or masked over.

Just as much as Mardi Gras is a defining event for New Orleans, its historic architecture along with traditional music and foods provide the basis for its heritage tourism. The French Quarter offers a rare glimpse into rare Europe-in-America landscape; the sprawling battlefield in Chalmette hosts visitors; each spring the Jazz and Heritage Fest assembles an impressive line up of local musical talent; and chefs dish out plates of creole fare. What is missing from the sampler of local traditions are the defining historical events that shaped the city, but that are associated with disaster. Tragedy wears a mask in the city that care forgot.

Historians have not neglected the floods and hurricanes, but there have been precious few reminders in the landscape, and until Katrina, the only real memorials were the massive levees constructed to protect the city from high water. These structures are the masks that obscure our view of tragic pasts.

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“Barbershop located in Ninth Ward New Orleans, LA, damaged by Hurricane Katrina”, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, April 13, 2006, Part of Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Three major hurricanes struck the city in the 20th century, each inspired the construction of protective bulwarks, but no memorials, no markers, or remembrances. The 1915 hurricane caused extensive damage to lakefront dwellings and businesses. Property owners and civic leaders voiced determination to rebuild and restore their place in the city. The local levee board launched a nearly 20-year campaign to build a concrete seawall 9.5 feet above the lake level to provide protection from a similar storm in the future. Some 32 years later the next major storm once again drove water from the lake into the city and the new post-war suburbs in Jefferson Parish. Floods in the adjacent bedroom community prompted appeals to the Corps of Engineers to build a lakefront levee to protect suburban homeowners. And they did so. Hurricane Betsy roared ashore in 1965 and caused even more substantial damage across the urban area. Following this storm, the Corps proposed an even more ambitious levee system to surround the urban area. Its construction was fraught with delays and controversies, and it was still under construction in 2005 when Katrina made landfall.

Despite the absence of memorials for the previous storms, the hurricane protection system, which failed in 2005, was the most obvious reminder. Yet it masked the past, it provided that all-important false sense of security and prompted many to refuse the evacuation order as Katrina made its tragic landfall. There have been numerous structural improvements since Katrina, but there have also been a spate of markers and events to provide visual reminders. State historical markers have been placed at the location of the major levee breaches; there is a memorial cemetery, and a memorial sculpture in the Lower 9th Ward. People have even attached bronze markers to their houses that recall the spray-painted markings left by emergency responders. A form of “disaster tourism” has emerged gaining mixed reviews from local residents. The masks have been tossed aside.

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“Damaged House after 2005 Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, LA”, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, Part of Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

But the grand irony is that emergency planners have argued in recent years that local populations have already begun to lose that sense of urgency that erupts in the wake of tragic events. That is, they are not responding to warnings about the annual hurricane season. After Hurricane Isaac in 2012, one critical report noted that emergency responders failed to utilize the plans developed in the wake of Katrina. They were setting aside the lessons learned less than a decade after the most dramatic storm in the city’s history. A complacency has begun to emerge, even with the masks removed.

Craig E. Colten, Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. Colten will be speaking on April 8, at the UHA luncheon at this year’s Organization of American Historians conference. For more information see here.

For more on Colten: Craig Colten, Perilous Place and Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana (2009) and Craig Colten, “Historic City with a Poor Memory,” in The “Katrina Effect”: On the Nature of Catastrophe, editors William Taylor and Michael P. Levine, 305-330. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

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