The What and the How of It

John Biguenet

In those first days after defective levees designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crumbled and inundated 80 percent of New Orleans—an area seven times the size of Manhattan—with saltwater up to twelve feet deep, the problem for writers and artists and musicians was not just what to say about this manmade catastrophe but how to say it. For there was nothing in the canon of American literature or the traditions of the visual arts or music in this country that could offer models we might imitate. Never before had the United States seen a major city destroyed, so how were we to represent what had been visited upon our city by an agency of our own government?

And there was a second issue to confront: Who was our audience? The impulse of many
of us was to put aside our creative projects—our sonnets and novels, our sculptures of the human form, our love songs, our photographic studies of shadow and light—and author instead urgent bulletins to the rest of the world about the desperate plight of our city, about the suffering of our fellow New Orleanians, about their abandonment by the government.

We countered the denials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who continued to maintain for months, despite the gaping breaches visible in the levees across the city, that they had been overtopped by a storm surge. So we wrote about how the incompetence and indifference to their duty of the Corps of Engineers had killed a thousand American citizens. We photographed the houses sheared in half when the Industrial Canal levee failed and sent an eighteen-foot high wall of water roaring down the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward at five feet per second. We captured images of the intricate arabesques of mold spiraling up the walls and over the ceilings of our ruined homes, of scales of gray mud crusting every surface, of bloated bodies floating in the fetid water that submerged our city for weeks. We recorded what had happened—what was happening—to a city that belonged not just to the United States but to the world.