American graffiti: How New Orleans' residents used spray paint to voice their feelings about Hurricane Katrina

After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans five years ago, photographer Richard Misrach toured the city to catalogue its residents' reactions, graffitied on cars, trees – anything, in fact, that hadn't blown away
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The Independent US

My subject has long been our civilisation's relationship with nature, so when Katrina happened, I was compelled to be there. For the first month or so, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, it was like being in a post-apocalyptic movie. As I drove along, there was devastation in every direction and there were vast areas of New Orleans where I never saw another human being, with the exception of three National Guardsmen. In some areas, the smell of death permeated the air. The tragedy of it all was almost overwhelming. While I found empty, mould-infested houses in New Orleans, there was hardly a home left standing on the Mississippi Coast. The first day there I got eight nails in my tyres. There was garbage everywhere; timber, furniture, appliances. There were stairways leading up to nothing, mile after mile. The trees that remained were festooned with debris. It was surreal.

I became aware that people were using spray-paint on homes, cars, trees, to communicate with the rest of the world, and that these messages were an important part of a bigger story. I took almost 3,000 images, and the graffiti shots [showcased over the next six pages] represent only a small portion of what I photographed. I put the work away for five years, but it seems people have already forgotten about Hurricane Katrina, and those who endured it. I decided that the fifth-year anniversary was a good time to release some of the work. I picked the graffiti images because, cumulatively, a remarkable narrative emerges.

In my book, there is no essay, no title page, no page numbers, no words to interfere with those in the photographs. These pictures, taken with my four-megapixel pocket camera, are raw and artless. But the informal feel of the small camera seemed like the right way to make these pictures. The graffitied words themselves, however, are like haikus, devastating in their simplicity. My hope is that they will add an important, untold chapter to the history of Katrina. It allows the voices of the people most impacted by Katrina to be heard in a new way. '

'Destroy This Memory' by Richard Misrach (Aperture, £45) is out now

What follows is an edited extract from 'Voices from the Storm', an anthology of real-life stories that offers a first-person perspective from the eye of the storm...

Patricia Thompson was born in 1956, and is a mother of six. When Hurricane Katrina struck she was living in the William J Guste Housing Development. She had a part-time job paying her $200 a month; her rent was $191 a month. After riding out the storm in the city with her family, Thompson led 22 members of her family on daily trips to the city's Convention Center, the Superdome stadium, and the I-10 Causeway in search of help

The storm approaches

"When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was in a state of desperation. I was doing work for my church for $200 a month. We were getting paid once a month, the last day of the month. The hurricane hit August 29.

"I know you've heard all of this foolishness about the people that just did not want to leave: those are bald-faced lies. I had one dollar in my pocket. I did not have a vehicle, so there was no way for us to get out. It was two people living in my house when the storm hit, me and my youngest daughter. My son went with his girlfriend and her family, and my second-oldest daughter and her kids left with her job – she's a supervisor at a convalescent home. But my oldest daughter, my third-oldest daughter, my fourth-oldest daughter, and my baby daughter were also stuck in New Orleans.

"We was hearing on the news that the hurricane was coming. I remember seeing one particular weatherman who had a very, very worried look on his face, and he was explaining that what we were about to encounter we were not ready for. And if I could understand what the man was saying, then I knew the mayor, I knew the governor, and I knew the president knew what time it was. We got a mandatory evacuation order less than 24 hours before the storm made landfall. Less than 24 hours.

"I know the race card was being played. I don't know exactly what percentage of the city had evacuated, but there were masses and masses and masses of black folk left in this city. There were some whites, but I guarantee that for every white person they had in New Orleans, they had a few hundred blacks.

"So anyway, once we got the mandatory evacuation order, right now you're like crazy, you don't know what to do, you can't evacuate, you don't have any way. So now this leaves desperation. The whole city is like one big riot. People are trying to get water, people are trying to get food. People are trying to steal cars, whatever they can do to help themselves and get out of that city.

Tuesday 30 August

"My family and I rode out the storm in the William J Guste Housing Development. I don't know if you've ever heard, but projects are good for things like natural disasters, because you got bricks.

"I knew a lot of people in the city so people were bringing us water and food. Even though there was no electricity the water in the houses was still on. I could cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But when the water went off in the house, it was next to impossible. That's when I realized we just had to find a way to get out of that city.

"When the mandatory evacuation order was given, we were told to go to the Superdome, go to the Convention Center, or go to the I-10 interstate bridge. So what we would do is we would go out in the evening, right before it got dark, to try and get rescued. We'd walk about a mile and we would sleep on the street, but at first light, me and the 21 other people in my family would walk back to my house at the William J Guste. We were leaving in the night-time because it was still early in the week, and we still had meat at home that kept for the first few days so I could cook for my family. And for the first few days we didn't see anybody with food outside. You had to help yourself.

"If I'm not mistaken, the man that owned Wal-Mart got on the radio and he said to open the stores. My daughter Troylynn, my daughter Gaynell, they went to see what they could get. At this point, it's not stealing, it's survival. But while they were in Wal-Mart the police came and they started shooting in the place. It's dark, there's broken items all over the floor, there's glass, and they're in the place shooting. And the police are shootin' because they want the people to get out.

"I tell you, the goods the police were bringing into the police station in the back of their personal vehicles, in the back of their police cars and trucks! I seen guns. I seen TVs. I seen computers. I seen some of everything from my back window.

Wednesday 31 August

"I had two other sisters and a son that lived on the other side of the Mississippi River [in an area which] was nowhere near in the condition that Orleans was. It's a better community to live in. It's got better drainage systems, and everything is better across the river. So in New Orleans, looking like a war-torn country, if you could just get across the bridge, you could get to safety. My sister has already told me, she said, 'Pat, you all just try to get to us. The lights are on over here. You all try to get to us.'

"Before we were rescued, we attempted to try to cross the bridge. Lo and behold, this is where we met with the resistance. The guns weren't pointed directly at us, but they were raised. We were told to turn around or risk being shot. The police! The police told us this. They told us, 'Turn around or risk being shot.' We tried to ask questions, but everybody was hush-mouthed. That's the way we were treated trying to cross that bridge.

"It was 22 people from my household, but there were masses of people trying to cross that bridge.

"We stayed up on the bridge for awhile, but we had reservations about trying to cross it again because they had already told us if they seen us again they'd shoot. They had police all over the place. They had military all over the place. Fema [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] was all over the place. And nobody was doing anything to help us. They were just there to keep us in line. They boxed us in that city. They wouldn't let us out. They said if we tried to get out, they'd shoot to kill.

"Let me tell you something. That is nothing new for New Orleans. The police been doing that. The police has been doing that. And I hate to say it, but the black police are just as bad as the whites. That's the way I read it, anyway.

Thursday 1 September

"Like I said, every day the 22 people in my group were going to these three places they told us to go – the Superdome, the Convention Center, and the I-10 causeway.

"We're trucking back and forth through all this gritty, grimy, disease-infested water every day. And I'm not ashamed to say, some of those stores that were open, we went in 'em. It was survival of the fittest. People were dying all around us. We were sleeping next to human faeces and urine. All around you, watching people die, watching them scream for help. You're calling 911, the operator's telling you there's nothing they can do to help. You can't get any assistance from the police. There are helicopters; there are cops everywhere. Nobody would stop to give you a hand or so much ' as answer a question. And for a week, we went back and forth, trying to get rescued, then have to get up the next morning and start all over again.

"We seen buses, we seen Fema trucks. One night in front of Convention Center, about three to five hundred buses were just paraded by us real, real slow. Everybody knew at that point they expected us to bumrush the buses. That would give them another reason to get rid of a few of us.

"On another occasion during the time we were across the street from the Convention Center, these cops – I don't know if they were police, but they were all in black, they had these guns, and they were banded real close together - they came up the street, And they were pointing guns at folk and demanding you to lay down. They got these guns with the lights on them, they pointing them at people saying, 'Sit your so-and-so so-and-so down before I blow your so-and-so head off, you black so-and-so.'

"I mean, God. At that point, it really felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. They're treating us like criminals. But everybody had to adhere to what they said, so once they passed me, I pretty much stayed low, in just about a crawling position, trying to get across the other street to get into the Convention Center to use the restroom.

"What I seen when I came out I will remember for the rest of my life. I swear, God be my judge. At this time, I'm crouched trying to get back into the parking lot. I see everybody on the street and everybody in the parking lot. Everybody is sitting on the ground with their hands in the air. The cops are stationed in different spots, with their guns aimed on people. I look at my five-year-old granddaughter, Baili McPherson, and the light from one of the guns was actually on her forehead.

"My oldest daughter, Gaynell, she's like, you want to go ballistic when you see someone do something like this to your child but you can't do nothing because, guess what, you and your child both might get killed. Baili is sitting with her hands in the air. And she's just past afraid, she's terrified. And she's asking her mama, Gaynell, 'Am I doing it right?', because even the babies know the police kill in New Orleans. So she's asking her mama, 'Mama, am I doing it right, am I doing it right?'

"We're just sitting there, they talking to you crazy, talking to you bad, cursing you out, all kinds of stuff, and you got to take that shit sitting on the ground with your hands in the air. Finally they left. Now, once they left, people really go into a state of panic.

"People don't appreciate the way they just been treated. All you can do is talk about it among one another. Anyway, we just sit there and we endured. We slept on the street that night again, and at one point I remember a young lady was holding a baby, and the young lady just dropped. Somebody grabbed the baby. I don't know if she was sick or what. We wind up bringing her back around, thank God. People were screaming for water. We had one of those big bottles of water that goes to the water coolers. People were like, 'Miss, please, just could we use this water?'

"I was like, 'Use the water,' 'cause where we were, there was no help, we had to help each other. I had to let them use that bottle of water and just pray to God that we would get more, and try to bring that young lady back around.

"Another young lady was afraid to go into the store to get her baby milk. From what I could understand, the baby died. But I didn't see this with my eyes. I didn't see the child die with my eyes. I had talked to the young lady when I first got out there because the baby was constantly crying, and she told me the baby needed milk. I said, 'Well, every store in the city is open, why don't you go in and get your baby a can of milk?' She was afraid of going into the store. She was afraid to get in trouble with the police. I said, 'Girl, the police are looting.'

Friday 2 September

"So one night, we were all sitting in the house. Everybody was tired, everybody was dirty, everybody was disgusted, and tempers were flaring. Everybody's just sitting on the floor in the dark, we don't know what to do. And the next thing we knew, my grandbaby Baili – at that time Baili was five years old – and another grandson, Charles Parker, were on the porch. One had a flashlight, the other one had this white cloth, and these kids were yelling, and flashing the lights, and waving the cloth, and before we knew it the 'copter was blowing things off the wall. It was like pandemonium. But this was a welcome sound. The kids had actually got that 'copter down.

"They had to make two trips to get all 22 of us out, and from there we were brought to the causeway. We were airlifted in baskets. Once we got to the causeway, we still weren't rescued that night; we were rescued around six o'clock the next morning.

"On the causeway, we had to sleep on the street again. It had almost got to be commonplace by that time. Early the next morning is when the buses started coming in. You still was going through all kind of havoc and hullabaloo because everybody was trying to get on a bus.

Saturday 3 September

"Saturday morning is when we finally got on a bus. With all the pushing and shoving going on on the causeway, we were split up on different buses. The 21 people that were with me went to three different parts of Texas. I remember when we all finally got on the bus, I remember looking out the window and saying, 'Lord, where to now?'

"My grandbaby that was like four months old got sick. College Station had the best facilities to treat the babies so their bus came to College Station, Texas. Me, my third-oldest daughter, her husband, her three children, and my youngest daughter, Ariel, went to New Boston, Texas. My oldest daughter and her family were in another part of Texas.

"They were asking us in New Boston if we wanted to relocate because we had already been told that the lights would be off in New Orleans for at least 30 days. So I'm like, 'I don't know, and I'm not making a decision until I get back in touch with my family members because we are a very close-knit family. And all my kids have is me. I don't have a husband, and they're not in constant contact with their father. I'm all they got.'

"So what they did, they sent us all to College Station. Once we got up here, we were all taken to a place called Christ United Methodist Church. One of these ladies' husband, Gene, had some real estate. Gene took us around to a few of his houses, and said if we liked what we'd seen, he'd give us the key without money, without even getting the first dollar from Fema. God bless this man. He just gave us the keys, and he just waited for us to get Fema money. Most of Gene's houses were $550 a month, and he lowered the rent to $400 a month. He gave us those keys and just told us to get back with him once we got the Fema money up and running. He gave us time. He was true to his word."


In the months after Katrina, Patricia Thompson remained in Texas. Rather than subsist on Fema hand-outs, she took a job at a local high school, before working as a child-care provider at a nursery. She also joined a local church.

'Voices from the Storm' (McSweeney's, £14.99) is out now in paperback

Sunday 28 August

Katrina moves north-west from the Gulf of Mexico. At 8am, it is upgraded to a category five hurricane, the highest rating. At 10am, Mayor Nagin orders the New Orleans's first ever mandatory evacuation.

National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield warns that the city's levee system may not withstand Katrina.

Twenty-five thousand people arrive at the Superdome, where there is enough food and water for 15,000 people for three days...

Monday 29 August

Katrina makes landfall at about 6am in Buras, Louisiana. The Superdome loses power as the storm hits New Orleans. It begins running on emergency generators, dimming the lights and shutting off the air-conditioning.

At 9am, the eye of the hurricane passes over the city; the Lower Ninth Ward is already under 8ft of water.

At 11am, reports start coming in that the 17th Street Canal has a 200ft-wide breach...

Tuesday 30 August

There are between 50,000 and 100,000 people left in New Orleans. Eighty per cent of the city is underwater.

The Army Corps of Engineers assigns army Chinook helicopters to drop 3,000lb sandbags to repair the breach in the 17th Street Canal. These attempts fail. Reports of looting begin surfacing.

President Bush cuts his vacation two days short to address the crisis...

Wednesday 31 August

Mayor Nagin orders the New Orleans police force to abandon search-and-rescue operations to focus on stopping looting.

Residents are advised to go to the Mississippi River Bridge, where buses will take them to the drier West Bank. However, city officials in Gretna – a small city across the river – order armed police to block any evacuees from crossing over the bridge.

Fema and Governor Blanco announce a plan to begin evacuations from the Superdome.