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August 29, 2010

Katrina: Five Years Passing

(Left) August 18, 2010: Willi Lee, 84, stands inside his home that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and which he wants to rebuild in Pearlington, Mississippi. Lee says he has received the funds to rebuild but cannot find a trustworthy builder. (Right) May 25, 2006: Willi Lee, 79, stands inside his home that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and which he wants to rebuild May 25, 2006 in Pearlington, Mississippi. Lee said he attempted to ride out the storm in the house but eventually was washed outside by the flooding where he was able to cling to a tree limb for hours until the floodwater subsided. Lee says a poisonous water moccasin snake clung to the limb next to him the entire time. The eye of Hurricane Katrina passed directly over Pearlington, located approximately midway between New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi.  MARIO TAMA / Getty Images
(Left) August 18, 2010: Willi Lee, 84, stands inside his home that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and which he wants to rebuild in Pearlington, Mississippi. Lee says he has received the funds to rebuild but cannot find a trustworthy builder. (Right) May 25, 2006: Willi Lee, 79, stands inside his home that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and which he wants to rebuild May 25, 2006 in Pearlington, Mississippi. Lee said he attempted to ride out the storm in the house but eventually was washed outside by the flooding where he was able to cling to a tree limb for hours until the floodwater subsided. Lee says a poisonous water moccasin snake clung to the limb next to him the entire time. The eye of Hurricane Katrina passed directly over Pearlington, located approximately midway between New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi. MARIO TAMA / Getty Images
August 24, 2010, New Orleans, Louisiana: The Lower Ninth Ward is seen with homes newly constructed by the Make it Right Foundation.  MARIO TAMA / Getty Images
August 24, 2010, New Orleans, Louisiana: The Lower Ninth Ward is seen with homes newly constructed by the Make it Right Foundation. MARIO TAMA / Getty Images
Members of the Rebirth Brass Band between songs during a Lower Ninth Ward block party on the eve the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 28, 2010.  LEE CELANO / Reuters
Members of the Rebirth Brass Band between songs during a Lower Ninth Ward block party on the eve the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 28, 2010. LEE CELANO / Reuters
The spray-painted box and "X" and the numbers next to it are the symbols used by search-and-rescue teams to denote that the building has been assessed. These signs were ubiquitous on every building in New Orleans in the months after the storm. Darren McKinney, a volunteer from the group lowernine.org takes a break from working on house badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, August 25, 2010.  LEE CELANO / Reuters
The spray-painted box and "X" and the numbers next to it are the symbols used by search-and-rescue teams to denote that the building has been assessed. These signs were ubiquitous on every building in New Orleans in the months after the storm. Darren McKinney, a volunteer from the group lowernine.org takes a break from working on house badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, August 25, 2010. LEE CELANO / Reuters
August 19, 2010: PHIL JOHNSON (looking out door), barber, in the shops he runs with his father Clyde, CLYDE'S BARBER SHOP on St. Bernard Avenue. They were the first barbershop that they knew of to reopen, several months after Hurricane Katrina.  ALAN CHIN / facingchange.org
August 19, 2010: PHIL JOHNSON (looking out door), barber, in the shops he runs with his father Clyde, CLYDE'S BARBER SHOP on St. Bernard Avenue. They were the first barbershop that they knew of to reopen, several months after Hurricane Katrina. ALAN CHIN / facingchange.org
Lower Ninth Ward, a boy plays on empty Dorgenois Street. Most of the Lower Ninth Ward has not been rebuilt.  ALAN CHIN / facingchange.org
Lower Ninth Ward, a boy plays on empty Dorgenois Street. Most of the Lower Ninth Ward has not been rebuilt. ALAN CHIN / facingchange.org

What is so upsetting in New Orleans is that, even though five years have gone by since Hurricane Katrina, and people work hard to rebuild, many neighborhoods remain empty and ruined. In some cases the homeowners received assistance money from the Road Home program only recently. As time passes, it is increasingly likely that they will never return.

The population hovers at around 300,000, down from almost half a million before the storm. The lion’s share of reconstruction didn’t go to the communities that were hit hardest, and the politics of infrastructure are as contentious and snarled as ever.

Mario’s portraits of Willi Lee in his gutted home, then and now, look like they could have been taken days rather than years apart. He received his aid money, but can’t find a contractor he trusts, so his house is still desolate. I found that the grass and weeds are growing so high in the Lower Ninth Ward that it is returning to nature, making it hard to remember that this was once a vibrant neighborhood. Lee photographed the sign of a search-and-rescue team still spray-painted on an abandoned house, getting renovated by volunteers only now.

The city marks the anniversary with memorials, ceremonies, and, yes, celebrations of life, with music and food. Speeches are made, essays like this very one you’re reading are published, change comes, or not. I always felt that anniversaries are a bit odd; it is an arbitrary measure of time, after all. Yet they resonate, they remind us of our own mortality and the impermanence of all things, even as we want to make permanent marks, eternal flames.

BagNews over the years has run some of my photographs here, Mario’s here, and Lee’s here. You can also see more of Mario’s work at The New York Times, Lee’s at The Washington Post, and mine at Newsweek. Many photographers have documented Katrina and its aftermath. I don’t know if it’s made any difference, but it will form the historical record some day, when our time will be the distant past.

–Alan Chin

PHOTOGRAPHS by: LEE CELANO, ALAN CHIN / facingchange.org, and MARIO TAMA / Getty Images

About the Photographer

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  • Books Alive

    Rebuilding in the “green” style isn’t his desire? The Make it Right Foundation has rebuilt in the Lower 9th Ward, but they put up new hurricane-resistant and adaptable designs.

    http://www.makeitrightnola.org/

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