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Portraits of Katrina: Seven Photos of Destruction and Resurrection

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September 2005

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the United States Gulf Coast and became one of the most devastating storms in the country’s history. Failed levees in New Orleans, along with poor preparation and a slow governmental response, would have repercussions for years to come. The city became a focus of human tragedy and triumph that riveted the world.

As part of our ongoing coverage of Katrina’s ten-year anniversary, we selected photographs that tell a story of resilience—from views of destruction made soon after the storm to present-day portraits showing the vitality of the Mardi Gras Indian and second-line parades. The photographers who made these images show us loss, renewal, and survival. They remind us that New Orleans, iconic as ever, is still thriving in a precarious landscape. 


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September 2, 2005 Photograph by Mario Tama, Getty Images

I flew to New Orleans two days before the storm made landfall. The National Guard arrived in force on September 2 with aid from the outside and a convoy of trucks to distribute food, water, and supplies to those still at the convention center. This was the day the tide started to shift psychologically, as proper relief appeared. People had been stranded in the city for four or five days, many stuck in the Superdome or the convention center. The stench and heat were overwhelming and unforgettable. —Mario Tama

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December 2005 Photograph by Frank Relle

After Katrina I would go out driving in New Orleans, where I was raised. In the complete darkness of a city without electricity, I found locations by using my headlights. Many of the street signs had been washed out, and I often became lost in my own city—a place made surreal by the hurricane and the mass exodus it had caused. Though I’ve searched many times for this grocery store, I haven’t been able to find it again, and so this photograph has become emblematic for me of the disorientation and displacement I felt after the storm. —Frank Relle

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Photograph found May 2006 Photograph by Will Steacy

The first trip I made to New Orleans was six weeks after the flood. Nothing could prepare me for what it felt like to be there: the smell, the mud, the stale air, the heat, the mold, the pain, the sheer magnitude of it all. Everyone’s possessions were strewn about the streets. I kept seeing flood-damaged family photographs among all the debris. The faces in these pictures, peering up at me, stopped me in my tracks every time. Here was the evidence of people’s lives before the storm. I began photographing these altered snapshots as a way to tell the story of the people who weren’t there. —Will Steacy

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September 2005 Photograph by Robert Polidori

Two weeks after the levees collapsed, New Orleans was deserted. While photographing each dwelling, I could imagine its residents. The pictures I took show traces of interrupted and discarded lives. Most of the people didn’t die but became refugees in their own country and from their own lives. They had to move on, either living someplace else or perhaps later coming back, but the life they used to live, surrounded by their objects of personal value, was gone forever. —Robert Polidori

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April 2014 Photograph by Charles Fréger

Last year I made a series of portraits of Mardi Gras Indians from the different “tribes” in New Orleans. They are African Americans who, during Mardi Gras, wear heavily feathered costumes that reference traditional Native American dress. The organized groups are called tribes, and the members each have roles, including that of chief. I was interested in the history of this ritual, which some people believe stems from stories of Native Americans who sheltered escaped slaves. Many of the Mardi Gras Indians I photographed lived through Katrina. I tried to capture the resiliency of their mythology, their energy, and the intensity of their spirit. —Charles Fréger

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December 2014 Photograph by Tyrone Turner

Photography has allowed me to understand New Orleans in a way I never did growing up there. Here, a bus takes participants from the Lower Ninth Ward to the start of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-line parade. “Second line” refers to the dancers who follow the first line of musicians in a jazz parade. Social-aid and pleasure clubs have origins in the 19th-century African-American benevolent societies that helped pay health and burial costs for members. Post-Katrina, second-line parades served as places where dispersed people could reconnect, pass on information, and enjoy pride in their community again. —Tyrone Turner

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May 2014 Photograph by Stephen Wilkes, panorama composed of six images

Almost nine years after Katrina, I made this image. My goal was to show how the architecture was being adapted for rising seas. The change from 2006 was dramatic: resilience and restoration in some areas, abandonment in others. The colorful new buildings were designed to withstand the next hundred-year storm. This project has made clear to me that we have decisions to make—and some will be easier than others. —Stephen Wilkes

“Portaits of Katrina: A Photographer’s Journal” is featured in the August 2015 issue of National GeographicAugust 2015 issue of National Geographic.

Proof has been looking at how communities in and around New Orleans have healed in the ten years since Katrina. The first post, “Holding on to Heart and Soul in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward,” is here.

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