Media: Article 2

Newspaper: Houston Chronicle
Date: Friday, 06/16/2006
Section: B
Page: 1 Metfront
Edition: 3 STAR

HURRICANE AFTERMATH

Two Texas folklorists' oral history project records the experiences of storm survivors / In their own words

By ALLAN TURNER

Staff

HURRICANE Katrina was destroying New Orleans, but Vincent Trotter had problems of his own. He was a jailer at the Orleans Parish lockup, and the 700 prisoners, some of whom were smashing their way out of their cells, were threatening to kill him. Between crises at the jail, which was filling with water and shaking in the wind, he fought off worries about his family and his house in Algiers.

Before the ordeal ended, Trotter shepherded his charges through chest-deep water to rescue boats. He was stranded for days at a sun-scorched highway evacuation point. He hiked for miles through the ruins of his hometown. These were the horrors that gave birth to Trotter's story.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were the mothers of a million stories - stories worth telling and remembering. And now, safe and dry in Houston, Trotter, 32, is working with the University of Houston and the Library of Congress to save those tales of woe, endurance and heroism for future generations.

"Every story," said UH folklorist and English professor Carl Lindahl, "has its surprise."

"People would talk about the simple things - family and neighborhoods," Trotter said. "I just thought it would be therapeutic."

Dozens of stories have been recorded in the Surviving Katrina and Rita project overseen by Lindahl and Pat Jasper, an independent folklorist from Austin.

When the project, initially funded for two years, is complete, the stories will be available to researchers and the public through the Library of Congress, UH and possibly other institutions.

Some material will be available via computer and may provide the basis for radio broadcasts or theatrical productions. The project's public premiere is set for a free Juneteenth concert celebrating music of the Gulf Coast, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Miller Outdoor Theater.

The story project, which has much in common with earlier efforts to record the experiences of survivors of the Dust Bowl, Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center, grew out of Lindahl's experience as a post-hurricane volunteer at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

While sorting clothes, Lindahl encountered a giant of a man - 6 feet 5 inches tall - in need of trousers. As they searched for pants that would fit, the man began to share his story.

Lindahl was struck by the account, which, unlike the prevalent tales of victimization, spoke of heroism, courage, connection to family and the ability to think quickly in times of crisis.

First person accounts

Lindahl's earlier work included folkloric research in Louisiana, and he recognized the value of preserving such first-person accounts. He conceived a plan to train and pay hurricane survivors to interview their counterparts.

"It was best for these people to tell their stories to each other," he said.

"Those with their own stories are the best listeners in the world. That's the goal - to listen more than to ask. To be there sympathetically and just let the stories come."

Since January, two groups of hurricane survivors have completed field schools at UH and, armed with cameras, digital recorders and sheaves of releases and documents, marched into the field to record stories.

A third class, composed largely of university students enrolled in a Vietnamese culture program, started this week.

Unlike earlier trainees, they had no firsthand experience with the storms. Still, their cultural knowledge should prove valuable in reaching Vietnamese-American survivors, Lindahl and Jasper said.

In the training sessions, students are coached on how to approach their subjects and win their confidence. A particular emphasis is given not only to collecting stories of harrowing escapes, but to capturing images of normal life in coastal communities before the hurricanes struck.

Aside from the memories of survivors, some communities were wiped not only off the map but out of history. Jasper encouraged students to gather the sights, sounds, smells and routines of life that existed in the New Orleans area.

Stories of tragedy

One collector of 9th Ward stories, Glenda Jones Harris, noted that the tales she has gleaned from acquaintances "didn't sound like America."

Among them was that of a young mother of three children who watched water from breached levees roll up her street "like a barrel." In the days after the storm, the family plodded through miles of flooded streets, faced the guns of National Guard troops and spent long, hellish hours on a highway overpass.

"They literally saw bodies floating in the streets," she said. "To this day, her sons won't sleep at night without the light on."

Harris, a nurse and community advocate who urged neighbors to flee New Orleans as Katrina approached, is well-acquainted with the misery hurricanes can deal. She was only 6 when Hurricane Betsy flooded much of New Orleans in 1965. Walking the post-Katrina streets of her old neighborhood, she felt as if she had been hit in the chest with a brick.

"I have found that the people I interviewed wanted to tell the story. And once they told the story, even with its profound sense of loss, they felt a relief," she said. "They wanted to tell it. They had heard rumors. They had heard lies. They wanted it to be correct. ... But sometimes the telling opens up a set of wounds."

Interviewers drop out

All interview subjects are given pamphlets explaining mental health services available to them in Houston. But often those conducting the interviews are pulled back into their own sorrows as a result of their story collecting. Some, Jasper said, have dropped out of the project.

Trotter recalled the case of Mama Diane, a middle-aged woman he knew from church.

"I had a good relationship with her," he said, "but once she started talking, it brought back a lot of bad memories. She started crying and talking about the things she missed. Yes, I thought it would be therapeutic, but in some instances, especially in hers, it wasn't."

Mama Diane's distress gave birth to Trotter's own brooding memories.

"I started to think about the things I missed about New Orleans," he said. "The simple things: not being able to go to Armstrong Park; not being able to listen to certain jazz musicians in the neighborhood; not being able to go to Cafe Du Monde to have beignets and coffee. For us, those places are no longer around."


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