Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston is the first large-scale project, anywhere, in which the survivors of a major disaster have taken the lead in documenting it. The project’s goal is to voice, as intimately as possible, the experiences and reflections of those displaced to Houston by the two major hurricanes that pounded the Gulf Coast in August and September of 2005. Survivors receive training and pay to record fellow survivors’ storm stories, their memories of lost neighborhoods, and their ongoing struggles to build new communities in exile.
The paychecks earned by survivors do indeed help fill an obvious need; their training and documentary experience enhance their prospects for building new careers. But the heart of the project is stories: stories told by survivors, to survivors, on the survivors’ own terms. We hear in these stories the seeds of recovery: it is the conviction of the project and its many participants that to survive is not merely to secure food, clothing, and the essentials of daily life, but to help shape one’s future by taking control of one’s own story. While media treatments of the survivors have too often depicted criminals or at best victims, the voices of the survivors have portrayed selfless friends, compassionate strangers, loving neighbors, and, above all, heroes.
The survivor-interviewers now taking part in the project—as well as the voices they record—represent the entire range of locales leveled by Katrina and Rita from Mobile Bay, Alabama to Beaumont, Texas. The interviewers and storytellers embrace the enormous range and complexity of Gulf Coast communities, comprising, among others, African Americans, Anglos, Cajuns, Central Americans, Central American Creoles, French American Creoles, Italian Americans, Latinos, Vietnamese, and Vietnamese Americans. Because storytellers are encouraged to speak in the language most comfortable to them, interviews have been recorded in four languages: English, Garifuna, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Finally, because storytellers understand that the stories being sought are theirs, the range of issues, incidents, memories, and experiences are even more various in tone, intensity and detail than the languages in which they were documented. This diversity is central to countering depictions of survivors in the simplistic and narrow terms so often applied to them thus far.
The varied voices collected through the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project answer the single most significant concern expressed by the survivor-participants themselves:
“We want people to know who we are. So many have been so generous, but even the most generous often do not have a clue of what we’ve been going through. We are not criminals, fools, or deadbeats. We have honor, respect, and pride, in others and in ourselves. We don’t want people either to scorn or pity us. We want them to see us.”