Monday, August 29, 2011

Lost art of Katrina

This article originally ran in the Aug. 29, 2006, edition of Lost Magazine (

Katrina’s Art: The Lost Art of the Gulf Coast, One Year Later
By Alan Huffman

“As paintings go, it was not that good, really,” Madeleine McMullan recalls in a voice still gilded by pre-war Austria after 60 years in the United States. “I don’t even know who painted it. It wasn’t considered valuable — in fact, my father hated it.” McMullan is talking about a portrait of her mother that was painted in Vienna in 1920, smuggled out of the country when the family fled the Nazis on the eve of World War II, and lost on the surge of Hurricane Katrina last year.

The last time McMullan saw the portrait, it was hanging above her prized Louis XVI settee in the hallway of her family's summer home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. It was a centerpiece of the house, which was built in 1845 with tall windows and broad galleries to catch the breezes and a sweeping view of the Gulf of Mexico. The moment she hung it there, in an alcove, McMullan knew she had found the perfect spot, or so it seemed.

Done in oils in a style known as decote, the portrait was among precious few mementos of her family's peripatetic saga, which unfolded across four turbulent years as Europe disintegrated, and culminated in their arrival in Baltimore in 1940. On a bright autumn day in Lake Forest, Illinois, where McMullan and her husband Jim live for most of the year, she recalls her family shuttering their three-story manse on Vienna's Hofzeile Strasse, preparing to flee. It was a defining moment in her own history of loss and survival.

As they were preparing to leave, everyone knew the importance of concealing valuables from the Nazis, she says. Already her grandmother had taken the family silver to Geneva on repeated train trips, hidden in her handbag a few pieces at a time. Someone — McMullan doesn't remember who — removed the portrait from its frame and folded it before the family fled, first to Switzerland, next to France, then to England, and finally to the U.S. The grand old house in Vienna, with all their remaining possessions, including a large collection of art, was bombed to rubble during the war.

McMullan inherited the portrait, which still bore the crease marks from the folding, after her father’s death, and she took it to the summer home in Pass Christian. After trying it in several rooms, “I finally found that perfect spot in the alcove, and there I put my mother,” she says.

Though the house was among a handful to survive Katrina along Pass Christian’s East Scenic Drive, it was gutted by 145-mph winds and a 30-foot tidal surge, which carried away two-thirds of its contents, ripped out some floors, exploded walls and battered the arching live oaks on the lawn. With so much loss all around, with bodies being pulled from the wreckage up and down the war zone that the Gulf Coast had become, and with neighboring New Orleans descending into chaos, McMullan realized that her family was comparatively fortunate. Her mother’s portrait was a footnote to the worst natural disaster, the worst historic preservation disaster, and — as is only now becoming apparent — arguably the worst single loss of cultural artifacts and art in U.S. history. In New Orleans there was unimaginable ruin; in Pass Christian and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, there was obliteration. Still, her mother’s portrait was something that had seemed destined to survive, and now it was gone and no one knew where it went.

Across Mississippi’s coastal counties, more than 65,000 homes were destroyed by the storm, and on the beach facing the Mississippi Sound, a residential esplanade running intermittently for perhaps 50 miles was reduced to flotsam and jetsam in a matter of hours, the wreckage interrupted here and there by the husks of the few ravaged structures that survived. Amid the bewildering enumeration of lost lives, it took a while for most people to recognize what else was gone: The feeling of permanence that had set the Mississippi Coast apart from typical beachfront communities of stilted houses and fake stucco condos.

Hundreds of historic buildings were destroyed — buildings that had survived countless hurricanes, some for as long as two centuries — and many, including the McMullans’ house, discharged upon the wind and surge extensive collections of art. Countless collections, such as one that vanished from a home across the bay, which reputedly included works by Rembrandt and Picasso, were irreplaceable. Because the Gulf Coast was also a mecca for artists, the loss of such private collections was exacerbated by the destruction of artists' studios, museums, galleries and public buildings in which local art was on display. “We’ve lost art on a grand scale,” is how Biloxi attorney and art collector Patrick Bergin describes the cataclysm. Bergin, who rode out the storm with his family in their home on the Back Bay of Biloxi, recalls frantically moving as much of his art as possible upstairs as the rising water swept through the ground floor, but says much of the collection was lost anyway. “And it’s heartbreaking,” he says, “to think of everything in those 100-plus-year-old houses on the beach — all the antiques, heirlooms, art, sculpture — washed out into the Gulf or buried under debris.”

Even as the losses are being reckoned, random pieces of art have been found among the sodden drifts of clothing, building timbers, broken china cabinets, blinded TV sets and rank refrigerators. In one odd coincidence, an Ocean Springs, Mississippi, woman found a water-damaged watercolor, of a marsh scene, in a marsh. Such finds have provided a source of both inspiration and bewilderment, leaving artists and collectors to wonder: Where, exactly, did it all go? For many, including Long Beach, Mississippi, collector David Lord, this is anything but an idle exercise. Lord lost a personal art collection whose value he estimates at more than $7 million, and he has no idea where it went or whether he will see any of the pieces again.

Today, a year after the storm, as the Gulf Coast echoes with the din of backhoes and dump trucks hauling away the last of an estimated 40 million cubic yards of debris, “gone” is not a satisfactory — nor, in many cases, an accurate — explanation, which makes it hard for collectors and artists to find closure or to envision what the future might, or should, hold. With so many places to search, with so much inscrutable evidence constantly assaulting the eye, “I do lie awake at night wondering,” McMullan says. Might her mother's portrait one day be recovered, or, barring that, might she learn how it met its end?

The possibilities, of course, are endless. McMullan’s portrait might lie buried in the muck and sand of the offshore waters, or it could be hanging in a treetop with the drapery and clothes that flutter like tattered prayer flags across the coast. It could have washed up on a beach in Texas, or Yucatan, or it could be buried with all the other unseen treasures in the scores of landfills that were hastily permitted in inland counties after the storm. It could, conceivably, eventually show up on eBay. The storm surge of Katrina was the largest ever recorded in North America and swept as far as ten miles inland, leaving a swath of destruction 150 miles wide. Beyond reckoning the losses, finding out precisely what happened has become a preoccupation for those seeking to salvage evidence of the shattered past.

The surge of Katrina was not, as might be imagined, simply a giant tidal wave that struck the beach, then carried the resulting wreckage out to sea. Instead it mounted steadily, bounding higher until it overtook the sea wall that lines much of the beach, advancing further with each crashing wave to slosh across streets and highways before roaring in a whitewater torrent over embankments, into buildings, back out, and in again. The tide reached the third floor of some structures, crowned by breaking, wind-driven waves, the force of which grew exponentially when coupled with the increasing weight of the water. Foundations were undermined, walls yielded to the stress, and rafts of wreckage, vehicles and boats collected and acted as battering rams. Once the eye passed, the water began to fall and the flow reversed, but not uniformly, because the winds had shifted and the obstacles had moved. Debris was scattered everywhere.

Not surprisingly, locating art was not a high priority for most people in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Faced with recovering bodies and finding food, water, and shelter, “People were overwhelmed,” says Gwen Impson, who heads the Hancock County artists' association known as The Arts. “People were dealing with life and death issues. But slowly it began to sink in, and people began to go through the piles of debris.”

There is still no official estimate of the total value of the artwork that was lost, and there may never be. Because so many collections were uninsured, often the only documentation was contained in the personal records of their owners, and sometimes those records, too, have vanished. Some of the artwork was never photographed. Jim Lamantia, a retired architect who is now an art collector, dealer, and part-time appraiser, says he lost the majority of his own collection, though his gallery in New Orleans was spared. “Monetarily, my loss was significant,” he says. None of his art, including his inventory in the gallery, was insured. “I can’t afford the sort of insurance I’d have to have,” he says.

Lamantia, who lives in Pass Christian and New York City, says he retrieved some of his paintings from debris piles, shipped a few to New York for restoration, and is creating collages from the remnants of his 18th century Piranesi paper prints. He says he is skeptical of some of the losses claimed by other collectors, but is not surprised that people would evacuate without their art. “The extent of Katrina was unimaginable,” he says. “We boarded up and comfortably left.” In some cases the only evidence of the value of the lost art is in surviving examples. Prior to the storm, Lord says he donated one painting from his collection, a watercolor of a Central Park scene by Maurice Pendergrass that appraised at $980,000, to the New Orleans Museum of Art. The museum’s director, John Bullard, confirms the donation.

“It’s a beautiful piece,” Bullard says, adding that although the museum did not participate in the appraisal, “$900,000 is certainly not out of line for a major Pendergrass painting.” (The museum's collection survived.)

Blake Vonder Haar, whose New Orleans art restoration studio has traditionally drawn clients from the Gulf Coast, says her business has been deluged with artwork that was soaked with saltwater, caked with mud, ripped, faded, or disintegrating. “We’ve taken 4,000 pieces of damaged art since Katrina, but very few are from the Gulf Coast — I can count them on one hand — because most of them are just gone,” she says. Among the rare survivors, which she is currently restoring, is the oversized “Portrait of Jan de Groot” by artist Jerry Farnsworth, whose work also hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York. The painting, which features de Groot with an owl on his shoulder, was pulled from a debris pile blocking a Biloxi street.

The incentive such finds gives to the continuing search is undercut by the preponderance of debris, the bewildering array of places to look, and the lack of an official clearinghouse for lost art, which makes it difficult to reunite found pieces with their owners. Most of the happy endings have come about by happenstance, and through word-of- mouth. As the storm retreats into history, the chances of finding more are rapidly dimming, yet many are reluctant to give up the search.

In addition to the portrait, the McMullans lost 700 volumes of books, photos taken during the Depression by author Eudora Welty, a set of original Audubon prints, and a letter from author William Faulkner describing his visit to the home. “I picture those bookcases falling over, and then the floors going, and all that water rushing under the house, and the books just fell into the hole and were carried away,” McMullan says. “That’s the only way I can visualize it.” Not long ago, she adds, “A woman called me and said she thought she'd found my portrait. It had washed up on the edge of the bay, in Bay St. Louis. But she described it to me and the color of the hair was different — it was black and my mother’s was reddish-blonde. The tilt of the head was different. I didn’t even get the woman's name. It gets to the point that this whole thing is so painful you want to erase it. But you can’t.”

On a balmy, late spring day the narrow streets of old-town Bay St. Louis are bustling with the trucks of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and painters. Like every other city on the Gulf Coast, Bay St. Louis, some 50 miles east of New Orleans, is recovering incrementally from the hurricane. Progress is measured by the degree to which signs of destruction are removed, like so many negatives reaching toward a positive conclusion. A church steeple still blocks the sidewalk on Main Street, but it has been repositioned, upright. A field of debris that once stretched to the horizon along the beach is slowly being whittled down. The National Guard staging area is gone, as are most of the relief workers. In the hollowed-out downtown, the clatter of nail guns mingles with the drone of a road grader on the scoured beach, where the driftwood is interspersed with antique windows, bits of architectural molding, a computer hard drive, toys. Shimmering like a mirage on the placid bay, a barge-mounted pile driver floats beside the topless piers of the old U.S.-90 bridge, which was washed out by the storm.

In what was once the South Beach historic district, amid the muddy, overturned cars and the mountains of architectural and household debris, Charles Gray’s immaculate silver Rolls Royce sits parked beside his tiny FEMA travel trailer. Gray’s domain is basically a clean slab, with large ferns in urns positioned at the front corners, carved from the ruined streetscape. Gray’s home, in a former warehouse that was undergoing restoration, was leveled by the storm, as were most of its neighbors. The back wall was the first to collapse, and fell inward, he says; the other three walls collapsed outward after the interior filled. Gray knows this because a family across the street — a man, woman, and two children — saw it happen as they struggled to save themselves. The family, he says, “was floating, trying to get to my roof, and when they got to within two or three hundred feet of it, my building collapsed, too.” The mother drowned, a fact that gives sobering context to Gray’s own material loss. “I’m 72, and I would only have used those things for ten more years or so, anyway,” he says, sounding only partly convinced.

Most significant among Gray's losses, he says, were two Picassos and a painting reputedly done by Leonardo da Vinci, called “Boy with a Violin.” Also washed from the house was a self-portrait etching attributed to Rembrandt that, remarkably, Gray managed to recover from a debris pile a block away, a month after the storm. The etching is now at an art conservator, he says. Gray’s collection was also uninsured, and his explanation for the lack of coverage is that his provider refused him on the grounds that his building was only partially complete. The point is now largely moot because few insurance companies have honored hurricane policies, claiming the losses were the result of a flood, and many of the buildings lacked flood insurance because they were elevated atop comparatively high ground, outside the designated flood zones.

The contents of Gray’s collection were known to many in the local arts community, but the lack of insurance makes it impossible to verify his or many other losses, or to affix values. “Only one of the Picassos had been certified — a line drawing of a male nude with a strange little Queen Victoria-looking woman gawking at him,” he says. The reputed da Vinci, by his account, was once the subject of a controversy after an art critic suggested that it might actually be attributed to Rafael. After that, Gray says, it was removed from the Royal Academy of Art in London, and he bought it at an auction in the 1950s; in fact, there are very few known paintings attributed to da Vinci — Gray might just as easily say that he had a second rendition of “The Last Supper,” but that it is now sadly gone.

Gray has not come up entirely empty handed, as many have. In addition to the Rembrandt, he has found parts of his two crystal chandeliers, more than 1,000 of his 3,000 miniature figurines, several damaged museum-quality lacquered boxes from the former Soviet Union, “and a complete eight-piece setting of Chateau Chantilly china, which I found as recently as the day before yesterday, while I was digging in two or three inches of mud in my back yard.”

He says he hunted every day for three months. “My 1921 Chickering parlor grand piano, which is irreplaceable, I found a block away, upside down,” he says. “I’ve gone and sat on the carcass of that piano and cried a hundred times. It gets to the point where I was actually happier not to find the carcasses of things. Otherwise you can still hope they're alive. It's like that line from Tennessee Williams: ‘Ruined finery is all I have.’”

In addition to private collectors, many local artists were hard hit, in some cases losing their life's work, their supplies, their studios, and their homes. Lori Gordon, a painter and mixed-media artist, lost her Clermont Harbor home and studio along with more than 800 pieces of her own art spanning a 40-year career, including her portrait of her late father. Most of her last year's work survived in galleries that either did not flood or flooded to depths below the level at which her pieces were hanging. By far the biggest surprise, she says, was finding an intact stained glass window that had been given to her by an artist friend, which had been mounted in the front door of her house. Though the structure and the door were nowhere to be found, she found the stained glass on the ground, unbroken. Thus began the next phase of Gordon's career — incorporating detritus from the storm into her mixed-media art. Gordon's designs now include "pieces of the storm," as she describes them — lost figurines, antique plates, stamped tin, clocks, dolls, carved angels, masks, Mardi Gras beads, watermarked sheet music and anything else that catches her eye amid the ruins. Searching the debris, she says, "fulfilled an emotional need. That broken plate takes on a significance way out of proportion." During her first month of searching she found four of her paintings, damaged but still whole, as well as a few pencil drawings. "The vast majority of what I found were bits and pieces of paintings and bits and pieces of furniture, and as time went on and I was finding less and less of our own things, I started talking to friends and neighbors who invited me to go through their lots and see what I could find. Yesterday I found two more pieces of a friend's African art collection. I know she'll want those back." Only once has someone recognized a personal possession in Gordon's nascent, post-Katrina mixed-media work. In that case, "I had incorporated a fragment of a broken chair back, and she walked in, looked at it, pointed at it and said, 'That's it, that's it — I need that piece of my chair!' She needed it for a pattern to replace what she had lost, so I took it apart and gave it to her."

Another artist, Bay St. Louis potter and painter Ruth Thompson, recalls roaming the wreckage of her neighborhood after the storm “feeling like I was in the middle of a Salvador Dali painting — it was surreal. And I noticed that after the storm, when I started painting again, my style had changed dramatically.” To illustrate, she pulls out examples of her work, pre- and post-Katrina. Before, her style was impressionistic: A typical scene was a serene garden reminiscent of a Monet. Since the storm, she has painted bold, abstract studies, often of demons and birds with gaping mouths.

Hundreds of other artists have experienced similar losses. The Gulf Coast Art Association, founded in 1926, with 80 active artists, was hosting an exhibit in the Gulfport library when Katrina hit, and none of the art has been found, says member Shirley Sweeney. Another member had paintings hanging in the visitor’s center of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs, all of which were lost. The Singing River Art Association, based in Pascagoula, also had works hanging in the Gulf Islands visitor's center, a few of which were later found on the beach, and in Biloxi’s J. L. Scott Marine Center, all of which were lost. Some artwork belonging to another Singing River member was returned after being uncovered in the debris along four blocks of Pascagoula's Market Street. The consensus is that much of the lost art certainly washed out to sea, but, says Impson, “We'll never know how much washed out. There are people still unaccounted for. There’ll be mysteries, always, after the hurricane.”

Yet because the surge was so powerful, an unusually large amount of debris was snagged by obstacles further inland, and so, observes Mary Anderson Pickard, daughter of renowned Ocean Springs artist Walter Anderson, “Every time you try to make a generalization about where things were going, it gets contradicted.” Almost all of her father's work, which was the subject of an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2003, was lost or damaged by the storm. Still, volunteer searchers recently found several paintings done by Pickard's uncle, Mac Anderson, across the Ocean Springs harbor, a mile northwest of the Shearwater Pottery compound where the family of artists lived and worked before the storm. Other items, meanwhile, have been found in opposite directions. “We found a good many things buried in muddy sand, and I think we’ll probably continue to find things,” Pickard says. “Last week we had chicken bones turning up on the Gulfport beach again, from the trucks that were parked at the pier when the storm hit, going to Russia or somewhere. Things are washing in. When we have a storm, or a very high tide, more things will wash back in.”

In addition to art that was never seen amid the piles of debris, some works were actually discarded as waste in the bewilderment and confusion after the storm, Bergin says. In Gulfport's Whitney Bank building, where his office was located, the lobby contained several pieces of high-quality abstract art, and most of what did not wash out on the surge was later hauled away, he says. “I dream about those pieces, being able to find them in the area where they take all the debris, being able to pull them out and do something with them. I imagine the debris sites are just inundated with so many works buried.”

Among those who searched the debris for art, photographs, or anything of value to its former owners was Gulfport attorney and art collector Tom Teel. “All that’s left of my office is some old tabby steps,” he says, referring to the mixture of ground oyster shells and cement that was once a common building material on the coast. “And we’d find all these pictures, all gnarled and wet, and we didn’t know who they belonged to, so we’d stick them there on the steps, and every few days I’d go by and some of them would be gone, as people found them, so we’d add a few more.” Teel, who lost an eclectic collection of art ranging from 19th century oil paintings to an original photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., expects other pieces to turn up over time, though not necessarily in salvageable condition. “Tons of things will be found by shrimpers,” he says. “Already I know one shrimper found some World War I relics, including a bugle that had washed out and came up in his net.”

The closest disposal site to Pass Christian is the Firetower Landfill, just north of I-10, which was among 50 or so emergency burn pits, disposal sites and transfer stations set up after the storm. “We have seen some art come in,” says Herman Kitchens, who works for Advanced Disposal, the operator of the landfill. “But none of it’s worth salvaging. It’s mostly wet stuff and broken frames. After all the machinery handling, it’s torn to bits. I haven’t seen anything you’d want to keep — it’s mostly things without much value, like you'd see (hanging) in a nursing home.” In the months immediately after the storm, Kitchens says, “You did see a lot of people going through the debris piles. And I know a guy who hauls in here who was a shrimper, and he said he brought up some artifacts in his net that came from Beauvoir (Jefferson Davis’s last home, in Biloxi). But we go flounder-gigging just about every night, and about all we've seen is all the Wal-Mart stuff that’s washed up against the jetty.”

On this particular day a steady stream of dump trucks comes and goes along the rutted gravel road to the former dirt mine, which has been transformed into a mass of pulverized debris perhaps 50 feet high and several hundred yards long. At one end is the so-called “vegetative debris” — mostly trees and brush. Beside that sprawls a mound of tires, beyond which is the sorting area, where other types of refuse, including construction and demolition materials, are shunted to the main landfill, where any art would have likely ended up. It is hard to imagine finding anything recoverable in the waste, which was battered by wind and waves and steeped in salty, bacteria- and mold-laden piles before being bulldozed, loaded into trucks, dumped at the landfill, then compacted and covered with compost. Still, people look.

During the height of the cleanup, as many as 240 dump trucks per day unloaded at the Firetower site, which now contains about 700,000 cubic yards of debris. (By comparison, about ten million cubic yards were removed from the World Trade Center site). “Everyone just wants to get the stuff out of the way as quickly as possible,” says Billy Warden, who heads the solid waste permitting division of the state Department of Environmental Quality, adding that during the collecting and sorting of debris, “We had spotters looking for (chemical) drums, electronics, tires. It was all a jumbled mess, as you can imagine. The tidal surge just rolled all this stuff together. It was everything that would be in your house — clothes, cell phones, photo albums. I never heard of anyone finding any art.”

Even among those in a position to recognize art at the debris sites, knowledge is typically rudimentary and of only passing interest. When asked about the prospects for finding lost artwork, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee suggests talking with “someone at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum” — an apparent reference to the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum, under construction in Ocean Springs to house the pottery of local master George Ohr, otherwise known as “the Mad Potter of Biloxi.” Ohr-O'Keefe Museum director Marjie Gowdy laughs when she hears of the mistake. “It happens all the time,” she says. Yet the museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, had already begun to make a name for itself before its Frank Gehry-designed facility was finished. The museum now has the bittersweet distinction of owning the most valuable collection of art on the Gulf Coast that remains intact. The campus itself is another story; gone is the Pleasant Reed House, built by a freed slave, which was being converted to an African American museum, as well as antebellum Tullis-Toledano Manor, considered by many to have been the best example of Gulf Coast vernacular architecture, which was flattened by an unmoored casino barge. Also damaged was the African American Art wing of the museum, though the graceful live oaks around which Gehry designed the complex survived. Ohr is widely regarded as a pottery genius, known for his pinched, folded, and twisted clay designs that were both eccentric and refined. A single piece has sold for as much as $84,000. His unconventional style reportedly attracted Gehry — most famous for the Guggenheim art museum in Bilbao, Spain, to design the project. Ohr’s pottery came through the storm unscathed on the second floor of the Biloxi library, but “deteriorating security,” as Gowdy puts it, prompted its relocation to the Mobile Museum of Art a week later, where it stayed for one year. It is now in an undisclosed vault north of the Gulf Coast.

Deteriorating security — otherwise known as looting – may have been a factor in the loss of artwork elsewhere, observes Lord, who evacuated with 60 pieces from his own collection but says that of the 200 he left behind, 17 survived on the second floor and were believed to have been stolen later, including works by Jose Orozco, George Luks, and Mark Rothko. “Those 17 were assessed at $2.6 million,” he says. While he did have insurance, Lord says it was not nearly enough to cover his loss. He leafs through a long list of the missing pieces, which include 19th century American landscapes by artists Ralph Blakelock, George Bickerstaff, and Edward Willard Deming as well as modern art by Joseph Meert, Max Weber, and Man Ray. Others say that in the rarefied atmosphere of the cleanup, finders of lost art no doubt occasionally turned into keepers, whether by design or by default.

In the weeks after the hurricane, the entire Gulf Coast was cordoned off and permits were required of anyone seeking to travel to the beachfront. Nowhere was visitor scrutiny more rigorous than in Pass Christian, which was a wealthy enclave of waterfront mansions that claimed the oldest yacht club in the South. Though devastated by the storm, Pass Christian retains more of its lavish residences than any other city on the coast, and those that survived were blown open by the storm, often with valuable furnishings and still hanging artwork visible through gaping holes in the facades. The Pass Christian beachfront is now a scene of architectural triage, with several of the surviving mansions undergoing restoration or being painstakingly returned to their foundations by house movers, and others being demolished or rebuilt from the ground up. At the McMullans’ house, blown-out windows and doors and a large hole in the front wall are now patched with plywood, awaiting a construction crew.

McMullan says that she initially hesitated about repairing the house, but decided to proceed after realizing it was now the oldest structure in town, after the previous titleholder was destroyed by the surge. Today, the lawn is mostly clear of debris, the live oaks are sprouting new growth, and the jasmine is blooming. The sounds of nail guns reverberate from the gutted house next door, while in the other direction, a backhoe groans. McMullan’s initial uncertainty stemmed in part from the pain of loss, she says. “Some of those things — the Audubon prints, the Welty photos, you can still get them. But it’s just too painful to think of hanging anything on those walls right now.” Others express fear that the empty spaces of the Gulf Coast will be filled by garish casinos, condos, and commercial strips. There is also the question of why anyone would invest so much — including priceless collections of art — in what has proved to be an untenable hurricane zone. As if acknowledging the obvious, the logo of the Corps of Engineers’ recovery program features the agency's symbol — a castle, but in this case built of sand.

Lori Gordon laughs when asked why so much valuable art was placed in harm's way, and why so many people are rushing to do it again. “It has to do with this little thing called home,” she says. “No matter what’s staring you in the face, when you get emotionally attached to a place, when you get emotionally attached to things, it defies logic. The people who aren’t emotionally attached — they’re already gone.” Gordon says she has no choice but to move inland herself, in one part due to the wildly escalating cost of hurricane insurance (in some cases, by as much as 400 percent) and the planned construction of high-rise condos in her neighborhood. “That hurts more than the storm,” she says. “Katrina took my house, but circumstances are now robbing me of my home.”

McMullan’s daughter, Margaret, says she always felt trepidation about leaving valuable possessions in the family’s beachfront home, even though the house had survived innumerable hurricanes during its 160 years. “I was always the one closing up before a hurricane, and I’d be thinking, what are we going to do if all this stuff goes? I had a friend visiting once from Los Angeles, and we were walking through the library, where the Eudora Welty photos were, and she said, ‘Why are you keeping these in here? It’s the worst place, with the salt air.’ And my father said, ‘So what? This is where I want to enjoy them.’ My parents, they just want to be amongst that stuff.” She agrees with her mother’s assessment of the monetary value of her grandmother’s portrait. “It’s not a great painting. It’s overly pretty — she looked like one of those Gibson Girls. I always thought the artist should have given her more substance, but the funny thing is, even though my mother got it framed and restored in New Orleans, you could still see those crease marks where it was folded, and that was what I really liked about it. To me, that was its substance.” The same could now be said of the watermarks and muddy stains on much of the art recovered after Katrina, though Pickard, for one, says the scars are too fresh to see it that way now.

Notably, many of the surviving collections, both public and private, are expected to return to their beachfront venues once the necessary restorations are complete. Before Katrina, Vonder Haar’s studio had restored 168 pieces of artwork from Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home, which was built in 1852 and elevated about eight feet above the ground on Biloxi's beachfront boulevard. The last of the artwork was returned to the house two months before Katrina, and much of it was subsequently soaked or ripped by debris, including portraits of Davis and of his daughter, the latter of which Vonder Haar says took 200 hours to restore the first time around. The three most valuable of the damaged paintings are being restored, again, at Delaware's Winterthur Museum, and will eventually be returned to the house.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, which had been scheduled to open in June, is now expected to open in 2008 at the same location. All the necessary protective measures — including reinforcing the walls of the lower level — will be put into place to ensure that the collection is safe, and FEMA has ruled that the building does not have to be further elevated, Gowdy says. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and it does seem risky,” Gowdy says of the extensive collections of art and artists’ studios on the Gulf Coast. “But when it’s beautiful here, it’s so beautiful, and you want to be by the water. People just get enchanted by the Gulf Coast lifestyle. That’s why the artists are going to come back.” She says the art community has also been bolstered by emergency funding from groups such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Ford Foundation, and government agencies including the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Bergin predicts that collecting will resume in earnest once some semblance of normalcy returns. “It’s like I told my wife when we were sifting through the debris: You work all your life to collect, you go to the auctions, you make day trips to galleries in New Orleans and meet artists, you preserve and restore, yet in one fell swoop all that effort is washed away.” Yet soon after the storm, Bergin says he began decorating the RV his family moved into with reclaimed artworks, including paintings by Alexander Calder and Peter Max. “It’s our fix to surround ourselves with what we’ve salvaged,” he says. “It’s an addiction. After the storm, rather than go for food and the file cabinets, what the hell do I do? I go for the artwork. It’s total nonsense. We were without food for nearly three days because of that. We should have been saving food.” The days of searching are now something of a blur, he says. “In the beginning we were all feeling hurt and shocked, and I threw out some things, and I wish I had it to do over again. It was so hurtful to see things that were no longer what they used to be. I wanted to be removed from reality, did not want to salvage or save. The pieces seemed somehow less valuable, and at first you don’t want anything that will remind you of this horrific event. But the further along we go, it’s like a death, where years later you can deal with it. And I realize that what’s left — it's all even more valuable now.”

In the old days, before August 29, 2005, the Anderson family's Shearwater complex in Ocean Springs was an enclave of weathered wooden buildings set amid towering oaks, magnolias, and pines, overlooking the water. Several of the Andersons were or are painters, sculptors, or potters, and many lived and worked in the 28-acre compound, which was anchored by a house built in the 1830s. The most famous among them was Walter Anderson, who produced vivid paintings, murals, and journals recording natural scenes along the Gulf Coast. For many, the damage and destruction of his work represents the most tragic loss of art as a result of Katrina.

Pickard, Anderson’s daughter, stands before the surviving potters’ sheds, which were wrecked by the surge but are being meticulously, lovingly, and somewhat feverishly reconstructed by her son Jason Stebly, using boards and beams retrieved from collapsed buildings or from the nearby marsh, and new lumber milled from old-growth pines felled by the hurricane. “He won’t quit,” Pickard says of her son. “It’s his raison d'etre. He quit his job to do this.”

Pickard, whose soft, open smile occasionally fades as she fights back tears, normally exudes a palpable sense of purpose that now seems on the verge of wavering. She says of her son’s heroic efforts, “I think: Why is he doing this, giving up his whole life, trying to rebuild something that’s gone?”

Stebly is a tall, strong, concentrated man. His skin already brown from the late-spring sun, he is soaked with sweat down to his khaki shorts and running shoes. “Aren’t these boards beautiful?” he asks, gesturing toward the wide planks in the floor of the main potters’ building, which he rescued from a wrecked building nearby. His carpentry is solid, and is a work of art itself. Stepping outside for a smoke, he picks up a few pottery shards and says, “Here’s what I found today.” The pottery was illustrated by his grandfather, he says. Then his eyes roam up the artfully twisted trunk of a tree that appears to embrace the trunk of another beside it, smiles, says, “Black gum,” as if entering a note in a log.

There has been a great deal of cataloging at Shearwater during the last nine months, both on paper and in the minds of the Anderson family. “There were treasures in every building,” Pickard says as she strolls past the empty foundations. “The buildings themselves were art. They were sacred spaces. I lie awake at night trying to reconstruct how it happened, how it was all here and then it was gone. I don’t want to know, but I’m driven to know. What happens is, if you find something like a doll my father made for me from a cypress knee, it’s magnified and made more precious and sanctified. I’ve never been a ‘thing’ person who attaches to dishes or silver, but I had so many treasures that I will never get back again. And I’m coming to realize that those things are an illusion.”

Among the structural casualties were most of the Anderson family homes as well as the Shearwater Pottery showroom, which contained works by family members and others who visited during the decades since the artists' colony was founded in 1928. The losses also include collections of museum-quality ceramics and pottery as well as a portrait of Pickard’s great grandmother by painter Cecelia Beau. Walter Anderson’s studio cottage survived the storm, though it was washed from its foundation, and has since been moved back. Anderson's most famous murals, which once adorned the interior of the cottage, had been moved to the local museum that bears his name years ago, and survived.

Perhaps most traumatic, not only for the Andersons but also for the art world, was the flooding of the vault in which the majority of Walter Anderson's watercolors were archived. Though designed to be wind- and waterproof and elevated three feet above the height of the surge of Hurricane Camille, in 1969 (the benchmark storm prior to Katrina), the vault was breached by debris that smashed the double-sealed steel doors. Today it has the feel of a dank, pilfered mausoleum, and the dented doors look as if they were burst open by a SWAT team. Many of the paintings bled onto their separating papers, which created shadows of their images on the blank page — art that was essentially created by the storm, at the expense of the originals.

The primary motivation behind Anderson’s art, based on his journals, was his desire to understand and exalt nature — to “realize” it, in his words, and toward that aim he frequently rowed alone to Horn Island, a low-lying barrier island a dozen or so miles offshore, to paint for weeks at a time. He saw art everywhere there, and sculpted “The Swimmer,” one of the featured pieces at the Smithsonian exhibit, from a tree felled by the 1947 hurricane. In 1965, the year he died, Anderson rowed to Horn Island to experience Hurricane Betsy, alone and unprotected.

“My father always saw his art as ephemeral, though he had his box of favorites,” Pickard says as she stands beneath wind-stripped trees that now sport clumps of verdant, exaggerated re-growth. “He had an intense admiration for the power of storms. He was awed by them and wanted to be in them. He saw them as a catalyst for change. I’m trying hard to get to that place, to see that it’s going to push us all into being different people. I’m sure he would have known about global warming, and my own feeling is that this has been an indication that this part of the coast is no longer to be occupied. I don't think we’re meant to stay on it now. Each time I go out I feel like I'm going out on land that’s already been taken. The earth is trying to cool itself. Yet it’s human nature: We scurry back.”

Over the years, some of Anderson’s paintings have been sold — usually examples of subjects of which there were many iterations, but for the most part his life work had remained in one place. The family created block prints of some of his works to make them available to the general public, and more than 300 silk screens were recovered and are temporarily stored in a tent at the center of the compound. But Pickard’s brother John Anderson, who acts as the curator of the family’s collection, estimates that more than 80 percent of his father’s work was damaged, and 300 of his best paintings were destroyed. “We’re talking about paintings that have been published in books — icons of his work,”
he says. Some were buried in the muck at the bottom of the vault, while others floated away.

Many of those that survived are now housed at Mississippi State University, awaiting restoration, which Anderson says “will take years and cost millions of dollars” — money that the family does not have, because the collection was not insured. “In the past, people have told us we should take Daddy’s art to New York, that we could get rich, but that was not the objective,” Anderson says. “We kept the art here to keep it in close proximity to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, and people came to us, which is part of the miracle.” He says he has given a lot of thought to how his father would have reacted to the loss. “He’d probably say we’re focusing on preserving too much,” he says, and offers as evidence an episode that took place at Oldfields Plantation, which belonged to his mother’s family, and where his parents lived for a time. At some point, he says, his mother’s father “needed some money, so he cut a large section of old growth timber, this very beautiful forest, and Daddy cried. Then the next year it received sunlight where it hadn’t been before, and flowers sprang up in incredible profusion, and he painted a mural of that rebirth called ‘The Cutover.’ It was about the endless circle of destruction and creation, about the resurrection. But what Daddy did — he wasn't really just painting birds and fish, he was painting a moment in time, a quintessential moment in time, and if one of them is lost, it can’t ever be recovered.”

In the days after the storm, the family searched feverishly for lost art, Pickard says. “We recovered at least three paintings, and lots of people tried, but it was very hot and dangerous. We hunted very intently for two months and after that I got sick of it; then after it got cool I did it again. I think there are probably still things there to be found, but a lot of what I found was just empty frames.” Among the found works was a mural called “The Saints,” which Walter Anderson painted on boards, and which originally hung in his first studio, built by the water in 1930.

“On the wall of his studio he painted Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as St. George and the dragon and the princess,” Pickard says. Though the studio was destroyed by Hurricane Camille, its foundation was incorporated into a patio of Pickard's home, also now gone. After Camille, she says, “We found the boards all over the Shearwater acres and across the harbor. When I built my house, they were mine, so I put them back as close as I could to the place where they’d been, where the studio had been. When Katrina came, again the boards were taken and again we found them, all but one. About three were in the same place in that marsh behind where the showroom used to be. My feeling is they were meant to stay on the property. Jason made it one of his priorities when he was going through the debris to find those boards, and one day he was really tired and he closed his eyes and said please let me find one, and he felt someone looking at him and he turned around and saw half of a saint’s face.” The mural, short one board, now leans against a wall at the home of another of Anderson’s daughters, Leif. Though the boards are weathered, the gilded faces of the saints shimmer like stylized images from a pre-Raphaelite painting.

Pickard is visibly proud of her father’s mural, but the look in her eyes reflects her assessment that things of value are an illusion, that they cannot be depended upon. She is chastened by the cumulative losses, and is as dubious about the future as her son is driven to rebuild the past. Back at the potters’ sheds, she finds Stebly hard at work, as always. The sheds are becoming works of quiet, functional beauty, as he prepares them for the creativity of others. Stebly works all day, every day, Pickard says, then falls asleep, exhausted, in a bed set beneath a tarp by the water. “Why is he doing it?” she asks. “I just keep thinking: It’s all going to be gone.”

The question could be asked of many people across the Gulf Coast, and, for that matter, anywhere: Why does anyone create or preserve, knowing that nothing ultimately lasts? Over the phone, John Anderson mulls the question. Then, in a voice so soft that it is sometimes difficult to hear, he says, “The truth is, Jason seems to have found himself. He has found an identity after the storm. He's found what matters to him.”

Note: About a month later, I wrote the following, as a sort of postscript, which ran in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:

In September 1965, as Hurricane Betsy was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Walter Anderson set out in a rowboat from his home in Ocean Springs for Horn Island, 12 miles offshore.

Anderson was a painter, sculptor and potter from a family of gifted and eccentric artists, and was so enthralled with nature, especially storms, that he wanted to experience Betsy’s raw power unprotected and alone.

The storm hit that night, and when the surge began to wash over the island, Anderson picked a tree to tie himself to in case the waves engulfed him, then moved his camp to a high dune and crawled beneath his overturned skiff. He survived the storm, but his family had no way of knowing it. Apparently oblivious to their concerns, Anderson explored the island for days after, concluding in his journal, “Change — it is magical.”

He died two months later in New Orleans, of lung cancer at 62.

The natural world of the Mississippi coast, in all its fecundity, beauty and occasional violence, was Anderson's lifelong milieu. His belief that the highest art is created in union with nature provides the context for an exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Jewels of the Sea: Walter Anderson's Aquatica, through May.

The exhibit showcases 80 works, many of which were damaged by the surge of Hurricane Katrina. Included are two remarkable watercolors of seashells, a species known as apple murex snails. One, Anderson painted. The other was actually forged by the storm.

The watercolors are among an as-yet uncatalogued collection of damaged artworks and reverse images imprinted on their separating papers when they were inundated by the surge — so-called ghost or shadow images. They illustrate both the cataclysm of the hurricane and the strangely fitting way it breathed new life into the late artist's work.

An estimated 80 percent of Anderson's artwork in his family's large collection was damaged by Katrina, and as many as 300 of his best paintings were destroyed. But, noted his grandson, Jason Stebly, “I think he would have been jazzed by the fact that the storm destroyed some of his work while creating new works. He would have loved that.”

Most of Anderson’s work went unseen until after his death, when the doors were opened to his private cottage at the family's Shearwater Pottery compound in Ocean Springs. The cache of artwork eventually received wide acclaim, and Anderson became something of a cultural icon. Nine books, including his journals in 1973 and a recent biography, explore his life and art.

The Smithsonian staged a major exhibition of his work in 2003, using as a centerpiece a wood sculpture named “The Swimmer,” which Anderson carved from a tree downed by a 1947 hurricane.

Anderson saw his paintings more as process than product, as a vehicle for “realizing” nature, in his words. The paintings were more or less seen as byproducts of the moments of realization, and often expendable ones at that: Anderson typically painted on typewriter paper using impermanent pigments, and was known to use his drawings and paintings to light fires in his hearth.

The Anderson family chose to keep the majority of the collection at the Shearwater compound, a fateful decision when Katrina struck. Though the artwork was housed in a concrete vault elevated three feet above the surge of Camille, Katrina's unprecedented 30-foot surge breached the double-sealed steel doors and flooded the building.

After months of feverishly working to salvage and conserve the remaining works, his son, John Anderson, conceded that his father “would probably feel we're focusing too much on preservation.”

In fact, it is Walter Anderson's view that art is ephemeral and that its highest forms are created in tandem with nature which makes the ghost images so compelling.

During the desperate recovery effort, family members and volunteers found that many of Anderson's paintings had been torn to bits or had simply floated away, while others had been saturated but remained intact. Hundreds of watercolors and ink drawings had bled onto their separating papers, creating the reverse imprints, or ghost images.

No one fully recognized, amid the wreckage, that the ghost prints were valuable. Instead they were viewed as residue of waste — stains left by the storm. Hundreds were simply thrown away.
“We were peeling the acid free papers away and setting them aside, and setting the originals on sheets on the floor to dry... We had no idea they were important. It was just a pile of wet paper,” John Anderson said.

At some point the family began gathering the remaining imprints, and stuck them in a box. Only later, he said, did anyone realize that the creation of the ghost prints represented “something truly powerful, and it was totally about the storm.”

After a long day of digging through the muck, John Anderson said he awoke in the night and felt compelled to return to the sodden art.

Because there was no electricity, he donned a headlamp and began sorting through folders of soggy paintings, “And there was this painting, just glowing, full of powerful energy— perhaps more than it had before,” he recalled. “The colors were more vibrant than before. They looked like they'd just been painted... This same process, which was extremely destructive to so many of the paintings, had actually intensified these.”

All of the paintings in the folder focused on sea life, and when Anderson mentioned this to museum director Libby Hartfield, “She said, 'We've got to do an exhibit.'”

Recognizing beauty amid the ruins of the coast even now is an awkward enterprise, because there is a feeling that to do so is somehow to betray what was lost.

John Anderson remains circumspect about the beauty of the ghost prints, which were created at the expense of the originals. He estimates that less perhaps as few as 50 of the shadow imprints remain, and of those, some are poor replications and do not qualify as art.

Surprisingly, the colors of the original paintings on display, including of the murex snails, remain vibrant, and the watermarks and mud stains do not compromise their integrity.

The ghost print of the snails, which hangs beneath the original, is more pastel, abstract and minimalist, and is crisscrossed by folds indicating that at some point it was wadded up as waste, before someone had second thoughts and flattened it out it again.

Each of the paintings tells its own story, embellished with its own overlays, illustrating both the original moment captured by the artist and the moments created during and after the storm.

The museum exhibit focuses less on the tragedy than on the transcendence of art and nature, and the damage to the collection is explained almost in passing.

In November 2005, the museum hosted an auction of artwork in which a few ghost images were sold, along with works donated by other area artists, to raise money for conserving and restoring the damaged Anderson paintings. That’s expected to cost millions, and the collection was not insured.

During a recent talk at the museum, Mary Anderson Pickard observed that her father once capsized while boating to Horn Island in rough seas, and lost a clipboard of watercolors.
Remarkably, the clipboard, with paintings still attached, was found long afterward by a boat captain near Ship Island and returned to the family. “It had been floating around in the open sea for who knows how long,” Pickard said, “and I was reminded of the look of those paintings when I saw the ghost prints after Katrina.”

Hartfield said the ghost prints can be seen as “an extension of his art, coming from nature. It’s the storm creating for him.

“What I hoped the exhibit would do — what I hope the visitor will take away, is to make us look at nature the way Anderson did, in a fresh way.”

Six years ago today

I wrote this article, about the aftermath of Katrina, the full force of which struck Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Aug. 29, 2005, for the Sept. 25, 2005, Atlanta-Journal-Constitution. The actions of people like Tricia Bliler bear remembering.

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Tricia Bliler was wandering the ruins of her hometown, searching for a dry place to sleep after the squalls of Katrina, when she and a group of friends came upon the darkened gym of the Second Street Elementary School.

Like everyone she knew, Bliler, a waitress at the Good Life restaurant, had been forced into the open by the winds and storm surge of the hurricane, which flooded or blew away nearly every building in town. At this point the gym, though filled with stinky mud, beckoned. So her group cleaned out one corner to bed down for the night, then cooked what food they could scrounge on a reclaimed grill outside.

That is how it started.

"We were out there cooking, and people we knew would walk by and see us and I'd say, 'Come eat while it's good, we've got plenty,'" Bliler recalled recently, during a millisecond break in her work at what was officially known as an unauthorized shelter at the Second Street school. Bliler, a diminutive, focused, straightforward woman, soon found herself with far more than she had bargained for, although not more than she could handle. "People started bringing frozen things that were going to spoil, and we'd cook it on the grill, and from there it was like the fishes and the loaves; the food and the people just kept coming," she said.

Although something clearly went wrong with the official response to Katrina, it is not as if the storm's victims simply sat on their heels and waited. There was too much to do, and inevitably, someone rushed in to fill the void. In Bay St. Louis, one of the hardest-hit communities in the hurricane's path, no one was destined to do more than Bliler.

Within a week of the hurricane's passage Bliler and friends were cooking 300 meals a day on a single wood-burning stove, and the school had become a clearinghouse of information and goods donated to the storm's local victims.

Bliler began seeking aid from various relief organizations, but basically got nowhere. Undeterred, she found cots for the homeless and even began taking in patients evacuated from area hospitals. She adopted stray pets whose owners had vanished. She stockpiled and distributed clothes, medicine and other staples, gave whatever guidance she could to families looking for help in getting their kids back in school, somewhere, and in general offered every kind of aid and comfort she could muster. Finally, representatives from relief organizations including the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Guard began trickling in. Like almost everyone else, they initially just asked questions. But by now Bliler wasn't interested in questions; she wanted answers.

Ten days post-Katrina, the shelter's frenzied volunteers were scrambling to unload truckloads of donated items, tend to the evacuees and cook and serve meals, and Bliler had little time to talk about any of this. When Red Cross worker Liz Goodburn, hovering nearby with a notepad, asked how many meals Bliler was serving and said she might be able to supply a mobile kitchen if the shelter fell within her jurisdiction, Bliler said, "I've got three cooks. Talk to Andy. He's the one with the less stress." Then she was on to something else.

Behind her, stacked in the school cafeteria, were cases of Germ-X disinfectant soap, diapers, bottled water and canned food, all free for the taking. The day was suffocatingly hot and humid, inside and out, there was no power, and everyone was soaked with sweat.

A volunteer spoke to Bliler and she immediately sat down at her police radio and sent out a call for an ambulance. "I've got a diabetic who hasn't had insulin since the hurricane and he needs to go to the hospital," she said into the mouthpiece. There was no response. She repeated the request. Still no reply.

Then she looked up at the group standing nearby: A sunburnt National Guardsman, two Red Cross workers, a uniformed FEMA representative and a journalist. "Does anybody have a vehicle?" she asked. "We've got to get this guy to the hospital."

No response.

"I need a vehicle to take this guy to the hospital," she repeated.

Finally there was nothing to do but volunteer, "I've got a vehicle."

"Will you take him?" Bliler asked, and a minute later Mike McGee and I were off to a MASH unit on the hospital grounds, following directions from the guardsman. As one volunteer later said, "All you have to do is watch Tricia for five minutes, and if she asks you to do something, by God you do it."

Speeding through the ravaged town, bumping across countless downed power lines, with overturned cars intermingled with boats in the median and houses straddling the bent rails of railroad tracks, it was hard to imagine a clearer window into the problem of the notoriously slow response to Katrina. No doubt everyone had their hands full, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the breadth and intensity of the need, and representatives of bureaucratically controlled agencies certainly needed clearance before undertaking what, on paper, might seem like a risky endeavor -- transporting a sick or injured person to a hospital. Yet everyone -- everyone -- was there, and who was really in charge?

Tricia Bliler, waitress.

Away from the strip malls on U.S. 90 and two garish dockside casinos, the heart of Bay St. Louis was a small, quiet village of narrow streets and alleys lined with arching live oak trees and Victorian mansions interspersed with cottages and stores.

Founded in 1818 and ruled variously by France, Spain, Great Britain, the Confederacy and the United States, the town developed a reputation for being racially and economically integrated, much like New Orleans, 50 miles to the west, and surprisingly open and tolerant given Mississippi's conflicted history.

Before Katrina, the beachfront historic district was home to art galleries, cafes and antique shops that managed to stop just short of being precious. More than 100 buildings were on the National Register of Historic Places. South of downtown, the beach was lined with multimillion-dollar estates and antebellum mansions overlooking the Mississippi Sound. It was, said resident Kevin Webster, "like a hip Mayberry."

"Not too long ago I was walking my dog through town and it just hit me: I am so lucky to live in this place," said Estus Kea, who was at that moment digging out a thick coating of muddy sludge from his 1880 shotgun house. "I realized, it's my great good fortune to be here, just walking my dog through this wonderful town, with these beautiful trees, these great old houses, and all these people who have so much joy in life. Now, it's gone."

Throughout that day people stopped by Kea's house to offer help. One family invited him and a friend to lunch, and to barbequed brisket and jambalaya for dinner. A policewoman stopped to ask whether the dog in Kea's yard belonged to him. When he answered that the owners were nowhere in evidence, the officer suggested that they might be dead. She later returned with a large bag of dog food.

A plumber stopped to check Kea's water meter after being told there was no water in the house. As he scooped soupy water from the meter box Kea asked about the man's house and he replied, "It was wiped clean. The yard was wiped clean. I don't have nothin' to clean up." A carload of strangers stopped to ask if anyone wanted anything to eat or drink. "We've got red beans and rice," the girl in the front seat said.

Despite the tragedy --- or perhaps because of it --- there was a beguiling sense of camaraderie in the days after the hurricane. "Every night on this street we have a neighborhood party," said one resident, Sandra Bagley. "We take that Hawaiian Punch the National Guard gives out at the Sav-A-Center and mix it with vodka and call it the Katrina."

But there was also work to be done. Back at the Second Street school, Tricia Bliler was grappling with an onslaught of new evacuees, enlisting the aid of guardsmen from Pensacola, Fla., and others to restore electricity to the entire school, and working with a church group from Oxford, Miss., to install a mobile water purification system.

Across town, Alorna and Richard Kay were probing the ruins of their house by the railroad tracks, searching for a cabinet containing important papers and worrying about their son, who had assumed a role not unlike Bliler's in his own community, the Desire neighborhood in New Orleans.

The Kays are from New Orleans, and it was there that they chose to ride out the hurricane, in their son's apartment. He spent the first days of the flood evacuating people in his canoe, and they soon found themselves helping victims, many of them elderly people who chose to stay or who could not leave. "He's not coming out," Alorna Kay said of her son. She and her husband only returned to Bay St. Louis after nine days to check on their house, she said.

Kay said the kind of support networks that had coalesced in Bay St. Louis had also formed within the neighborhoods of New Orleans. Such de facto communities came together in the Bywater and Desire neighborhoods, in the French Quarter, in the Garden District, even within the hell of the Superdome, where groups actually formed defensive enclaves --- circles of chairs with men ringing the outer perimeter to stand guard.

"There were pockets all over town," she said. "People are just trying to cope."

"It's unfortunate because of the circumstances," she said, "but something like this, in the end it draws people together, and you see who you can depend on."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wildlife and the flood

Of all the possible responses to finding yourself trapped on a shrinking patch of dry ground during a flood, burying your head in the dirt seems the most ill-advised. Yet that is what Paul Hartfield, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, observed a pack of armadillos doing as the Mississippi River flooded the lowlands north of Vicksburg last spring.

“It was like the height of denial,” Hartfield said of the four armadillos’ behavior, which he observed while exploring the floodwaters by boat with his wife Libby, director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, and Mississippi River guide John Ruskey. The armored rodents had dug a group hole, buried their heads, then clumsily attempted to cover the rest of their bodies with sticks and leaves.

Aside from being successful pioneers (they invaded the southern U.S. from South America), armadillos aren’t known for their intelligence. In fact, based on empirical road-kill evidence, it would be easy to conclude that they’re born dead on the side of the road. But their response to the threat of drowning seemed, well… downright stupid.

Armadillos are in fact able swimmers, capable of dog-paddling great distances, swimming for up to five minutes underwater, and even walking on the submerged bottoms of streams and ponds. Their behavior that day last spring seems to indicate that despite being able to do such things, sometimes they would just as soon not.

Though armadillos often bury their heads in response to a threat, it’s usually a defensive posture, not part of a long-term flood-survival plan. Hartfield said he expects the armadillos changed that plan once water began to fill their hole, that they were merely holding out until the last, and that, given their ability to swim, perhaps it wasn’t as dumb as it seemed.

Hartfield’s story raises an interesting question about wildlife during this year’s historic Mississippi River flood: How did they survive the inundation of millions of acres of land, from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, in many cases for months at a time?

Deciding whether to stay or go was on the minds of pretty much every animal in the Mississippi’s floodplain this spring, and unlike human residents, who made a run on every available U-Haul, farm trailer and hill-country storage building, wild animals had only their own legs, wings, fins or… wiggly muscles… to get them out of harm’s way. Making the wrong choice could mean death.

Seasonal fluctuations of water levels have been a part of life along the Mississippi River for millennia. Most of the region’s wildlife are hardwired to recognize the cues that the water is rising and move to higher ground, or, if necessary, swim or climb onto driftwood or into trees. Their responses to a major flood, such as occurred this year, are not unlike those of animals that have evolved within the context of wildfires in the American West, who typically graze as they move, unexcitedly, ahead of the advancing flames. That’s not to say animals don’t suffer, or, in some cases, die.

As Ruskey observed in his blog about a canoe trip he took from Memphis to Vicksburg at the height of the flood, the number of human evacuees along the river paled in comparison with the millions of wild animals that were either swept away or driven from its islands, sandbars and adjacent forests and fields. Still, Ruskey reported seeing only one dead deer during his entire trip.

As the flood retreats into history, biologists, hunters, fishermen and others have begun to assess how wildlife populations fared and how their habitats will be changed. Floods are integral to the ecosystems of the Mississippi River lowlands, but the 2011 event was unusually large in some areas, and a non-event in others, primarily as a result of manmade alterations that concentrate flows outside the protective levees. In many cases, those levees were the potential line of demarcation between life and death.

Ruskey, who operates a canoe guide service in Helena, Ark. and Clarksdale, Miss., noted that during his trip the flooded forests between the protective levees seemed eerily empty aside from an occasional, raucous flock of birds, and he predicted it will be “many seasons” before wildlife demographics return to normal. Along the way, Ruskey saw that one dead deer; another swimming in the surging river; a few snakes in trees; a black squirrel leaping through the forest canopy; and an armadillo, a raccoon and a wild boar that had taken refuge together on a small section of dry ground. Among the other species displaced by the flood were bear, fox, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, mink, bobcats, moles, beaver, wild turkey, turtles, frogs and skinks.

Given the general lack of wildlife that Ruskey and others observed in the flood zone, one might assume that there were widespread wildlife deaths, and that the ecological balance of the floodplain was significantly disrupted. Neither was likely the case, according to Hartfield, a recognized expert on the Mississippi River. He said that while some old, weak or very young animals no doubt died, most climbed into trees or onto driftwood, or walked, flew, slithered or swam to whatever higher ground they could find. The majority, he said, will eventually return to their home turf.

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that deer, with their spindly legs and small hooves, are actually remarkably strong swimmers, and can swim for miles, even in strong currents. Still, even they must eventually reach a resting spot, which posed a challenge during a flood that in some areas spread 30 miles wide.

For other species, such as wild turkeys, the challenge was to find a place to nest, because the flood coincided with their reproductive season. For still others, such as slow-moving, ground-dwelling moles, voles and earthworms, escape wasn’t really an option.

The danger of animals being forced into the open was primarily about human contact – encountering poachers, vehicles, dogs or manmade obstacles. Wild animals tend to become strangely tolerant of each other during floods, with mortal enemies sometimes congregating together, without controversy, of necessity.

As reports circulated about alligators basking on levees alongside animals that might otherwise have been their prey, I was reminded of something my grandparents told me about floods at their home along Steele Bayou, in the lower Mississippi Delta. The area was accessible only by boat during “high water,” as they referred to the seasonal inundations -- what we now routinely call a “flood.” A flood, in my grandparents’ view, was an unexpected, disastrous event, such as had occurred in 1927. This year’s event would have qualified as a flood, too, but most did not. In that sense, their vantage point was closer to that of the area’s wildlife than to typical contemporary human residents. When the water rose, a person either found a place to ride it out or migrated to higher ground. The biggest problem for my grandparents was the attractiveness of the doorsteps at their elevated house to rattlesnakes and water moccasins. When high water came, my grandparents entertained themselves by taking boat rides to various Indian mounds on which animals with conflicted histories had taken refuge, and where the consensus seemed to be: We’re in this together; let’s not have any trouble on the mound.

Such scenes were repeated during this year’s flood. For the most part, high ground meant the bluffs that abut the river in Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and Baton Rouge; the levees that in places run along both sides of the river; and scattered Indian mounds. In some cases the only refuge wasn’t ground at all: During the height of the flood, deer and other animals were frequently seen marooned on the roofs and porches of homes. In places such as tiny Rodney, Miss., which is unprotected by levees, the dispersal of wildlife added an unexpected edge to the flood, as alligators were seen swimming along submerged streets.

Hartfield said the flood likely dispersed a great many animals, and may have fragmented the small surviving populations of bear, though they are also accustomed to swimming and climbing trees.

As for the impact of the flood on lowland habitats, some riverbanks, sandbars and farm fields were scoured by the currents, and some trees were uprooted. But in most cases the flood will be a boon to wildlife because it will rejuvenate habitat and introduce new food sources. Some animals will feast on the occasional carcass or on sluggish fish trapped in shallow, diminishing pools.

“The floodplain is fertilized, and blooms following a flood,” Hartfield said. “Food is abundant, and wildlife populations rebound and prosper. Oxbow lakes are replenished, and fishing should actually improve.” He added that it is also worth remembering that floods are the reason those areas remain comparatively wild.

Photo courtesy John Ruskey

Good night, Irene

This just in! Hurricane Irene is trending on Twitter!

That was the notable nut graph (as journalists used to call it) of a news story today on the approach of the “monstrous” Irene to the U.S. mainland. The nut graph, for those of you who weren’t around when newspapers were primary news sources, is the paragraph – usually about the third or fourth, but sometimes much farther down – that essentially tells you why you’re reading the story.

There can be more than one nut graph, and in this case the notation about Irene's Twitter trending was actually pretty far down. But when you got to it, you knew: Beyond the actual possibility of a multibillion dollar natural disaster, complete with loss of life, what mattered was that people thought it mattered, and so, tweeted.

Look for the nut graph next time you’re scanning a news item. Be forewarned that today it sometimes gets left out altogether, so you don’t even know that the reason you should care about some random board vote is that the board had previously voted to award a contract to a child molester who had contributed to the board president’s campaign, etc. Sometimes, as was the case with Irene, the actual nut graph is more or less buried.

Why, you might ask, would you need a reporter to tell you why you're reading a story? Because otherwise the board vote might seem inconsequential, and you would not be inclined to read on. With most any news item, after you get past the lead paragraph, which is designed to get your attention, and a couple of follow-up paragraphs, which kind of make the lead make sense (the beginnings of the who, what, where, when and why), you will, presumably, wonder: Why should I read further? Why do I care to know more? At which point the reporter answers the question: Here is why. And the reason you need to know about hurricane Irene’s approach is not so much because it poses a physical threat, though there is that (Be frightened! Tweet about it!) but precisely because it’s trending. That's where we are now.

Awareness of reader (or viewer) interest is at the heart journalism, but the notion – and its practical applications – have been perverted over time, so that it’s now like some weird hybrid of voyeurism and autoeroticism. For this, I find it convenient to blame the 24-hour cable news cycle. Short on actual news to fill the hours, cable news producers began to find new ways of framing the story, and of fabricating the significance thereof. Soon “what you think” became enough to carry a story. And from there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to “what we think” being enough to carry a story. That’s how you end up with the news covering the news. Who knows better how to find its own g-spot, after all? And you get to watch!

Hence, today’s article, in which hurricane Irene is validated by “trending on Twitter.” Not to get all Andy Rooney about it, because immediate access to news, via Twitter or any other mechanism, is pretty amazing, and at times can be extremely useful. The question is, what messages are we receiving and sending out? If we have an opportunity to tell the world about something, is it going to be that our cat is sick (Facebook), or that we're interested in tweeting about what you're tweeting about (Yahoo! News rotator)?

Sadly, the revealing nut graph about Irene's twits wasn’t found on a news item carried by the self-absorbed and shameless Fox News network, or the juvenile Yahoo! News, but on venerable old AP, which is apparently trying to seem cool when it’s way too old for those pants, and anyway the pants suuck, duude.

This sort of needy come-on, this “Hey, have we met? I just heard this really interesting story!” is basic to journalism. It's what gave the world those newsboys in knee socks on the corner shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” But when how you perceive the story becomes an important component – perhaps the most important part -- of the actual story, it not only corrupts the news process, it trivializes everything. When you care about something because you are perceived to care, and because you perceive that others perceive that others care, and when that is the nut graph... well, that’s a trend worth noting.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Saved! (hopefully)

Readers of Mississippi in Africa, and of these notes, may recall that the most prominent surviving landmark of the Southern Gothic saga of Prospect Hill plantation is a monumental old house that’s in a sadly advanced state of disrepair. (

The Prospect Hill house – the second on the site -- was built in Jefferson County, Mississippi in 1854, at the close of a particularly tumultuous period. Two decades before, Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross had decreed in his will that his plantation be sold and the money used to pay for his slaves to immigrate to a West African colony known as Liberia. The colony had been set up as a repository for freed slaves by a group called the American Colonization Society, which, oddly enough, was comprised of staunch abolitionists yet funded by slave holders, the two groups having found common ground -- literally -- on the West coast of Africa.

Faced with the prospects of giving up his family land, and freeing the slaves who were the engine of his prosperity, Ross's grandson had balked. With his mother's help, he contested the will, and during a decade of litigation, a slave uprising allegedly aimed at killing him resulted in the burning of the original Prospect Hill house and the death of a young girl, after which the slaves suspected of being behind the uprising were lynched.

In a case of going against historical type, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld Ross’s will in 1845, and about 300 slaves from Prospect Hill and other family plantations immigrated to Mississippi in Africa, as their region of the Liberian freed-slave colony was called. Ross’s grandson managed to regain control of the property (either by buying it outright or receiving it as payment for acting as executor of the estate – the record is unclear), at which point he built the existing house. The Mississippi Colonization Society, which was responsible for the repatriation effort, later erected a monument to Ross in the family cemetery. Curiously, the tombstone at his grandson's grave, nearby, is the only one in the cemetery installed backward, so that as one stands at the foot of the other graves it is possible to read the inscriptions, while his appears blank.

The freed-slave immigrants (including others from scores of plantations across the South) meanwhile built their own Greek Revival houses in Liberia, alluding to the structures they'd built for their former masters, and in some cases subjugated and even enslaved members of the indigenous tribes, which eventually contributed to the nation’s civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a twisted, and enthralling tale, and the existing Prospect Hill house, in its romantic ruin, serves as a fitting centerpiece.

Unfortunately, the house has been lurching toward doom for decades, which is why a preservation group recently bought it from its absentee owner, hoping to protect the archeological evidence of the site and to find a buyer to restore the house, which, as you can see, will be a major undertaking. In a news release announcing the purchase, Jessica Crawford, Southeast regional director of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy, said Prospect Hill is worthy of the effort. The house and surrounding grounds represent some of the best physical evidence on this side of the Atlantic of a little-explored facet of American history. Despite the many complications of buying and preserving it, its history made it too hard to pass up, she said.

Photo courtesy Charles Greenlee

The house is a departure from the Conservancy's typical projects, but after telling the Conservancy’s president about the foundations she'd discovered of the vanished slave quarters, and the back yard kitchen, and the nearby slave owners’ and the slaves’ cemeteries, Jessica presented him with a copy of Mississippi in Africa, and a few days later, she recalled, he said, “Let’s go for it.” Due to its volatile mix of slave-owner and slave history, and its broader ramifications regarding the African American diaspora, the site holds clues that likely can be found nowhere else, she said. The idea is to find a buyer to restore the house, and to retain an easement for the archaeological sites.

For those who don’t know Jessica, she is an extremely committed, driven and accomplished archaeologist, and judging from the way she handled the difficult negotiations of the Prospect Hill sale, is also a master of diplomacy. Having observed her wielding a hammer on the rusted roof of the house, and hauling away truckloads of moldy garbage and debris, I can attest that she is, perhaps just as importantly, a hands-on operator. If the house is in fact saved, it will be because of her.

Photo by Jessica Crawford, from the roof of Prospect Hill

I first encountered Jessica last year when I visited Prospect Hill with my friend Chad and saw someone standing high above, on the crumbling widow’s walk. It was a woman I'd never seen before, waving. (At that moment, she also took the photo above -- the tiny figures in the distance are Chad and me.) To even get to the widow’s walk proved to be an adventure; it required scaling a rickety, 15-foot-tall homemade ladder positioned on a rotten porch, passing through a tiny ceiling portal, navigating the attic by stepping from beam to beam, then climbing another ladder onto the rotting platform high atop the roof. Jessica did not own the house, and had no way of knowing if her organization ever would. But the roof needed fixing, so she and Jennifer Baughn, architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (a person of similar commitment, effectiveness and drive) decided to do what they could, themselves. They enlisted the help of others, including, on that day, me, Chad and Mississippi Heritage Trust director David Preziosi. But Jessica and Jennifer did the bulk of the work, and it eventually became clear that Prospect Hill was going to be Jessica's baby.

Soon Jessica was traveling from her home in the Mississippi Delta to Prospect Hill to clean up debris,
mow grass, and probe the nearby gullies and sheds for artifacts and clues. Eventually, she named the sole surviving resident, a peacock abandoned by the last owner, after Isaac Ross, and on each visit took him treats. She also commissioned a consultant to assess the structural integrity of the house. The consultant's conclusion was that despite significant cosmetic damage that would, if left unrepaired, eventually lead to its destruction, Prospect Hill was structurally sound. He also pronounced the roof, with its long, mathematically-engineered free spans, "intelligent." The house was clearly built for the ages, as evidenced by its survival with almost no maintenance for the better part of a century. It deserved better than the ignominious fate of its builder.

Everyone that gathered at Prospect Hill that day felt they had a stake in saving the house, but it was Jessica who ultimately sealed the deal.

As Jessica pointed out, Prospect Hill wasn't merely another remote Greek Revival plantation house in desperate need of a friend. In addition to harboring archaeological and visual clues about life on an early 19th century cotton plantation, Prospect Hill represents something like the “old country” for descendants of the largest group of immigrants to Liberia. Preserving the house and grounds will provide a point of entry to a remarkable archaeological site that could shed light on the repatriation effort, the uprising and fire, and the lives of Prospect Hill’s slaves under two very different masters.

Due to the site’s historical importance and the house’s disrepair, the Mississippi Heritage Trust included Prospect Hill on its 2011 list of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. After her first visit to the property, Jessica realized it posed both a unique challenge and a unique opportunity for the Conservancy, a nationwide, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of significant archaeological sites for research and educational purposes. The house, an elaborate, raised cottage of 10 rooms standing on a secluded knoll amid moss-draped trees, “is the point of entry to an amazing, and important episode in American history," as she noted in the Conservancy's news release. "The house, the cemetery and the grounds represent the visible evidence. We’re also excited about what can’t be seen – the clues buried underground.”

Even in its current state, Prospect Hill is hauntingly beautiful. But the structure is running out of time. Jessica said that while the Conservancy doesn't have the means to undertake a full restoration, the group can apply for grants and look for funding that will enable emergency stabilization of key stress points, including the front porch and roof. Meanwhile, the Conservancy will work with the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Department of Archives and History to find a buyer to take on a full restoration.

Before Jessica came along, the future for Prospect Hill was undeniably bleak. The Wade family had sold the house in the 1960s due to the expense of upkeep, and the fact that no family members wanted to live there anymore. The man who bought it had promised to restore it, but never did; he subsequently sold it to another man who likewise planned to restore it, but never did, and eventually abandoned it. By the time Jessica arrived on the scene, no one even knew where the current owner lived. Yet she managed to find him, then set about the difficult task of negotiating the sale. No matter what she says, if the house is ultimately saved, it will be because of her. And in the meantime, the surviving archaeological evidence, which offers clues to a crucial, little-known chapter of Mississippi, American and African history, is secure.

The Conservancy is still working out the details of the planned sale, but anyone who is interested should contact Jessica Crawford at 662/326-6465, or by email at, or the Conservancy's Albuquerque office at 505/266-1540.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Serpent in the garden

When I pulled up to Holly Grove and got out of my truck today, I heard a ruckus high in the old cedar tree that stands rather forlornly by the walk. The cedar is a very old tree, the last of a line that was probably planted in the 19th century, and it shows its age. Hurricane Katrina took out its top, and it is riddled with crevasses from which poison ivy vines grow, high above ground, and tiny, open portals to its rotten heart, into and out of which traipse giant carpenter ants, anoles, blue-tailed skinks and a large and rather obscene-looking species of lizard whose name I do not know.

Warblers nest in the Spanish moss that adorns the tree, and at dusk it murmurs with cicadas and sings with tree frogs. It’s full of life. But it is not a tree that is prone to any sort of ruckus, other than that imposed by hurricanes. So when I heard the noise I glanced toward the source, and was surprised to see a very large – perhaps five feet long – green and yellow snake falling, head over tail, from the high branches, bouncing off a couple of palmettos before hitting the ground behind the picket fence with a very loud whump. It then promptly disappeared into the vinca.

I’ve seen snakes fall out of trees before, as I have squirrels, sometimes from great heights. But what was most remarkable in this case was that as the snake was cartwheeling toward the ground, it was being pursued by a fox squirrel. It was a mid-sized squirrel, so it’s hard to imagine that the snake had been attempting to make a meal of it. That being the case, why might the snake have been in the tree, harassing it? And why, whatever the reason for the harassment, did the squirrel choose to pursue the hapless serpent?

I assume that I had interrupted whatever was going down. After the snake disappeared into the vinca, the squirrel ran round and round the trunk, peering into its crevasses as if looking for something, meanwhile glancing at me. I have no idea what was going on, but I veered wide from the vinca on my way into the house.