Four days after Hurricane Katrina surged over New Orleans’ vulnerable levees, flooding 80% of the city in up to 30 feet of water, the New York Times ran the headline, "DESPAIR AND LAWLESSNESS GRIP NEW ORLEANS AS THOUSANDS REMAIN STRANDED IN SQUALOR." The story described angry crowds rushing at helicopters for food and "thugs" committing rapes and other violent crimes on isolated streets.
Twelve-year-old Tr’Vel Lyons, a former resident of devastated New Orleans East who escaped to Los Angeles with his mother after water engulfed their home, has a different story to tell. In a matter-of-fact way that would befit someone with many more years, Lyons describes how he, his mother, and a neighbor climbed up "the notorious ladder that saved our lives" and escaped through an attic crawlspace to safety. He then rattles off a list of things for which he is grateful: the guardian angel that kept him and his family from harm, the air-conditioned bus that evacuated them, the man who provided a free ride to the airport, family members in Baton Rouge, the grandmother who sent plane tickets.
"If we had no attic, we would have drowned," Lyons says. "Thank God for that."
Lyons’s story, along with dozens of others that were lost in the initial noise of disaster reporting after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, is now part of a that anyone can peruse online. The effort, which tracks both storms, their aftermath, the rebuilding process, and hopes for the future, invites viewers to compare the disasters—and think about what they mean for future disasters to come.
The Katrina/Sandy timeline marks the coming together of two long-running projects—Land of Opportunity, which has collected thousands of hours of interviews with Katrina survivors in the nine years following the hurricane, and Sandy Storyline, which is collecting similar material from Sandy survivors. "I think there’s a real tendency to kind of avoid connecting the dots between large scale disasters or crisis events," says Land of Opportunity director Luisa Dantas. "There’s a real tendency to say, ‘What happened over there will be different over here.’"
"We knew immediately that we wanted to try and put that media in context with each other," adds Sandy Storyline’s Rachel Falcone. "We wanted it to be in dialog about what was happening."
Even though Dantas and Falcone were still adding material to their respective databases, they started highlighting similar themes and adding them to the twin timeline. Together, the Katrina and Sandy segments tell stories of people who had been left behind—the disabled and elderly stuck in high-rise apartments without heat or hot water after Sandy, the families who lived in cramped FEMA trailers for more than a year after the levees broke. The timelines show survivors who have done very much with very little; they also reveal problems that pre-existed the storms and continue to affect coastal residents today.
"If anything, what we’re trying to do with the timeline is remind people to counter that tendency to forget and say everything’s fantastic, to remind people that this happened, and it’s very much still alive," Dantas says.
Perhaps, with some perspective, viewers will be able to see storm survivors in a different light.
"One dream is to be able to regard Katrina survivors as experts and knowledge bearers who could share their experiences with other folks as part of a larger national or collective effort to come up with sustainable ways to deal with these inevitable crises," Dantas adds.
To check out the timeline, click here.