Hurricane Katrina: The Recovery of Artifacts and History

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This week marks the four-year anniversary of the nation's fifth deadliest hurricane, Katrina, the devastating storm that flooded New Orleans and ravaged coastal areas from central Florida to Texas.

On September 26 that year, two Smithsonian staffers from the National Museum of American History, curator David Shayt and photographer Hugh Talman began a five day research expedition, traveling throughout Louisiana and Mississippi collecting artifacts and photo documenting the disaster areas. (Shayt later wrote about his experience in the December 2005 issue of Smithsonian magazine. He died in 2008.)

At the evacuation center in Houma, Louisiana, Shayt and Talman met Bryan and Beverly Williams, who gave the museum staffers permission to travel to their New Orleans home in Ward 7—escorted for safety reasons by two police officers—to recover objects important to the family and to search for possible artifacts for the museum's collections.

Brent Glass, the museum's director, noted at the time that it was important to "collect, preserve and document this episode in the country's history."

For Shayt, the visit was a powerful experience. Upon entering the house, the curator wrote of the scene he encountered. "We entered the sodden ground floor and found the furniture all scrambled about as if it had been swirled in a colander with mud."

Lace valances, handmade by Beverly, caught his eye. "The pair of valances—a delicate, ghastly symbol of the flood and bearing Katrina's signature flood-line mark, would make a powerful artifact," Shayt wrote. For the family, Shayt and Talman recovered the Williams' daughter's Playstation 2 and DVD collection and a number of family photographs for Beverly.

Shayt also recalled driving into Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, on the first day of the trip and seeing a large plywood sign with a poignant message: "Have We Been Forgotten." As he contemplated adding the sign to his growing collection of artifacts for the museum that day, he noted his own wary decision-making process. "Disaster collecting is an inexact science. The selection process is daunting, but objects like this sign exist to make the telling of history possible." The sign now resides within the museum's collection.

Shayt and Talman collected more than 20 artifacts and took 900 photographs for the museum. Other artifacts include a sign from New Orlean's Broad Street reading "Hurricane Evacuation Route," a cot from the Superdome and a mailbox from a home in New Orleans that is currently on display in the first floor glass cases, or Artifact Walls, located at the Constitution Avenue entrance.

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