By Marc Andresen
Nobody wants to talk about Hurricane Katrina anymore, and I can’t blame them. Two years have passed, and for people living outside the Gulf Coast the disaster is old news. But for New Orleans designers, talking about Katrina is inevitable. Like everyone else in the city, the local design community is still recovering, shaken into a changed self-identity.
My wife and I first left New Orleans as the hurricane made landfall. Taking only a few things with us—howling pet cats, my current work files—we drove in the hard rain in long traffic jams fleeing the city across the Lake Pontchartrain bridge. Eighteen hours later, as we dried off in our friends’ house in Atlanta, we sadly watched the evening news and saw the floodwaters filling our city.
Hundreds of other designers and illustrators were similarly scattered, far from their homes and businesses. Lori Reed, head of the New Orleans chapter of the AIGA, relocated temporarily to Tennessee before returning to rebuild her house. She tried to maintain her AIGA chapter as a site of information and contact while she dealt with losing her own clients who were decreasing their budgets. Reed says that getting her business and chapter up and running—and removing a fallen tree from her home—was stressful, but, she adds, “I was too busy to really allow myself to give in to the stress. The manual labor of cleaning up the debris and removing moldy carpet … helped provide a physical outlet.” Designer Samia Saleem evacuated to Houston, then moved to Seattle, where her job at the time allowed her to work remotely. “It took me a long time to mentally digest everything that had happened,” she says. It didn’t help that many people she encountered were unfamiliar with much of Southern culture; she found that communicating with them was “like speaking a foreign language.” Josh Mayer of Peter A. Mayer Advertising, whose staff reconstituted itself after the storm a little closer to home, in Baton Rouge, found solace and distraction in his job: “Even looking over match prints was a joy.”
As for my own post-Katrina situation, I remained in Atlanta, and all my projects simply stopped. “Well, Mark, we don’t need that new mural design, because Katrina knocked down the building,” the design director at the Audubon Zoo told me over the phone. One of my ongoing clients, McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco Sauce, is located on Avery Island on the Louisiana coast. McIlhenny was hit badly by Hurricane Rita a few weeks after the company’s downtown New Orleans offices got slammed by Katrina. Bent Media’s Brad Brewster and I stopped working on McIlhenny’s website for nearly two years as the company regrouped.
My only project during those first few months came thanks to Rudy VanderLans of Emigre. He suggested I do a book of New Orleans sketches that he offered to design, using the sketchbooks of personal drawings rescued by my wife, Paula, as we evacuated. Starting on that book—New Orleans as It Was—helped me focus.
Two months after the flood, I flew back to New Orleans to meet FEMA representatives and to oversee the contractors working on my house. We lived in the Metairie area, which escaped the worst devastation. But our block looked blasted and gray, and dust and sand covered the interior of our home. Entering my studio, where there had been looting, I found myself walking on scattered illustrations as if they were carpeting.
Later, I went to visit a friend in Gert Town, one of the poorer neighborhoods. As I drove my rental car into the area, my jaw dropped. It looked apocalyptic. I kept asking myself: Is this still America? I took out my sketchbook and drew the images shown here. There was an unkind Cubism about that wreckage: the rows of shotgun houses with the search-and-rescue spray-painted marks indicating how many bodies were discovered in each house; a motorboat left high and dry in the middle of the road; piles of trash 8 feet tall and the cars left like burned-out carcasses.
I have yet to move back. My temporary stay in Atlanta has become semipermanent, but my career is no longer on hold. Almost two years later, we have started again on the mural project for the Audubon Zoo. Luckily, I had saved my folder of hundreds of animal drawings when I evacuated.
Some New Orleans designers I know have returned to the city and are even thriving there. Robbie Vitrano, principal of the agency Trumpet, has recruited 15 new employees. Designer Tom Varisco’s clients are asking for ads to indicate they are still up and running. “We have always done a lot of restaurant work, and their line of business came back pretty fast,” he says. But there are other designers, like me, who relocated and are unsure of ever returning. Samia Saleem recently left Seattle for New York. While her family is still in New Orleans, she believes the city simply has “fewer opportunities.” Another designer, Donna Musarra, opted to move to Arkansas and found that the disaster informed her relationship to her job. “I have decided to give up graphic design,” she says. “The events surrounding Katrina made me realize [the things that were] really important to me, and advertising isn’t one of them.” Lori Reed herself has decided to leave town, in part because of Katrina. “We are ready to move on, to be closer to family should another catastrophe strike,” she says.
Wherever we live now, New Orleans designers are often choosing to respond to their ordeal through their art, as I did. Varisco created Spoiled, a book of photos documenting messages written on abandoned refrigerators; Saleem produced Degrees of Separation, a collection of postcards, made by New Orleans designers, that addressed their experiences. Such projects offer valuable chances to communicate about our plight, especially in light of the way it is seen from the outside. Reed says, “ I regret that the nation looks at us with pity and as a lost cause.” Designer John Barousse thinks the country views New Orleans as a community that needed to be saved from its sins, its apathy, its geography. But as many creative people know well, New Orleans was one of the country’s few remaining towns where you could be wild and free—a city with real soul. Now that is something that needs saving.