Katrina and The Flood, 5 years later: Floodwall

Floodwall exhibit detail at Louisiana State University, 2007. Image from the Floodwall.org Flickr photostream. How can you possibly imagine the destruction of an entire city? How do you imagine an event so impossibly large? How do you get past “the mind boggles”? Floodwall is an art installation, a “Wailing Wall” with an oral history component. The brainchild of Jana Napoli of New Orleans, Floodwall is a way to wrap your mind around the destruction of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina and the Flood.

NOAA Satellite Image of Katrina on the Gulf Coast of the United States Her art installation is a collection of household drawers, scrounged from the post-flood detritus from cleaned out houses. When Napoli returned back to New Orleans after the flood, she was stunned by the silence of the empty city. “I saw these emptied out drawers and thought, ‘Each one of these is a household.’ I began to collect them.” On the back of each drawer, she wrote the address where she picked it up. She couldn’t stop collecting them.

NOAA image of flooded New Orleans. Only rooftops are visible above the waterline.

Napoli: “The problem is, where do you save—the first 50 were easy; they went out in the garage—where do you save 700 dresser drawers while they dry out and fall apart?”

Drawers arranged to resemble tombstones, at the exhibit in New York City, January 2007. Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, How can a person imagine the immensity of the destruction? By taking this regular, everyday household object—a drawer (kitchen drawer, dresser drawer, desk drawer). Put hundreds of them together in one place, place a map on the wall showing the addresses where the drawers came from—all over New Orleans—and let this collection of one everyday thing speak for the destruction and loss of the everyday things placed in drawers. Let this collection speak to the disruption of every day lives after The Flood Came.

Google Map of New Orleans showing locations where all the Floodwall drawers came from. Floodwall exhibit,  New York City, January 2007. Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid Napoli’s collaborator for this project is Rondell Crier. For each installation, they’ve arranged the drawers in different configurations:

When set upright at an exhibit at the World Financial Center in New York City, overlooking the World Trade Center site—Ground Zero, the drawers were arranged like a set of tombstones.

When the exhibit came to the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,  the drawers were set in one lengthy expanse—a wailing wall.

The exhibit is currently traveling overseas and for the installation in Poland, Floodwall is arranged as a rectangular room.

Floodwall exhibit in Poland. Photograph ©Wojciech Gajewski. Used by permission.

Opening of Floodwall Exhibit at the National Museum in Wroclaw, in south-western Poland. Image ©Wojciech Gajewski, Used by permission.

The exhibit has an audio component—this is where the oral histories come in. When Napoli and Crier found a drawer’s owner, they interviewed the person about their Katrina experience, about what was in the drawer, and what they lost. Clothes, tools, old love letters, wedding gift placemats (never used). You can play some oh-so-brief audio excerpts on the Drawers and Personal Stories page of the Floodwall site.

Movie about the background of the Floodwall exhibits, with interviews with artists Jana Napoli and Rondell Crier, and a couple of people whose drawers are in the exhibit. The movie also shows the Floodwall exhibit in situ in New York and Louisiana Direct YouTube movie link

Close-up view of front of drawers of the Floodwall. Image from the Floodwall.org Flickr photostream. Napoli says, “We have a website—floodwall.org—each drawer is pictured on it with the the address where we found it and a space on the side for the owner’s name, and hoping they would tell us their story.” For the website, Rondell Crier created a database for each drawer, with the drawer’s photo and address. On the floodwall website, you can view the drawers—listed by zip code. If you find yours, there’s a way to get in touch with Napoli and Crier, so you can tell your story.

Back side of drawers. Image from the Floodwall.org Flickr photostream.

“For many people, this is all that’s left of their entire history of anything that they owned is in this wall. We’re searching America for the people who own these drawers.”

“This wall was built for America, to speak for the silence that there were no words for, and that no camera could grasp. For a loss that we feared would be complete—of a culture that the world seemed to hold dear, not just us.”

The oral histories collected for this project are housed at Louisiana State University’s oral history collection. The next entry in this series about Katrina and the Flood, 5 years later, will visit the LSU collection.

Interview with Jana Napoli. The quotes used here in this article came from this video. (Direct link to YouTube movie.)

Images, from top:
Top of man examining drawer, from floodwall.org’s Flickr photostream.
Image satellite and Flood image, NOAA
Drawer detail, and drawers in hallway, by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
Top view of Poland exhibit by Wojciech Gajewski
Floodwall front and back side, Floodwall.org’s Flickr Stream.
Bottom image: Same as top.

Floodwall exhibit at Louisiana State University, 2007. Image from the Floodwall.org Flickr photostream.



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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on August 31, 2010 in • HistoryOral History Projects
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