What is so upsetting in New Orleans is that, even though five years have gone by since Hurricane Katrina, and people work hard to rebuild, many neighborhoods remain empty and ruined. In some cases the homeowners received assistance money from the Road Home program only recently. As time passes, it is increasingly likely that they will never return.
The population hovers at around 300,000, down from almost half a million before the storm. The lion’s share of reconstruction didn’t go to the communities that were hit hardest, and the politics of infrastructure are as contentious and snarled as ever.
Mario’s portraits of Willi Lee in his gutted home, then and now, look like they could have been taken days rather than years apart. He received his aid money, but can’t find a contractor he trusts, so his house is still desolate. I found that the grass and weeds are growing so high in the Lower Ninth Ward that it is returning to nature, making it hard to remember that this was once a vibrant neighborhood. Lee photographed the sign of a search-and-rescue team still spray-painted on an abandoned house, getting renovated by volunteers only now.
The city marks the anniversary with memorials, ceremonies, and, yes, celebrations of life, with music and food. Speeches are made, essays like this very one you’re reading are published, change comes, or not. I always felt that anniversaries are a bit odd; it is an arbitrary measure of time, after all. Yet they resonate, they remind us of our own mortality and the impermanence of all things, even as we want to make permanent marks, eternal flames.
BagNews over the years has run some of my photographs here, Mario’s here, and Lee’s here. You can also see more of Mario’s work at The New York Times, Lee’s at The Washington Post, and mine at Newsweek. Many photographers have documented Katrina and its aftermath. I don’t know if it’s made any difference, but it will form the historical record some day, when our time will be the distant past.