The verse repeats again and again somewhere in the imagination, providing a soundtrack to this frozen documentary.
Frozen in the sense of standing still, not in the literal sense of below zero temperatures. Especially not during a Louisiana August.
And that verse keeps repeating in the background, something about 6 feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.
It fits, but the flood reference is wrong, because that song speaks of the Great Flood of 1927. The 6-foot waterline here filled the streets of New Orleans.
Make that 6-feet-plus, because the waterlines in Bette J. Kauffman’s photographs almost reach the rooftops of some houses. They reach only windows of others.
And still others show more than one waterline, marking houses the way parents mark their growing children’s heights on a door frame.
“That’s the thing that stood out to me, the thing that no one was photographing,” Kauffman said. “The waterlines told a story.”
Kauffman is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. She began taking photos of waterlines left behind by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in April 2006.
Her project is ongoing, but a big portion of it can be found in the Louisiana State Archives, strategically placed along the walls of the side hallway just off the main lobby, running along one side, then the other.
Looking much like, well, a waterline.
There’s that verse again, 6 feet of water. The remnants are here, as are handwritten memories.
This is an interactive exhibit, and people are invited to write their thoughts and memories on mattes above and below the photographs.
And yes, five years later, memories of this monster storm and its flooding of New Orleans are still vivid.
Which is why the Archives is featuring this exhibit through Tuesday, Aug. 31 – to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Kauffman’s show specifically focuses on New Orleans, again, not showing flood damage or what’s become iconic images of displaced houses in the city’s Ninth Ward. Her subject is simple, yet profound.
The waterline is the storm’s trademark, one that many people in New Orleans have refused to remove.
“The people I’ve talked to say they’re survived this, and they’re rebuilding,” Kauffman said. “This is their badge of honor.”
Kauffman hosted New Orleans evacuees in her home in Monroe during and after the hurricane. She drove the evacuees home after the water receded.
“They wanted to see if there was anything they could salvage,” she said. “They didn’t get much.”
That’s when Kauffman noticed the waterlines. She knew she’d be carrying a camera on her return.
Which seems only natural, because Kauffman teaches a course in photography at ULM. There was no question about the photography project. She knew it was something she had to do.
She began photographing waterlines on houses, buildings, even stop signs.
“The photo of the stop sign usually generates the most comments,” Kauffman said. “There are so many meanings, but people recognize it as a symbol – the waterline comes and stops and leaves this telltale mark.”
Kauffman steps back to see if her waterline of photographs is straight and even on the wall. She’s installing the show on this particular day but will soon have to take it down to show in Florida.
The exhibit has traveled to cities in other states and has generated much interest. But what’s most interesting are comments left behind by displaced New Orleanians in other states.
“It’s amazing,” Kauffman said. “They live in other cities now, and they come to the exhibit. Their comments are so interesting.”
But there are other comments that aren’t as pleasing.
Kauffman travels with her exhibit, and she hears viewers speculating about New Orleans, why it stands below sea level and why, after Hurricane Katrina, would anyone want to rebuild there?
What can she say? She has a connection to the city. She’s been traveling there since her undergraduate days in the 1970s at the University of Iowa. She knows there’s something special about New Orleans and its culture.
And if anyone asks, Kauffman will say there is no question, that rebuilding the city is a necessity.
“It haunts me when people say these things,” Kauffman said.
But the waterline is even more haunting. It’s a symbol of devastation, but it’s also the beginning of the story of restoration.
And Kauffman hopes to add to that story by one day having her work published in a book.
“I would also want the comments to be published along with the photos,” Kauffman said. “The comments in the people’s handwriting is just as powerful as the photographs.
Photographs of a continuous waterline. All marking 6 feet — or more – of water in the streets of New Orleans.
Be sure to check out The Advocate's Katrina Retrospective
Interesting photos, I'd like to go check out that exhibit and will probably pick up the book when it comes out.