Essays

After Sandy: A New Orleans Artist Reflects on Katrina, Disasters, and Recovery

by Muffin Bernstein on November 1, 2012

Muffin Bernstein, “Mississippi Oil” (2011) (All images courtesy the artist)

NEW ORLEANS — Watching images of Sandy being released brings out so many emotions for me. Reading that people had artworks damaged in the basements and first floors of Manhattan and Brooklyn is heart wrenching.

I can say that you have no idea what you can survive until you are standing in front of a life already broken into pieces. After finishing graduate school, I moved to New Orleans in November of 2002. Moments after I sent away the movers and locked up to grab some dinner, an apartment fire started. When I returned, everything I had made in undergraduate and graduate school along with all my belongings were charred and burned. Miraculously, my cookbooks and art books were still in storage. My camera was still in my car. I was shocked and stunned.

Didnʼt anyone learn from Katrina about what to do to prepare for a storm? Be over-prepared and be thankful. Or be underprepared and live with regret.

It took me months of self pity before I stumbled upon KidsmART, a non-profit organization that I started helping on Saturday mornings. At the time, I was working with middle-school-aged students who were living in New Orleansʼ projects. A pair of girls let me know they had an apartment fire and had to be moved to a worse housing project. It made me realize how lucky I had been to have parents who helped me find a new apartment and put things back together.

The only reason my insurance company paid for my losses was because I had meticulously labeled each box and kept a numbered inventory of everything there. I thought I was insane at the time, but it turned out to save me. Now, every time I move I have to label and record everything. I donʼt want to have to do it again. I was also sued over the fire because the fire inspector claimed I started it. My insurance agency proved the floor furnace was faulty, that every vent was rusted over, and the whole heating system was going to blow anywhere from four hours to four days after being lit. My regret is that I should have counter-sued the landlord and the electric company. Six years later the case was settled out of court. My advice is, if you are being sued, always counter sue.

A post-Katrina photo by the author

After November 2002, I have evacuated for every hurricane that has been moved toward New Orleans except this past September — I stayed for Isaac. For Katrina, I had three suitcases of clothes, my computer, my pets, and everything else that I could fit in my vehicle. I left early. I made huge errors. I left all my film negatives and more at the university I was a teaching at. I left all my paper-making supplies and prints at a studio in Eastern New Orleans. So even as well-prepared as I thought I was, I still was not.

During Katrina, I was in Baton Rouge, an hour away from the disaster. I snuck into New Orleans early on September 11, 2005, because my brother was pumping the water out of houses where the industrial canal had topped the levee in Eastern New Orleans. I got first hand accounts of what the real situation in city was. I counseled dozens of students and friends, reiterating the fact that they are strong enough to rebuild. I delivered harsh confirmations like, “Yes, if your dog was in the garage it is no longer alive.” “If you lived in a basement, all your stuff is pretty much ruined.” I helped several people return to New Orleans, picking them up from the airport to drive them to see their flooded home.

My own house was fine. My parents said if it had been destroyed they would have put me in a mental hospital — so Iʼm thankful on many levels that it was saved. On the block that I lived on, my house had the only roof that held, and it was the only house that was not broken into. The university where I worked was underwater. I lost my job due to my inability to perform my job, even though I was able and living in New Orleans. They rehired me part time and then I eventually regained full-time status. Louisiana is a right-to-work state, which basically means you can be fired at any time.

J.T. Scott

My Eastern New Orleans studio was destroyed downstairs and upstairs. I was fortunate that my prints floated up and down perfectly. John T. Scott was one artist whose studio in the East was destroyed. He was evacuated to Houston, where he eventually received a double lung transplant and survived for a year. He passed in September of 2007. He never got to see New Orleans or his studio again. However, if you talked to him after Katrina, he was perfectly confident that he would rebuild, and he even made a couple of new artwork series while staying in Houston. For many of us, losing the mentor we had in John was a far greater than any artwork or possession.

It has been seven years since Katrina and it still seems like yesterday. Watching Sandy brings back tons of memories, especially the question that nagged New Orleans — “Why would anyone rebuild there?” Seeing that people accidentally left artwork in basements is also frustrating. Didnʼt anyone learn from Katrina about what to do to prepare for a storm? Be over-prepared and be thankful. Or be underprepared and live with regret.

Living with regret is no way to live. Mother nature does not discriminate. You must move forward; you must salvage what is salvageable, and document the rest.

Federal Loans Are Not a Panacea

The quality of insurance company and government assistance varied for many people. Overwhelmingly, people I know who took SBA disaster loans now feel like indentured slaves because the interest rate is so exorbitant after the “grace period” ends. My one friend had a business that was destroyed, so she got an Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to help bring it back, using her house as collateral. Her house used to be entirely paid off, now she is paying the interest and looking into selling her house to pay off the rest of the loan. If she cannot pay back the loan and something happens to her, her debt and her loan become her sonʼs responsibility. Another friend of mine had to sell their house after using an SBA loan to rebuild it. Again the interest rate became so bad that they had no choice but to sell their house and pay off the rest of the loan. They are now living in an apartment. So I give you fair warning — seek out anything you can to help you rebuild but be very weary of the governmental SBA loans.

A post-Katrina photo by Muffin Bernstein

During Katrina, insurance companies largely ruled that the damage was caused by wind and hail and not by flooding. The wind caused the storm surge, therefore many people did not receive their full flood insurance money. All of our rates have risen; we now have to carry full coverage plus flood insurance. It is exorbitant. I’m waiting to see what happens after Sandy with the insurance companies and rebuilding process.

Rebuilding and healing takes time. Communities are incredibly powerful and resilient. New York is fortunate in that it has tons of people to lean on. Gather together, help your friends and community members acquire new tools. Talking about your losses helps. Making new art helps.

The people who I know who have really done well are the artists that utilized grants to rebuild and help fund their new art projects. I know the Andy Warhol Foundation has given a great deal to artists from New Orleans who survived Katrina. Seek out the grant money — it comes with far less strings than governmental loans.

For the next storm, which I pray neither of our communities have to see in our lifetimes, get the FEMA disaster wheel (seen below) of what to do with your art during a disaster. The guide is helpful to a point, but many of us donʼt have extra freezer space to store all our art, and it likely wouldn’t fit anyway. Ziploc bags are awesome. The huge oversized Ziplocs allow you to store lots of artwork and protect it from water. Very little protects from fire.

Every time I prepare to evacuate, I take video and stills of everything I own for insurance, with a current newspaper for the date. I shut down and move my computer, and I leave my printer. I take everything I can fit in my car. I take as much clothing as possible. It’s amazing how much it costs to replace your entire wardrobe at once.

FEMA’s guide for how to protect art during a disaster

Watching Sandy from Afar

I have yet to heal from my fire. I have not been able to face the pictures of my loss or the melted artwork that sits in my attic. I am not healed from Katrina, either — when I see an image of Katrina mold, I just lose it and start crying. Watching Sandy was healing in a way; I finally felt like we were no longer alone. Otherwise it has been incredibly sad.

I am very happy in most of my life. I have a husband who loves me and two dogs. I make new art all the time. I have acquired many of the tools that I lost. I still need to replace my paper-making supplies.

When facing the huge burden of how to move forward, remind yourself that we are lucky to be alive. The objects we make may or may not survive beyond our existence. We must utilize every moment and communicate with our friends and neighbors. New Orleans has become even more of a diverse city, healing, growing, and cultivating successful new entrepreneurs. In many ways, the city has united.

I am confident that all of you in the Northeast are going to be stronger. Many of your studios will be smaller and you might have fewer tools, but you will figure out how to make even greater art.

Some Helpful Links After a Disaster:

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  • http://twitter.com/artrubicon ArtRubicon

    last link is bad…

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Thanks for the note! Fixed the link.

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