Monday, July 21, 2008

Katrina Tattoos

I live in Metairie, a suburb that suffered far less than New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. As we approach the third anniversary of the storm, I can drive around Metairie and see few signs of storm damage except some empty lots where buildings have been razed, and the occasional FEMA trailer still remaining in someone's yard.

If I go into New Orleans, however, it's a different story. No matter where you go in the city, except perhaps the French Quarter, you cannot escape evidence of Katrina. First, many devastated homes and businesses remain, neither rebuilt nor razed. Second, the streets--in bad shape before the storm--now are truly dangerous, with enormous potholes, sinkholes, and other damage either unrepaired or worsened or recently developed. Third, there are the Katrina Tattoos remaining on many homes, even those that have been restored and are reoccupied.

(Photo from the International Journal of Health Geographics,

What I call the Katrina Tattoo is the marking made by Search-and-Rescue teams as they made house-to-house searches for humans and animals in the months after the storm. If you saw pictures of New Orleans in the months after Katrina, you'll have seen the S&R markings on houses. S&R teams supposedly searched every building in all the flooded areas. Many houses were searched twice, by official teams and by animal-rescue teams. To notify others that a house had been searched, S&R teams marked each building with spray paint in a specific manner.

First they sprayed an "X" on the front (or roof) of the building. In the photo, it's on the roof, which means that the water was so high that searchers could access the house only through the roof. You can see they had to hack through the roof to get into the attic of the house.

(In other cases, people hacked through the roof from the inside after being trapped in their attics by rising water. I know people who keep a hatchet in their attic for precisely that purpose.)

The letters/numbers inside the quadrants of the X have specific meanings. In the top (north) quadrant is the date of the search; in the left (west) quadrant is the search-team identifier; in the right (east) quadrant is a notation of any hazards or unusual conditions in the building; in the bottom (south) quadrant is the number of victims found and their condition, e.g., live or dead. You can find an official explanation in the Army's Catastrophic Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook.

Interpreting the X in the photo by these guidelines, we can see the house was searched by team CA-8 on September 11, the team had to break into the attic, and they found one victim, who was dead. I interpret the arrow at left of "1 dead" as indicating to subsequent searchers that the victim can be found inside the attic, through the hole nearby.
On the right side of the photo are the pieces of wood the searchers removed when they hacked through the roof. It's obvious the hole is too small for the searchers either to have entered through it, or to have removed the body at that time. The initial searchers were looking for the living; the dead were removed later.

The second X, on the front wall of the house, would have been made after the water subsided. It indicates the body inside was removed on September 19 by "Kenyon."

Ray in New Orleans blogged about these markings a few months post-Katrina, with a couple of photos. I'm sure many other bloggers and articles have discussed the S&R markings, but I'm not going to take time to do a full Google search.

After Katrina's second anniversary Travel and Leisure magazine wrote in "Soul Survivor":

Even in mostly recovered neighborhoods, you’ll notice the persistence of "Katrina tattoos," the X marks spray painted on fa├žades by rescue workers after the storm, noting when the property was searched, by whom, and whether any survivors—or bodies—were found. Most have been painted over, but some are intact, left deliberately as symbols of perseverance. One Marigny resident has even had his cast in iron and mounted by his front door.

They were documented most famously in Chris Rose's columns for the Times-Picayune, which he later turned into
1 Dead in Attic, a book chronicling the aftermath of Katrina on the populace as well as on Rose himself. (I did a blog entry on Chris's work when the book was nationally released.)

What makes me think of this? Well, of course, it's only a few weeks until the third anniversary of the storm. (We are daily reminded by local news media, even if we wanted to forget it.) And, as I said earlier, you can't drive through New Orleans without seeing Katrina Tattoos still present on buildings. Some people, even after renovating their homes and returning to live in them, have left the S&R markings on them.

What message are they sending? I think it's something along the lines of "Remember the Alamo" or "Remember the Maine": We suffered and we survived, but others died; we came back, but we won't forget, and we'll keep a reminder ever-present.

For those of you who thought this entry would be about body-art, rest easy. Tattoo parlors, both local and around the country, have reported a huge number of requests for Katrina remembrances since K-Day (8/29/2005). You can see some of the results here and here.

Finally, I came across this while searching for links for other things: the most poignant reminder of Katrina--Unidentified Victims from Hurricane Katrina.


Shauna Roberts said...

If we had planned to stay in New Orleans, we would have left our "tattoo" on the house and also gotten one of those brass markers indicating the high-water mark. (Rexanne talked about getting one of those brass markers, but I don't know whether she did.)

Instead, I got a Katrina skin tattoo.

In our neighborhood, some of the house "tattoos" also had written underneath them ASPCA notations about the pets that were found there or that had taken up residence under the house after the storm and needed feeding. Very sad.

nola said...

Love the expression, "Katrina tattoo." So true. Hard to believe three years.

Charles Gramlich said...

There are a lot of these around Xavier on the buildings. And I know several people, besides Shauna, who have done the skin ink remembrance.

Lana Gramlich said...

My friend lives on the edge of the ninth ward, which is still mostly decimated. I'm so glad she'll be moving soon. I've seen too much violence from her balcony.
Gads, I LOVE Abita Springs!

Steve Malley said...

My heart just broke a tiny bit more.

Lisa said...

I read this post with a lump in my throat and blinking back tears.

Sphinx Ink said...

Shauna, I'll have to ask Rexanne if she got one of the markers next time I see her.

Nola, yep, hard to believe it'll be 3 years soon. Sometimes I wish we could forget all about it and move on, but of course that's impossible. The changes it made in our landscape, our psyches, and our lives will never allow us to leave it behind.

Charles, if I were ever to get a tattoo (extremely unlikely), I might get something Katrina-related. I believe the storm is the event that will affect me most in the perspective of my life.

Lana, I admire those who have stayed--or moved back to--the devastated areas, but I readily admit I would not have done so myself. Abita Springs or elsewhere on the Northshore will probably be my retirement destination.

Steve and Lisa, thanks for letting me know the post affected you. I shed a few tears while composing it.

cs harris said...

There are still three houses on my (short) street that are gutted and empty. You don't notice them driving, since the yards are mowed.