A decade after Hurricane Katrina threatened the very existence of New Orleans, a vibrant arts community is restoring the fabric of this indelibly creative city—and recasting its future.
By the time the Mississippi River reaches New Orleans, it bears water that has passed through 31 states and two Canadian provinces. A few miles south of the city, after a three-month, 2,300-mile journey from Minnesota, the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico, depositing the rich sediment that makes the swampy land of the Delta among the most verdant and fertile in the nation. This geological truth is one that Susan Gisleson, co-founder of the non-profit Press Street, endows with metaphorical significance. “I think of New Orleans as the collective subconscious of America,” she says, “[capturing] all the dreams and ideas trickling down.” Although Press Street officially opened its gallery space in 2008, the projects and ideas that became its core existed before Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, germinating in the intervening years.
The raw figures of the storm’s impact remain staggering a decade later: nearly 2,000 deaths, more than $100 billion in damage, flooding in 80% of the city, and the displacement of 400,000 residents. That number represents 88% of the city’s total population at the time—the equivalent of 7.4 million New Yorkers disappearing overnight.
After the storm, with New Orleans officially shut down, Gisleson snuck back in. For the native New Orleanian, the scene was surreal. “I was in this metropolis with no human beings, no grocery stores; no mail was being delivered. Every single system was down.” In this environment, art became a powerful way to both assert the enduring creativity of New Orleans and to restore a modicum of agency to residents who spent most of their days forced to gut the interiors of their flooded homes.