Glorious Flotsam

Killian Doherty's Derry exhibition brings Brad Pitt, George Bush and Harry Belafonte together in a celebration of New Orleans' enduring post-Katrina spirit. Watch an exclusive video below

Beginning as a category 1 storm over the Bahamas, by August 8, 2005, Hurricane Katrina grew to category 5 and struck Louisiana with winds of more than 150mph. As Lake Pontchartrain flooded and the wind ravaged cities like Mandeville, Biloxi and New Orleans, mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation with more than 26,000 people fleeing to shelter in the Louisiana Superdome.

Hurricane Katrina is remembered as one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in the history of the United States. While numbers still fluctuate, the death toll stands at more than 1,800 dead across seven states and, four years later, more than 700 people still officially missing. The levees in New Orleans stood tall at 23 feet. Water levels rose to 28 feet, high enough to submerge the first three floors of Belfast's Europa Hotel.

In Central City, a New Orleans neighbourhood south of Lake Pontchartrain’s long lower edge, 73-year-old community leader Ms Evelyn found that the roof of her house had blown clean away. In the post-Katrina storms the grand postcolonial townhouse was exposed and weatherbeaten, and Ms Evelyn had nowhere else to go.

Working for eight weeks with nonprofit organisation Hands On New Orleans, Irish Architect Killian Doherty travelled to the city in 2008 to aid in the regeneration effort. He and a team of volunteers re-cladded the exterior of Ms Evelyn's home, in a bid to restore the house to its former stature. 'They're still there,' he says of the team. 'Hand-crafting the details, restoring every aspect. It's like their Faberge Egg.'

Returning to Derry, Doherty held a New Orleans fundraiser as part of the City of Derry Jazz Festival, and began work on Glorious Flotsam. While an unforgiving summer downpour soaks welly-wearing visitors to the city's famed walls, Doherty and his father Sean work diligently in the Context Gallery to assemble the exhibition in time.

Featuring 21 portraits of people and scenes from New Orleans' lower ninth ward, Glorious Flotsam aims to explain the scale of the destruction while showing the endurance and spirit of individuals who were quickly stripped of possessions, homes and loved ones.

In addition to Ms Evelyn you see a portrait of Ms Ruth, an 86-year-old who has lived in New Orleans for 47 years. Her son was shot dead during the civil unrest following the hurricane. She fled the city when Katrina arrived, but is determined to stay when the next hurricane hits.

Glorious Flotsam is one of many artistic responses to Hurricane Katrina, helping to tell the story of individuals amidst the chaos. Author Dave Eggers published Zeitoun, capturing the aspects of the whole episode in the story of one family. Josh Neufeld published the graphic novel AD: New Orleans After the Deluge.

While Doherty was in New Orleans, the Classical Theater of Harlem staged a free outdoor performance of Waiting for Godot in the ninth ward. 'They kept a VIP seat for George Bush,' he says. 'It remained empty for the evening.'

The Bush administration's apparent disorganisation and inactivity immediately following Hurricane Katrina prompted the rapper Kanye West, presenting a live benefit concert televised on NBC, to state 'George Bush doesn't care about black people'. In the weeks that followed the storm, government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came to be seen as an authoritarian threat to civilians, instead of an aid organisation.

Glorious Flotsam includes a portrait of Robert Green (above) standing outside his FEMA trailer, 3 years after the hurricane. The agency was heavily criticized for its delayed response, and for providing trailers reported to contain high levels of formaldehyde resulting from questionable construction techniques.

In the New Orleans region, flood victims occupied almost 60,000 trailers. But while the citizens are vociferous in their criticisms of the government, they retain a despairing sort of humour.

'There was an absence,' says Doherty. 'There's no doubt that they were absolutely abandoned. They've articulated that lack of faith. They have been let down by their government - but they make jokes about it. You walk into the French Quarter and see innumerable shops selling t-shirts printed with 'FEMA: run motherfucker, run!'

In May 2009 people residing in trailers were told they had until the end of the month to vacate their only homes. In a 180º turn, they were told they could purchase the dwellings for $5 apiece. In 2008 the American Congress approved $50 million worth of permanent housing vouchers for more than 3,400 dispossessed families, with relocation schemes continuing today.

Doherty included the people’s confusion and lack of faith in the article 'Who's Re-building New Orleans?', commissioned for the March issue of Architecture Ireland. He also cites Naomi Klein's idea of The Shock Doctrine, in which government agencies and corporate contractors move into a traumatized territory to capitalise on lucrative re-building contracts, while re-organising the area the better to serve an agenda of privatisation and monetisation. Klein says that a man-made disaster like the US invasion of Iraq serves as a training ground for natural disasters like New Orleans.

'It felt like all the meat was picked from the bones in New Orleans,' says Doherty. 'Everyone downed tools and left. A lot of people looking to have their houses rebuilt were shafted by contractors. Corruption was rife. But I suppose that'll go down as one of Bushes' greatest legacies. The disaster was, certainly, capitalised upon. It's unbelievable.'

Doherty also worked with Brad Pitt, after a fashion. While actors like Harry Belafonte worked with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to intervene with medical supplies and cheap oil, Pitt initiated the Make it Right campaign and worked in the lower ninth ward, aiming to build fifteen types of houses - 150 in total - employing local, regional and international architects. 'You only have to look at the federal houses against Pitt's efforts,' says Doherty. 'It speaks volumes.'

With Glorious Flotsam, Doherty brings all the aspects of New Orleans' recent history to Northern Ireland. From Ms Evelyn to Ms Ruth and Robert Green, he builds a picture of people righting themselves and resisting despair, resolving to move on. With windblown hair, Doherty is garrulous and energetic, zipping around the exhibition space engrossed and at ease with his work.

'Some of the strongest visuals and memories I have are of people's personal possessions - coffee tables, plates - abandoned. Whilst it’s an intrusive notion, if you found an abandoned house you'd walk in and find a lot of sorrow. There's emotional flotsam. But words like ostentatious, majestic, glorious - these signify New Orleans and its exuberance in the face of what has happened.'

Kiran Acharya

Glorious Flotsam runs at the new Context Gallery at the Playhouse, Derry, until September 11. Click here for full details.