KATRINA-HISTORIAN Aug-20-2008 (880 words) With photo. xxxn
Historian collects stories of life in immediate aftermath of Katrina
By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- So what really happened in New Orleans in the twilight-zone days immediately following Hurricane Katrina?
That's one of the questions to which Mark Cave, an oral historian with the Historic New Orleans Collection, has been seeking answers in his personal interviews over the last three years with 500 police officers, firefighters, National Guard troops and emergency medical personnel who were on the ground after the storm.
Since any trial lawyer knows that two people viewing the same event can come up with wildly differing accounts of what they saw and experienced, Cave said the value of conducting hundreds of interviews with people on the scene is that the "truth" rests in the preponderance of evidence.
In an interview with the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese, Cave said conducting hundreds of interviews allows common stories and facts to emerge from the jumble of eyewitness accounts, and the commonly shared memories can be relied on as the best version of the truth.
Cave, his Historic New Orleans Collection colleague Alfred Lemmon and New Orleans archdiocesan archivist Emilie (Lee) Leumas presented their findings in July to the 16th Congress of the International Council on Archives in Malaysia, which drew 1,200 archivists from around the world.
Leumas spoke about efforts the New Orleans Archdiocese made to recover and restore sacramental records, church documents and sacred artifacts after Katrina. Cave's oral history project with first responders, which probably will continue for many years, drew intense interest.
While it was officially reported that only five or six people died at the Superdome in the five days after Katrina, Cave said his large volume of interviews indicates the death toll was far higher.
"The interviews with the disaster medical assistance team were really moving," Cave said. "They treated a number of gunshot wounds, including one of the National Guard soldiers who was there.
"They had various estimates on the death count. It seemed to be much higher than what was officially noted. I don't know the reasons for that. But they seemed to conclude there were more people who died than the reported five or six," he said.
Cave said security was so tenuous in the New Orleans Arena, which was set up as a medical triage clinic next to the Superdome, that the medical personnel had to make the decision to pull out.
About 350 of the 500 interviews with first responders, he said, are available for public reading at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
About 150 of the most highly sensitive interviews -- which might have included statements critical of agency or governmental leaders -- have been sealed for 25 years.
"That time frame sort of covers somebody's career," Cave said. "If people wanted to criticize their higher-ranking officials or the people in city government, we wanted to give them enough leeway so there would not be any retribution. It's to our benefit because we get a franker response. The choice is theirs if they want to make the interview restricted."
Cave said his overall impression after viewing the tragedy in such intimate detail is that first responders acted heroically. "I was impressed with the number of people that they were able to rescue."
He said he got full cooperation from the first-responder agencies to conduct the interviews with their field personnel because they wanted the facts to get out in a situation beset by so much rumor and falsehood.
"I think on the whole they were proud of what they did," Cave said. "They did a lot of good work, and they wanted that recognition for future generations."
Some of the visual material Cave uncovered, including cell-phone pictures, were so stark that he could not include them in his presentation in Malaysia because of Muslim sensibilities to naked bodies.
Cave said he went into the interview process "imagining that a lot of the TV coverage was exaggerated to create a news story."
"But just the opposite was the reality," Cave said. "The first responders were in some areas where the media just couldn't get to, and the situation was even worse than reported on TV."
Cave said the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department made an effort to "keep people alive" in St. Bernard High and Chalmette High. They got food by diving into the water through a broken door or window and collecting canned goods that were floating inside a store.
"It's hard hearing it," Cave said, "but I can't imagine living through something like that."
Leumas said the archdiocese is better prepared for another disaster. Workshops have been held with parishes to inform them of what sacramental records and other documents they should take in case of an evacuation.
Even though several buildings were damaged, the archdiocesan archives lost no records or artifacts in Katrina. The biggest losses of church records were parish bulletins, histories and charters.
The archives has made an inventory of more than 3,000 sacred artifacts to determine which objects can be restored or will need replacement.
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Editor's Note: Anyone with an eyewitness account following Katrina who is interested in the oral history project may contact Mark Cave by phone at: (504) 598-7171.
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