A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How one archaeologist's role in the posthurricane recovery forced her to confront New Orleans' catastrophic history
When Katrina hit, I had just returned from a summer doing archival research and processing soil samples from a site in the French Quarter called the Hotel Rising Sun. I hauled the 24 boxes of artifacts from the site back to my office at the University of Chicago. Had I left them behind, they would have disintegrated, and the Ziploc bags of Native American pottery, French cosmetic jars, wine bottles, animal bones, and other materials would have filled with fetid water from the Industrial Canal, just one block from the building where the artifacts had been stored in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.
I had barely unpacked when I heard news reports of the hurricane and the levee failures. For ten days, I struggled to help, doing the classic American things: bake sales and clothing drives. It was all I knew to do; I still couldn't locate most of my friends and colleagues. But my offer to help was soon answered in an unexpected way. Tom Eubanks, Louisiana State archaeologist, asked if I would serve as a liaison between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Louisiana Division of Archaeology. After some discussion, both my family and department supported my decision to return to New Orleans.
My assignment with FEMA lasted from October to December, 2005, and concentrated on recording the disaster's impact on the city's 20 National Historic Register Districts. I also helped develop new guidelines and assessment methods that will hopefully limit the negative impact of post-Katrina rebuilding efforts upon the region's dense concentration of culturally significant sites, including unrecorded archaeological ones. My day-to-day work during those three months transformed the way I see the archaeology of New Orleans, as well as the archaeology of disaster. I now recognize how emotions, as much as environmental conditions, politics, and economic forces, can shape the archaeological record.
From my brief deployment after Katrina, I can see that post-K demolition and rebuilding efforts will test the limits of the federal government and state agencies to respond to threats posed to an area with one of the largest concentrations of historic resources in the country. It's likely that Katrina will rewrite how archaeological sites and historic structures are managed in the context of disasters. It's even possible it will reshape preservation practices. While in Louisiana, one of the projects I worked on was a GIS database developed by FEMA and the Louisiana State Historical Preservation Office that uses scanned historic maps and contemporary geographical data to help predict the location of areas with a high potential for important archaeological sites. FEMA officials think the database, and other applications of new GPS-based data-collection technology, may be emulated elsewhere and establish new standards for how cultural resources are managed across the nation.
Many of the historic-preservation planning efforts I was involved in were focused on getting ahead of the bulldozers that will follow in the next ten years. Federal responsibilities in this rebuilding effort mean there will be a major archaeological survey and assessment of the city. New Orleans archaeology has until now been sorely neglected compared to that of cities such as New York, Boston, Williamsburg, or even Charleston. My hope is that this is about to change. Ironically, a disaster that has been perceived as a grave threat to the city's unique heritage may lead to a more concerted effort to record and save it.
Shannon Lee Dawdy is an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago.