Photograph by Julie Gerdes Becnel
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Yvonne Gerdes, the author’s grandmother, retrieves a blanket from her Chalmette, Louisiana, home after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Weeks after the disaster, she and her family were finally allowed to salvage what they could.

Photograph by Julie Gerdes Becnel

Hurricane Katrina Turned My Family's Odds and Ends Into Heirlooms

Everyday objects, ordinary places and familiar symbols have taken on a deep significance for the author and others who survived the disaster.

On the evening of August 28, 2005, my family arrived in Baton Rouge in three cars packed with pets, clothes, a few cherished possessions and maybe five photo albums. I was 15 and prepared to lose everything that remained in our home in Mandeville, just blocks from Lake Pontchartrain. The next day, Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Though my own home still stood, and I could count myself as one of the lucky ones, my life changed in ways I could not have imagined at the time. In New Orleans and the surrounding area, we all have pre-Katrina and post-Katrina lives. In our post-Katrina lives, we had to adapt to abrupt loss and change, much of it painful. But in this post-Katrina life, some of Katrina’s remnants started to look different to us.

Ten years after the hurricane, everyday objects, ordinary places and symbols—some old, some new—have taken on a deep significance. The photographs, jewelry and wardrobes that would have been entrusted to the next generation at my paternal grandmother’s St. Bernard Parish home were destroyed.

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Search-and-rescue crews crudely spray-painted the “Katrina X” on the front of buildings in New Orleans to indicate what they found became an evocative symbol of the disaster, capturing the horror and the resilience of those who returned and rebuilt.

No one got to choose what was important from her 85 years on Earth or from generations of family history. Instead, we were left with what was left.

Refrigerator Magnets Take on New Meaning

From the muddy, moldy interior of my grandmother’s home in Chalmette, my family worked tirelessly to salvage what it could from the wreckage. We recovered odds and ends that would become our family heirlooms after my grandmother passed away.  Last Christmas, the first without our matriarch, we were reminded of our pre-Katrina life—specifically, playing on my grandmother’s kitchen floor—when a cousin gave us some recovered floor tiles from the now long-demolished house.

To remember my Gammie’s life, we also have magnets from her refrigerator collection. Her children and grandchildren had acquired these souvenirs from around the world. Now, my parents keep some on a magnet board in their home. Cut-out shapes of states and countries, from Utah to Germany, are stuck beside magnets from cities that proudly tout their wonders—like petroglyphs in Arizona.

In my apartment, the only heirloom I have from my father’s side of the family is my great-grandmother’s wooden rolling pin. And, as an extended family, we have a few photos that have been cut into funny collage shapes.

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Yvonne Gerdes lost 85 years of memories after Hurricane Katrina flooded her home. As her family salvaged what they could, Gerdes posed with a bottle of Estee Lauder lotion—her signature scent—and checked to see if its contents were spoiled.

My sister retrieved the beloved box of pictures from the house.  Upon discovery, she clutched the soiled memories to her chest and marched them outside to be cataloged on the lawn with the other precious, surviving objects. When she put the box down, the still moist photos had transferred the smiles and faces of generations to her clothes and body. I was given the job of deciding what photos could be saved. Most were ruined—smeared or stuck together, but I cut out recognizable faces and places that represented decades of our family’s history.

Keeping the Katrina X

As objects have taken on new significance, so too have certain symbols, such as the “Katrina X”—the spray-painted X-shaped markers left by search-and-rescue crews. Each quadrant of the X records different information about what was inside the abandoned house: the date of inspection, the identity of the search crew, the number found dead and any remaining hazards.

Many homeowners whose properties were sprayed with this X decided to keep the symbol as a potent reminder. Some New Orleanians even decided to make permanent metal replicas of the notation. Other residents who rebuilt once-flooded properties similarly decided to craft markers on their walls to show how high the water rose in their homes.

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Tattoo artist Keel holds a snapshot of a tattoo he created for an emergency medical technician. The tattoo covered the original art, the city's star-and-crescent symbol, with the spray-painted X, the date Katrina hit, and the number of dead from the disaster.

Just as domiciles became canvases for commemoration, so did skin. After the storm, tattoo shops swelled with customers, many of whom would not have imagined getting inked. The tattoos varied, from weather symbols to the NOLA skyline to love letters to the city, but one symbol was by far the most popular: the fleur-de-lis, long associated with New Orleans, which became an emblem of hope and revival.

Places have also taken on new meaning. The Superdome and the Convention Center were once known as hubs for entertainment and tourism, but they will always be seen as sites of survival and loss after they housed thousands of the flood’s homeless for days in squalid conditions.

Reminders of Hurricane Katrina are present in even some of the most recovered of communities. Lots where homes once stood, like my grandmother’s, remain vacant. There are broken roads that are yet to be repaired. In Lakeview, an affluent New Orleans neighborhood, many new homes have replaced those that flooded, businesses are also shiny and new, and the grass is green and manicured on private property. Despite all of this progress, the streets remain mangled from the flood.

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My grandparents, Eugene and Yvonne Gerdes, sit in their home with their young grandchildren, the same home that decades later was lost to Katrina. The faces in this photograph were somehow spared, though you can see how the floodwater affected the photos' edges. 

The Lower Ninth Ward, which I documented as a National Geographic Explorer in 2012, has never regained its pre-Katrina population. In addition to fractured streets, many homes remain abandoned. Nature has taken. Trees envelop flood-worn homes.

While subtle reminders are visible in our neighborhoods, our homes and even on our skin, there are countless, unseen ways that Katrina shaped every survivor. This tenth anniversary is a time to reflect upon our post-Katrina journeys as a city and as individuals.

I am a writer and an explorer, in many ways because of Katrina. At a young age, I learned that we are shaped by our experiences, and we don’t always have a choice in what we can take with us. But, upon closer inspection, we can find something in the bleakest of places and make it beautiful again.

Caroline Gerdes is a freelance writer and National Geographic Explorer. In 2012, she received a National Geographic Young Explorers grant to conduct an oral history project in the Ninth Ward neighborhood. Follow her on Twitter.