Four years to the date after Hurricane Katrina made history as one of America’s worst natural disasters, The University of Southern Mississippi’s efforts to capture that history for posterity will be in the national spotlight.
National Public Radio’s popular “All Things Considered” news program will feature the Southern Miss Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage’s Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project Saturday, Aug. 29 beginning at 4 p.m. State residents can hear the program at 90.3 on their FM radio dial.
Soon after the storm the center set out to document the Mississippi story of Hurricane Katrina, which could only be told authentically by those who experienced it firsthand, said Linda Van Zandt, managing editor for the Center. Since then the program has facilitated and collected approximately 400 recorded interviews with storm survivors, first responders, public officials and volunteers, among others.
“In those four years, we’ve progressed from interviewing on slabs and in tents and parking lots, to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers, portable buildings and MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) cottages, and our intent has been to keep the story alive of those who have fought so hard to not only survive the storm but rebuild their homes and communities,” Van Zandt said.
NPR reporter Debbie Elliott, who produced the story, said the focus of her report is to look at what the oral history project has captured in four years of collecting the stories of those engaged in recovering and rebuilding after the disaster.
“I’m just amazed at the breadth and depth of the work the Center has done,” Elliott said. “They've conducted so many interviews and really documented Katrina's impact and what people have been going through.”
Elliott recently spent a day on the Gulf Coast with Louis Kyriakoudes, associate professor of history and director of the Center and VanZandt as they visited with past interview subjects to get their reflections on the storm and its aftermath nearly four years later. From these visits, Elliott collected information that may be featured in her story.
Elliott and Kyriakoudes met with Waveland mayor Tommy Longo, whose city was nearly wiped off the map by Katrina, to discuss the city’s efforts toward recovery. Ironically, the center’s collection includes an interview with Longo’s father, who also served as mayor of the city when Hurricane Camille struck 40 years ago in 1969.
“Waveland suffered terrible damage from Katrina, but Mayor Longo and the people here are determined to rebuild with the work of volunteers, private industry and local, state and federal government officials, and we’re helping to document that progress,” Kyriakoudes said.
Later, Van Zandt and Elliott visited with Stephanie Bynum of Vancleave, a nurse at Biloxi Regional Medical Center, who was interviewed for the Katrina project on the one-year anniversary of the storm. Her original interview is featured on the Center’s “Surviving Katrina: Lost and Found in Mississippi” CD that includes selections from the project’s interviews.
The two also met with a Vietnamese family in Biloxi, Tong Nguyen and his wife Chien Nguyen, and their daughter Kim Uyen. Tong, a shrimp boat deckhand and Chien were VanZandt’s first Katrina interview, done just three weeks after the storm, followed by an interview with Kim a few months later.
The Nguyens recounted their harrowing tale of survival, which includes how Tong rescued Kim, who was pregnant at the time and the rest of his family off a neighbor’s rooftop as the storm raged. The family also gave Van Zandt and Elliott a tour of their new MEMA cottage, having lost their original home in the storm.
“The exposure that NPR’s coverage will provide is important for the center and the university, and it’s also important for those most affected by the disaster, those who after four long years feel Katrina has faded from national memory,” VanZandt said. We’re grateful for this opportunity to participate in the remembrance.”
Elliott said she came away from working on the report with the sense that the recovery is hard and that people outside of the affected area don’t understand why, especially as the fourth anniversary of the storm nears.
“I think if you’re there, if you spend a little time and hear about what people have gone through, you start to understand that Katrina not only forever changed the landscape, but the people. It’s like a new place and a new point from which they’re having to figure out their lives.”
To learn more about the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage’s Katrina Project and other Center projects and initiatives, online visit www.usm.edu/oralhistory
Linda Van Zandt, managing editor for the Southern Miss Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, listens as Biloxi shrimp boat deckhand Tong Nguyen recounts his family’s ordeal during Hurricane Katrina and its efforts to recover from the storm. (Submitted photo)
Waveland mayor Tommy Longo talks with Southern Miss Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage Director Louis Kyriakoudes, foreground, for a story on the Center’s efforts to capture the story of Hurricane Katrina for a National Public Radio report to air Aug. 29. (Submitted photo)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.