I think it was 10 years ago, today, on Aug. 25, 2005, that I got a call from an old friend living in Alabama. She and I had been talking over the previous months (or years?) about finding a fixer-upper house in New Orleans, LA ("NOLA") that we could afford to buy, as an investment and fun project. We both loved New Orleans, and delighted in the idea of a way to live/work/play there for a while and then be reimbursed for our time and expenses later by selling the house - or maybe living in it!
So, on about Aug. 25, 2005, she called me and said something to the effect of, "There's a big storm brewing out here, and I think it might result in some deals to be found!" I told her I had heard the news of the storm, and was thinking the same thing. We both knew that when big tropical storms, hurricanes and the like hit that SE area of the country, they often caused roof damage, home flooding and other problems that some homeowners no longer would want to deal with, and would want to sell the home quickly for a price we might afford. My friend and I said we'd keep an eye on the storm and the area, and check back in with each other some days or weeks later. We were optimistic for our prospects, but we had no idea what was in store for this storm.
Fast forward a few months later to Feb. 2006. That storm had turned out to be Hurricane Katrina - the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and the deadliest U.S. hurricane in 70 years (and top 5 deadliest in US history) and the national media had been talking like NOLA was done.
"No one will stick around. No one will return. No tourists will want to visit. NOLA might just not even celebrate it's annual February Mardi Gras in 2006." These are the things that "experts" were saying left and right - and I knew to be completely ridiculous. Why would I know different? I'd been to NOLA a handful of times, during Mardi Gras and during "off-season" (if there is such a thing as "off-season" from fun in NOLA), and I have friends who have lived/worked/partied in the 9th Ward of NOLA for a long time. I love that city and I know the type of people that live there. And, if there's one thing I know from working in media for 20+ years - it's don't believe what the news tells you. There's a good chance it's sensationalized for shock effect, and inaccurate (often for questionable motives).
Armed with my sense of NOLA's true character and with my knowledge of the mainstream media's lack of credibility - I thought to myself, "THIS WILL BE THE BEST MARDI GRAS EVER!" Think about it. People in NOLA love to party and/or chill. Times are tough there in that economically-depressed socio-politically corrupt mess of a region that is the SouthEast U.S. - and New Orleanians have always decided to have a good time in the face of it all. NOLA is the poster-child, the iconic archetype, of making lemonade out of lemons, wrapped in a personally-responsible community lifestlye (much like Burning Man, which reminds me of some of my NOLA friends who don't go to Burning Man, because they pretty much live that celebratory, creative, golden rule lifestyle without having to traipse from their NOLA swamp to the NV desert to find it).
SO - what would happen when NOLA gets hit with it's hardest punch ever? I thought it would inspire the best Mardi Gras ever! I didn't know if the quantity of attendees would be high, but I was sure that the quality of attendance, enthusiasm and poignancy would be great. With that in mind, I decided I wanted to go shoot a documentary of the first Mardi Gras after Katrina, rolling along with my NOLA friends 9th Ward Marching Band in the parades. I had nothing but an outdated video camera, no audio/lighting gear or assistance, but I just thought I'd roll with it and see if my "best ever" estimate was correct :-)
Just before the last weekend of Mardi Gras, I hopped a plane to Mississippi, grabbed a rental car and drove to NOLA. I interviewed NOLA residents, revelers, relief workers (including a couple living out of their car, who had driven down from Kentucky to help out for a few weeks), artists and community organizers -- rich and poor, black and white. I filmed disaster-stricken areas, parades -- sadness and happiness. Some 5 years later, I dug up the footage and hired a talented editor to put together the pieces for me. 10 years after Katrina, I share this video and more photos (both down below).
Oh, and what was it I heard from many people I met and hung with in NOLA?....
"Best Mardi Gras ever!"