The scenes aren’t always encouraging, but Andrew Curtis keeps going back for more.
Curtis, who teaches geography at USC College, has been spearheading a project to gather video evidence of the devastation and rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now nearly five years after the storm hit, Curtis’ research, which is focused on the city’s Lower 9th Ward, shows that there has been little improvement.
Homes left uninhabitable sit on plots of land that have been overgrown with vegetation, and some streets are still nearly impassable because they are so damaged.
“It’s shocking how little activity has been going on,” Curtis said. “We’re told Katrina is old news, and that’s the problem for people in New Orleans.”
Curtis started this project while at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. There he put together a spatial video system using multiple cameras connected to a central global positioning system. He hooked the whole thing up to a car and recorded images of what the neighborhoods, specifically the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward, looked like. Using a GPS signal encoded on the video, he then layered it over a digital map so that clicking on any spot on the map will bring up a video of what that area looked like at that point in time. He brought this project with him to USC when he joined the faculty in 2007.
This research includes not only filming but also work with pastors and other community leaders to discuss the most pressing neighborhood matters, which include a lack of services, vegetation overgrowth and a rising crime rate.
“Initially it was five years to get back to pre-Katrina conditions. Now people are saying it’s 15,” Curtis said. “There are areas that will probably never go back.”
Any reconstruction of the Lower 9th Ward that Curtis has seen has been spotty. “There has been recovery in silos – isolated buildings at different times,” he said. But a coordinated effort to fix entire neighborhoods, save for actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right home-rebuilding organization, has not been apparent.
Curtis goes back to New Orleans to gather new video every three or four months. He has even gotten USC students involved and plans to take another group this summer. Three of these students will be spending part of their spring break by going on their own via an undergraduate research grant.
These enterprising students mostly come from Curtis’ natural hazards general education class. So far five students, including one graduate student, have traveled to New Orleans to participate in gathering data.
One such student is Andrew Matson, a junior majoring in international relations and political science at the College. He started working on the project as a freshman after taking Curtis’ natural hazards class. Not having done any on-site work like this before, seeing firsthand the destruction and recovery efforts in New Orleans was eye-opening for Matson.
“I thought I was going to see more progress, especially in the Lower 9th, which got so much media attention,” Matson said. “It was really strange and disheartening to see a place in the United States that was still in tatters like that, years after the hurricane hit.
“Driving through parts of the Lower 9th can make you think you’re driving through the wetlands because houses and plots of land have been allowed to be overtaken by vegetation. But despite its troubles, New Orleans is still a fantastic city, and we have been welcomed warmly by community organizations when we go down there.”
Even though Matson doesn’t plan on continuing this kind of work after graduation – he wants to go to law school – he said he has gained some invaluable skills.
“My research experience has really opened me up to a completely new academic field and given me an opportunity to learn about a subject in a non-traditional way,” Matson said. “Also, the experience of going into the field to do research is one that I am sure will pay dividends in all aspects of life even beyond school. Being able to conduct research outside of your comfort zone is a skill that not many people have but that is extremely important.”
Said Curtis, “I’m very happy with the quality of the students at USC who have gotten involved. They’re all dedicated and responsible and quite socially aware. This isn’t just a trip for them; they want to do a good job with the research. I treat them as researchers and get them involved in every aspect.”
On his most recent trip to New Orleans in February, Curtis actually did notice a difference in the hurricane-ravaged landscape. Many of the condemned buildings had been knocked down. Whether they’ll ever be rebuilt is yet to be seen, but Curtis will be there to document it.
To view a clip of the video data that Curtis has gathered, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdLPNAritDI.