New Orleans will have to reconsider its joyful mottoes, "The City That Care Forgot" and "The Big Easy," after that fateful day--August 29. Our beloved city, including its well-established arts community, sustained two devastating blows within a couple of days. First came the category 4 hurricane Katrina, with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour; the following day, several breaks in the levees surrounding New Orleans resulted in 80 percent of the city being flooded. Nearly four weeks later, category 3 hurricane Rita slammed into the Louisiana/Texas border, causing additional wind damage and a strong tidal surge that reflooded some sections of New Orleans.
Regrettably, for the six months of the storm season--June 1 to Nov. 30--we at the New Orleans Museum of Art have become all too familiar with the now routine procedures that precede the arrival, or threat of arrival, of a hurricane. We live in a state of constant alertness and anxiety. As it is difficult to predict exactly where a hurricane will make landfall until hours before, we must be in a constant state of preparedness, too.
The NOMA staff has a long-standing, extensive checklist of things that must be accomplished before a storm. With the possibility of water entering the storage areas, all art remains elevated off the floor, with crates containing art on pallets and paintings and sculptures on wood blocks. When a hurricane threatens, paintings hanging near skylights must be removed from the galleries; some outdoor sculptures must be tied down, while others are dismantled and brought indoors from the Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
Early Saturday morning, Aug. 27, led by deputy director Jacqueline Sullivan, the administrative staff fully realized that this monster storm was likely to make a direct hit on the city. The countdown was on. The director, John Bullard, on vacation in Maine, was notified and consulted by telephone daily, even hourly, throughout this period. Curators were called in to "batten down the hatches" and secure all the art, both in the galleries and in storage. Engineers and security staff were asked to report to the museum and man their stations. Plastic garbage pails and wastebaskets were emptied, washed thoroughly with soap and water, and filled with fresh tap water for drinking; three days' worth of food supplies was procured for the staff; a cell phone was purchased so the staff could maintain communication with Jackie.
On Sunday, the 28th, New Orleans shut down completely, and most people evacuated with ever-mounting fear. On Monday, at the last minute, the "Big One" swerved slightly and made landfall just east of New Orleans. The city was a shambles, but we thought we had dodged the bullet. Then on Tuesday the levees broke, much of the city was inundated, and our second nightmare began.
In the wake of the flooding, online satellite photos allowed people to assess how their homes and businesses had fared. When I saw NOMA on my computer screen in Houston, where I was when the hurricane threat first arose, it appeared as a tiny Greek temple on an island surrounded by the submerged City Park. What a sense of relief that was to know the building appeared in good shape!
With electricity out and land phones inoperable, communication was nearly nonexistent save for cell phones, and even then intermittent, with transmission towers down and circuits busy. Jackie Sullivan was able reach the nine NOMA engineers and guard staff who had stayed behind in the building during the storm, joined there by some family members and others needing a safe haven, for a total of around 30 people. According to their phone reports, the museum and the collections were holding up well. When Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives came to rescue them, the staff refused to go, saying, "We are not leaving unless we see John Bullard or Jackie Sullivan." Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 1, the National Guard arrived and ordered the band to leave. Reluctantly, they obeyed.
With reports on television of widespread looting throughout the city, and Jackie having lost contact with the staff in the museum, Christiane Fischer, chief executive of the museum's principal insurer, the AXA Art Insurance Corporation (a branch of AXA, the French insurance and financial company), called John to propose a proactive program to safeguard the museum and its collections. John concurred, and AXA hired McLarens Young International, a loss adjusting company, and the International Investigative Group (IIG), a security company.
A week after the storm, Jackie arranged to go to the museum with a couple of the New York City police officers hired by IIG. The only way to reach the building was by airboat, piloted by an Everglades boatman, as all streets were impassable from fallen trees, flood waters or both. After nine hours of winding their way through treacherous, toxic waters and twice hydroplaning over flooded railroad tracks and a bridge, "Rambo" Jackie and her armed crew arrived near the museum and continued apprehensively on foot. An unnatural, eerie silence prevailed, coupled with the terrible smell of death and destruction. Upon arriving at the museum, and much to their relief, they found it and its contents to be safe, but the staff was gone. The officers established a beachhead to secure the building.
I arrived on the scene the next day. Ten of the NYPD's finest, under the excellent leadership of twins Steve and Ti Dux and later Ray Ramos, had set up a command post in a suburban parking lot in neighboring Harahan, just outside New Orleans, and were being helicoptered to the museum over the flooded city. Meanwhile, Jackie and I were given shelter by the good sisters at Saint Theresa's convent in Gonzales, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Each day we commuted by car to the parking lot in Harahan and were helicoptered to NOMA. Strapped into our seats right next to the wide-open sides of the helicopter and hanging on for dear life, we looked down on the seemingly endless flooded neighborhoods. (Later, when it became possible to drive along certain city streets, Jackie obtained official papers from the state police allowing us to enter the city by car.)
We found the galleries of the museum essentially intact, though the roof had a few minor leaks. Evidently, as the water slowly receded in the city, the museum's ground floor took on water from hydrostatic pressure through cracks in the concrete slab. Suites of offices, including development and the registrar's department, had three or four inches of water, while areas of art, crate and pedestal storage had taken on water as well. Thanks to the advance preparations, all the art was safe except for a pair of Japanese screens and a pair of Kachinas that had minor water damage and can be restored.
One unexpected occurrence alarmed us at first. The museum's extensive collection of six-panel Japanese screens is stored on elevated metal racks, and each screen is in its own cloth bag with ribbonlike ties. A few ties had dangled off the shelf, and water had wicked up onto the cloth containers. The affected screens were removed to a dry area (with the aid of our board president, S. Stewart Farnet, and his son); upon inspecting them, we saw that they had not been harmed.
The museum's five-acre sculpture garden adjacent to the main building was littered with downed trees and large branches, and portions had been flooded. While magnolias, bushes, shrubs and ground cover had been killed by the polluted floodwater, miraculously not one sculpture had been hit or damaged (though a tall old Southern pine had fallen inches from a major Henry Moore). in spite of being securely tied down, a polished-aluminum kinetic sculpture by New Orleans artist Lin Emery, once mounted in a pond in front of the building, had been lifted off its base and was found intact under a fallen tree some distance away. The only sculpture in critical condition was a 40-foot-tall tension tower by Kenneth Snelson, Virlane Tower, which collapsed in a lagoon, where it had been mounted, and suffered, as John described it, "erec the dysfunction." Contrary to initial press reports, it can be restored under the artist's supervision.
Our immediate concern was to get electricity, as Jackie and I had been working in the dark with no climate control. The museum's emergency generator, which had fuel for only 72 hours, was designed to operate emergency lights and security systems, but not climate control. It was hot on the ground floor, though when we first arrived, the galleries upstairs were remarkably cool. Another high priority was to remove the water from offices and storage areas. We began by sweeping, then squeegeeing the water to a small drain, but this was not the complete solution to our problem.
Through AXA, a much larger emergency generator, powerful enough to restore lights and air-conditioning, was secured. But getting it to the museum was a thorny problem. It had to enter the city on an 18-wheeler, with police and National Guard escorts weaving their way on a circuitous route, avoiding flooded areas, chopping their way through downed trees and debris. Finally the generator arrived at the museum, and the Frischhertz electric company wired it to our system. On Saturday, Sept. 10, power was finally on at the museum!
While we were driving to do a sight inspection of the museum's downtown storage facility, Jackie spotted a cleaning crew working on the street and asked their foreman if they could come to the museum to help us remove water and the affected carpeting, molding and sheet rock from the ground-floor offices and storage areas. He agreed to contact his boss at Service Masters in Lafayette, and a deal was struck right on the debris-strewn street! (It seems this company was very much in demand, as it was also extracting water and cleaning the Federal Reserve Building and 16 hotels in the Central Business District.) Shortly thereafter, a crew arrived at the museum with a water-suction truck, wet-vacs, dehumidifiers, air blowers and other needed equipment. We were making progress.
Next it was time to clean out the museum cafe's refrigerators and freezers. As one can imagine, transferring rotting food to garbage bags was not the most pleasant task, but it had to be done, as the foul odor was beginning to permeate the building, and we thought it might be detrimental to the art.
AXA's inspector, Michael Watters, arrived to survey and evaluate the damage at the museum. Afterward, since the firm has a number of other private and commercial clients who own sizable, important art collections in town, we gave him a tour of those sites along with the museum's own two off-site storage units. Unfortunately, a pair of major private collections, one of antique furniture and another of Japanese painting and American outsider art, plus the contents of the off-site warehouse of a prominent Royal Street antiques dealer, suffered considerable damage from floodwaters.
The museum agreed to receive art from owners who needed a safe and secure place for their valuables. A number of collectors and the Contemporary Arts Center (which suffered damage to its roof and fourth-floor windows) made arrangements with their insurers to have the artworks packed and transported to the museum. We did not know where our art handlers had evacuated to, and the museum's two art transport vans were inside the loading dock garage behind a rolling door that was rendered inoperable by the storm. AXA made arrangements with the Chicago Conservancy Guild for damaged artworks to be taken directly to Chicago for restoration, thus preventing water-soaked art with mold from entering the museum.
AXA also arranged with TyArt, a professional art handling and moving company from Houston, to help us empty one of the museum's off-site storage units, known as the Egg Building, which had been flooded with a foot and a half of water. On Saturday, Sept. 17, a crew of four spent the day cleaning, wrapping and packing a collection of Japanese Imari and Chinese blue-and-white porcelains stored there on tiered metal shelving. On one bottom shelf, half a dozen Imari bowls and chargers had been sitting on a Styrofoam pad that the rising water had simply lifted up and carried off, gently setting it down on the concrete floor when it subsided. Nothing was broken! Wood paneling from two 18th-century period rooms suffered major damage, while at the other end of the room, which is slightly higher and took on much less water, eight 13-foot-high carved posts from the facade of a Cameroonian palace, a promised gift to NOMA, were not harmed.
These have been tumultuous times for the museum and its staff, and in all likelihood will remain so for the rest of the year. Offices are in disarray, and some records lost; all scheduled events, including exhibitions, have been cancelled for the coming months; for those relocated staff living within commuting distance, temporary offices have been set up thanks to the generosity of the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge.
Nevertheless, John has said that he intends to reopen the museum free of charge to the public as soon as we can locate our staff, regroup and straighten things up. New Orleans right now is not the lovely, gracious city we once knew and adored. NOMA's trustees and staff all want the museum to be a tranquil, cool and--in this case--dry oasis for New Orleanians to come to, relax and refresh themselves by viewing beautiful objects as they begin rebuilding one of America's most distinctive and artistically rich cities. [Sept. 27, 2005]
Postscript: In early October, layoffs of city personnel reduced NOMA's staff of 100 to 17.
Author: William A. Fagaly, a veteran of 39 years at the New Orleans Museum of Art, more than 20 as assistant director for art, currently serves there as the Francoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art.
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