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This American Life: Lower 9 + 10

Storytelling / Print Design / Layout

For this studio project, I designed and crafted a book about how the media framed the lives of Hurricane Katrina survivors in a negative light.

The story examines how racial tensions and the misleading media influence stunted the efforts to rebuild what was left of New Orleans. I became interested in researching this topic after listening to a podcast episode by This American Life, marking the 10th year that’s passed since Hurricane Katrina. The episode, "Lower 9 + 10", takes listeners on a walking tour through the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hit hardest by the storm.

The reporters meet different people along the way who share stories about losing their loved ones and prized possessions in the storm. Every day has been a real struggle for them as they slowly piece their lives back together. This process has not been easy for them as they have faced quite a bit of backlash over the years from the government for trying to rebuild the neighborhood. 

"You remember [the Ninth Ward], right after the storm? City officials said, forget it. Don't let anybody back in there. The mayor's planning commission wanted to turn it to green space, basically a public park."  — Ira Glass

Solo Project / Duration: 6 weeks
Skills: Research, Storyboarding, Layout, Visual Design, Typography, Print Design

 

The people in power had abandoned the survivors in their critical time of need.

In the aftermath, they were left to look for resources on their own. They felt neglected by the government and started to wonder if what they were experiencing was an act of racism and classicism. Did the government choose to ignore their call for help because the affected population was predominantly black? Politicians and celebrities on the Internet got involved in these heated controversial debates about race and politics, adding fuel to the fire.

Katrina became a man-made media disaster overnight. News reporters shined a spotlight on New Orleans, spinning stories about the survivors that weren't always all that truthful. Media outlets exaggerated the situation frequently, painting the people to be criminals, drug-addicts and rapists. These headlines made it incredibly difficult for outsiders to feel empathetic towards the survivors who were struggling to desperately piece their lives back together.

 
Newspaper article highlights how reports about Katrina's victims were exaggerated.

Newspaper article highlights how reports about Katrina's victims were exaggerated.

This narrative explores how racial tensions and media influence stunted the efforts to rebuild what was left of New Orleans.

Even though Hurricane Katrina happened over a decade ago, the survivors still feel like they are walking around a ghost-town. The Lower Ninth Ward has not fully recovered from the damage done by Katrina. A decade later, there are still plenty of abandoned homes, people living on the streets, and places covered in debris.

Why haven't they been able to restore the neighborhood given how long it’s been since the hurricane? Why did the promised aid and support fall through? Survivors don’t think enough attention has been put on the restoration efforts. They accuse the government of neglecting them just as they did when Katrina first plowed through New Orleans.

There are six parts to the story in total. Each act represents a stop on the bus tour that goes around the ward, allowing people today to see the remnants of the Lower 9th Ward. Residents feel odd about the fact that this bus tour exists. In the podcast, one resident describes it as feeling like they are zoo animals to be stared at. It’s another opportunity for outsiders to come and point fingers. They can sympathize but they cannot really begin to understand what it must feel like to return to the area after the disaster only to see that where your best friend’s home used to be, is now an empty grass lot.

 
Mayor Nagin of New Orleans pleading for immediate aid and attention.

Mayor Nagin of New Orleans pleading for immediate aid and attention.

The interviewers talk to a range of people from those who lived through the storm to those who just moved to Lower 9 and bought up a cheap house in the neighborhood.

These individuals set the stage for the narrative. They share personal stories that become reoccurring themes. Gentrification is a problem there. Racial tensions have only gotten worse since Hurricane Katrina. People came back to see their homes completely destroyed. One person said they knew their next door neighbor had drowned at home because “DOA” was painted over the front, signaling “Dead Upon Arrival”.

Outsiders to the situation don’t realize how badly the relationships have been affected down in the Lower Ninth Ward. Families have been separated. Children have been lost. Husbands and wives have passed away. Families are scattered across the nation. Many of them moved from one state to another during the recovery period, making it hard for loved ones to keep track of how they were doing or if they were even still alive.

 

At first, I struggled to treat the text in a way that gave it the right kind of emotion and tone. It was hard to find the right balance of text and image on a page.

Eventually, I found a system that worked across the pages. The first part of the story weaves together contrasting opinions taken from the media, news articles, found images, and more. Then, the second half documents four excerpts from the transcript of the podcast. These stories, from real survivors, help support the earlier arguments described in the book.

They share narratives about loss, destruction and discrimination. These survivors talk about how the damage done by Katrina still affects their daily lives. To this day, they mourn their losses. The spreads below highlight different aspects of the system I created. Some pages were meant to focus on the media while others honed in on the narrative and transcript. 

 
 

Feel free to view the entire book in PDF form online. If you'd like to check out more process, take a look at my Medium post.