Katrina: A Memory

I joined the AIGA New Orleans chapter board of directors in 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit with great force on August 29 of that year. The aftermath was sad and ugly. Nevertheless, I do recall some revelatory lessons about human compassion, and this is one:

After the storm, the AIGA executive board met virtually using any phone or Internet device and service available. I remember driving 20 minutes from home just to find a cell phone signal.

On Friday, September 16, Lori Reed (AIGA New Orleans president), Susan Matherne (AIGA New Orleans vice president), and I were fortunate enough to go to the AIGA national conference in Boston. “Wow”, I remember thinking, “What a treat: electricity and hot, running water!” These were luxuries we’d recently been doing without back home.

The conference was in a huge convention center. I remember walking in, seeing an EMS unit with the graphics Project M from Belfast, Maine emblazoned on its side, and two guys next to what I presumed to be a rescue unit. In my shell-shocked state, my logic — and my mouth — blurted, “Hey, do you guys want to come down [to New Orleans] and help? We could use some help.” John Beilenberg and Kodiak Starr responded affirmatively.

Ten days later, that EMS unit was in New Orleans, loaded with relief supplies picked up from ten AIGA chapters on the way from Belfast. Locally, MBulance, as it was re-named, made relief stops in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, the North Shore, and Hammond, Louisiana distributing art supplies, hardware, software, and much needed graphic design good will.


Displaced Design – AIGA New Orleans – Katrina: A Memory


Simultaneously, Displaced Designers, an online clearinghouse for relief resources built by The Chopping Block studio in New York City and No Designer Left Behind launched. During that Boston conference, the late William Drenttel, partner in Winterhouse Studio and co-founder of Design Observer, began AIGA Katrina Relief Taskforce, brilliantly consolidating these multiple efforts. AIGA Memphis president Kenneth White eventually took the lead manning weekly phone calls monitoring multiple initiatives progress. This all came together in a matter of days. In their speed of action and willingness to help, AIGA volunteers were revelatory role models; forever will I remember their strength and humble kindness.

In 2008, I published a presentation about when “the grid” goes down, as it did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The following is from that script:

          “When our own systems begin to fail, important things are what we learn to appreciate and to what we should aspire. The words, “hello,” “please and thank you” are of great importance. A cheerful nod or smile is equal in worth to a pound of gold.

I’ll tell you what happens when the grid goes down; truth, beauty and human compassion should rule the world.

We cannot always make it so. But we can try.”

For additional resources on the design-led efforts during Katrina and references, check out the following links: HOW Design – ProjectM  |  International Council of Design  |  Design Observer

View Nancy’s presentation – “Technology: What Happens When the Grid Goes Down” below:

By Nancy Sharon Collins – Special Project Director, Stationer, and Design Historian
Published August 26, 2015