National Writing Project

Katrina: In Their Own Words

Date: January 27, 2006

Summary: This collection of essays, poems, and songs, published by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project captures the turmoil surrounding hurricane Katrina. The work includes pieces by local teachers and students.


In the last lesson she taught in her classroom before Katrina unleashed its wrath, high school teacher Melanie Plesh wrote a poem on her blackboard for her students to consider, William Stafford's "For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid."

In the weeks after she'd evacuated the area, Plesh was surprised to see in the Times-Picayune a picture of national guardsmen living in her classroom, playing guitar in front of the blackboard.

"It's now almost a year later," Plesh writes in her essay, "Escape from New Orleans." "I've been to my room several times. The national guardsmen used it, but cleaned it too. But they left the poem on the board. I lost almost sixteen years of teacher stuff, but not that poem, that innocent moment of putting the poem up there, of asking the children to think on it."

Plesh's essay is one of the reflections on the 2006 disaster included in Katrina: In Their Own Words, a collection of 50 pieces published by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project (SLWP).

"Numerous accounts describe being forced from one's home, living without proper shelter, and realizing for the first time how much we take for granted—home, family, job, traffic, water, phone, food, electricity, tomorrow," write site director Richard Louth and technology liaison Joan Anderson in the preface.

The book arose out of a blog that Anderson created following the hurricanes. The blog allowed SLWP teacher-consultants and their students to publish writing about their Katrina experiences, which later became the basis for a 30-minute radio show.

That show, which aired on Louisiana's KSLU public radio station on January 27, 2006, provided a moving testament to the power of writing and community in the aftermath of tragedy. It was also an example of the ways in which sites involved with Rural Voices Radio have woven that project into the cloth of their local writing project work.

As the one-year anniversary of Katrina approached, Louth and Anderson decided to transform the broadcast into an anthology, featuring pieces from the radio show, additional blog entries, and more recently solicited writing and photos.

"These pieces clearly illustrate a shared sense of surprise, awe, anger, fright, grief, and relief," Louth and Anderson write. "It is important for readers across the country to understand that there was a larger-than-life, shared experience here that no one who experienced it will forget, even those who experienced it 100 miles away from New Orleans."

To order a copy of Katrina: In Their Own Words, write a check for $15 made out to the SLU Development Foundation and send it to Dr. Richard Louth, SLU 10327, Hammond, LA 70402.

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