Jessica Helfand | Essays

Eye of the Storm

Several days ago, the first photographs showing the damage from Hurricane Katrina were published here in the American press. They were oddly disquieting, but mostly just enigmatic: one photo in particular showed the partially submerged houses of a residential city block, their red roofs appearing like floating trapezoids in a grey, murky sea. The image itself resembled a kind of environmental art piece — a Robert Smithson installation, for instance, or some sort of Christo and Jeanne Claude experiment. Its beauty lay in its otherworldliness, its tone of kooky mystery. As a photo it was haunting. As news, even more so.

It is the start of Labor Day weekend here in the United States — the last days of summer when time seems to stand still. There's the anticipation of the new school year, what the French call la rentrée: quite literally, the re-entrance into the kind of routine that summer so expertly ignores. (It was precisely this time of year when the events of September 11 occurred, jolting us irrevocably out of our late summer complacency.) And like it was then, there remains something deeply inexpressible about the tension between this perfect, hopeful time of year and the events of the past week.

To write about design in the wake of such tragedy seems to trivialize it — and yet, it is precisely in the acknowledgment of design that some kind of reality is once again established. There will be, no doubt, issues raised by this hurricane and its questionable aftermath — issues relating to disaster relief and even municipal reconstruction — that require a kind of vital, critical and engaged visual dialogue. But for now, we wait. We read. We empathize, extend ourselves, reach out in other ways. And we reflect, in these last, fragile days of summer, on the painful irony of a world in which the material evidence of our man-made environment can be pulled from under us in an instant, by a cascading torrent of wind and rain. Design is, can be, should be about so much more than making things that can vanish in a storm.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [19]

I'm certainly glad a lone voice of reason has discussed this disaster in the South.

I just received an email from Pesky Illustrator noted contributor to our forum whom resides in New Orleans and has lost everything. And is now homeless, however fortunate enough to have gotten out of that region.

The only Design and Art that survived was Digital. He was able to save his hard drive. All his original Art is Destroyed.

Yesterday the Army Core of Engineers spoke and did not except responsibility nor had an answer for why the levy was built to only sustain a category three hurricane. When the money should've been spent to build a levy that would survive a category five hurricane. Most important, the material used to build the levy was inferior from onset.

Experts knew this disaster would eventually happen in reference to the levee. As well the Designers of the levee the Army Core of Engineers.

The destruction of homes was caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The 20 feet of standing water was caused by a Major, Major Design Flaw in the Design of the levee by the Army Core of Engineers. Albeit Budgetary Constraints.

My heart and prayers go out to all effected by this American Tsunami.

Fats Domino and Irma Thomas is missing.


I, too, do not wish to trivialize the continuing tragedy in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast (where I spent some wonderful years in the early '80s'). But once those stranded are rescued and our period of mourning is over, we are faced with an extraordinary opportunity to (re)create an entire city and region of the country. It will take vision and ingenuity to mix the preservation this area rich in history and culture with the new structures that will have to be built to replace those that were lost (and those that were shoddily planned and constructed in the first place). It will also take a great deal of technological innovation and skill to come up with ways to either prevent or minimize a recurrance of this level of devastation in the future. I hope and pray that individuals with that kind of vision will step forward when efforts to rebuild get underway.

While making every effort not to be alarmist, one has to be virtually blind not to notice the number and scale of natural disasters growing annually, along with the temperature (in Toronto we had 44 degree weather often this summer where we rarely ever hit 35 two decades ago).

The 'Major Design Flaw in the Design of the levee' committed by Army Core of Engineers, that DM mentions are indeed responsible for not protecting the city properly. But rather than casting the blame on one division of the engineers forced to build a levee with inadequate material and funding, we would be more responsible to look at the DESIGN of the SYSTEM, and where the money is going instead (ie.the military). Moreover, we would be even more truthful in looking at our selves and asking how we have allowed our civilization to become so unsustainable.

If we could take responsibility as a culture for our crimes against the natural world she may be able to stop this onslaught of natural disasters. We need to look much more deeply and honestly the consequences of all our actions globally.



Very, very, very well said.
TPB, Esq.

I know that designing the physical world to reconstruct New Orleans and other cities in the South will be a major concern of many who read these pages.

But, looking at the design of our overall response system is now imperative. Designing robust social sytems is one of our biggest challenges today, one that we're struggling with in Iraq and now in the Gulf Coast as well. If we don't do a much better job of tackling those challenges, no amount of physical recovery will prepare us for what our children and grandchildren will face. I've written a little more about these thoughts on my blog today, if anyone's interested.
Tom Guarriello


My concern and outrage was watching the interview with one of the Chief Army Core of Engineers whom accepted responsibility for nothing. And essentially Exonerated the Army Core of Engineers.

As Ted Koppel said to Michael Brown Head of FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I apologize for beating up on you. Thanks for coming in to take your medicine because other Government Officials are not accepting responsibility".

"Where do put a half a million people that are homeless"?

"There's Rioting, No food water or Medical Care. Most people are Poor and lack the means to sustain themselves if they did have a way out. The most massive evacuation in United States History. Most people were too poor to leave".

Residents that could not escape were promissed these essentials the weekend.

Dead bodies in the rivers, crocodiles, snakes and alligators in people homes no animal rescue for people who have pets.

Raw Sewage, oil and other toxins in the water. People not being able to bath for five or more days. People not being rescued and being trapped in their homes.

"Where are the couragious fire fighters that we saw on 911? Military Personnel and Reserved Military Peronnel are being ran out of the communities by Rioters and Looters. These personnel were trained for COMBAT situations. Many have served in IRAQ. Are we not prepared"?

The beginning of Nightline stated the Government is more concern about the looting and Rioting than they are of providing Medical Care, and delivernig essential life sustaining supplies such as Food, Water and Clothing.

Not to mention ten and eleven year old little girls are being raped whom were separated from their parents and loved ones. No other choice but to live in the streets and/or the sports arena.

I agree wholeheartedly, the Blame must be shared. There's enough BLAME to go around for everybody.

As Ted Koppel so eloquently asked the question. "How could you not know this was going to happen"?

One Bright side Sean Combs and Jay Z a donating A Million Dollars apiece for relief efforts.

I'm sure others will follow.


Oh, yeah. Thank goodness for Jay Z and "Diddy" (Sean Combs). Where would we be without them? And Celine Dion, another $1M donor. How about a hand to regular folks who have donated nearly $100 million in just a few days? I'm sure there are many of them who could ill afford to part with some cash, whereas our big shot celebrities lay down a cool mil without breaking a sweat. But it really isn't news until a celebrity is involved.
Todd W.

While celebrity involvement may prompt ridicule, the question of disaster relief is a pretty serious one. NPR reported earlier that Fats Domino has been located, but what of the designers whose studios have been destroyed? Before we begin to address the insurmountable challenge of rebuilding entire cities, lets look realistically into helping our peers relocate and rebuild their lives and practices.
Jessica Helfand

Todd W.

Addressing your very Snide and Sarcastic Remark.

Worry more about what your contribution will be as opposed to Mindless Insults. Since more than 75% of the People in that Region are African American and POOR and could not make it out. Many are deceased.

I was addressing their invclvement as I'm beginning to hear Radio Stations and other Corporations and Institutions get involved.

Your comment very typical of a DO NOTHING WASP.

Under the present circumstances That's Mighty WHITE OF YOU TODD!!!!!!!

Thanks Jesse for informing me Fats Domino was found.



That was Not an American Tsunami, yeah?


FYI, I just received this from the AIGA:

aiga is actively involved in making contact with designers in the gulf coast region devastated by hurricane katrina and subsequent floods. as we work to assess how the design community can support our fellow designers most effectively, we are collecting information on the status of the affected, their needs and the offers of others to help (www.aiga.org/reliefeffort).

aiga member terry stone (los angeles) is chairing an aiga relief task force to coordinate actions and responses. designers in southeastern states who would like to take an active role in the task force should respond at [email protected]. aiga will focus on creating a network to allow displaced designers to communicate with those who can help; we will also help displaced designers in regaining their professional practice.

aiga will launch a relief fund with $10,000 to help designers re-establish their practices and will encourage our corporate partners to work through the task force to coordinate additional financial and in-kind support. other organizations with experience in disaster relief are better equipped to handle humanitarian aid, and we encourage designers to support their efforts (links to many of these organizations are included at www.aiga.org/reliefeffort).

to help inform this and future efforts, two sessions will be added to the aiga design conference program: one on how to be most effective in aiding relief in the gulf coast area and a second on what this dreadful experience suggests in terms of the power of design to aid emergency procedures and evacuation.
Maya Drozdz

Decide for yourself about this article, but it's something to think about. There are definitely going to be plenty of people relying on the Red Cross for support, but there may be local charities that are better equipped.

My lastest email from Pesky Illustrator. Whom resided in New Orleans and was able to get out with his wife and kittens and travel to Atlanta.
Living overnight with his Agent/Respresentative.
Now finding somewhere else to reside.

I don't think he will mind me posting his very private email to me.
"The end of a rich culture, my friend. It's still incalcuable what remains that is salvageable. I don't think my area can ever be rebuilt. Water may never leave. Major business certainly will not choose to be in a flood area. It's over. And though the first few days had me regretting what I did not grab (rare books, Jazz collection, all my fine art) now I just grieve for the poor who are still in that chaos and squaller.
Yesterday my wife and i decided we needed some food at a diner, the yuppie group at the next table were laughing at Louisiana by their overheard comments - laughing - I went over and blasted them for their stupidity, much to my wife's embarassment. I just couldn't help myself knowing that it was liberal racism. When we were leaving the restaurant owner said we didn't have to pay. The good, the bad and the ugly all over again".

"We are trying to focus now. I need to move into another friends place today. a furnished basement room which is oK since it means the cats can come out of the cages. People have been sending me kind offers of help, but frankly I'm still overwhelmed. What I need is stability and work and money and a functioning computer system. I can't keep borrowing access to someone elses machine. I brought my G4 Mac hard drive but the missing hardware makes access impossible. That will change hopefully".

"We still have been unable to reach lost firneds and that is painful. Some are OK we know, but those poor never made it out and we don't know if they got to the Superdome".

"I stay on ::SpeakUp:: to be a voice to this disaster. It's only human nature to say things will get better and all that, but what most don't realize is the deeper psychological rift this creates in survivors. Smirking designers who makes jokes about God and the bigger picture are the same ones who distance themselves from the images coming out of New Orleans of misery and looting".
"I can't change their minds but I can be a witness to the suffering of my brothers and sisters".

Thank you, Frank, for standing up and contacting me. It means a lot. I'll be able to draw again, but I'll never be back home.


Pesky Illustrator


Thank you, Jessica, for writing a succinct & poignant analysis of the current situation. Our graduate studio is currently exploring relationships between the global/local as a subtopic of globalization, and where the graphic designer's role lies within it. Right now, it feels like it can't get any more local than this. As we empathize with the pain, estrangement and suffering that Katrina has wrought, it's easiest to identify what our human response should be (donations of food, clothing, money). From this human response is where I think the designer's role will emerge; there will be plenty of opportunities for us to apply our skills towards rebuilding (or supporting the efforts of rebuilding) what has been eradicated.
tracy kroop

Anyone interested in a well-researched and historical account of the New Orleans flood control sysem as well as its influence on the city's residents, I strongly recommend Louisiana State University professor Craig T. Colten's An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature, which will hopefully serve as a small antidote to miguided information being passed around out of context these days. (Small disclosure: I was the book's designer.)

On a personal note, as a lifelong resident of Baton Rouge who moved to Connecticut only a week ago, this whole disaster has been especially heartbreaking. Anyone who's ever spent time in New Orleans knows the horrible poverty most of the city's residents have lived in, as well as the fact that basically everyone knew this would happen eventually -- how could the response be this inept?
Andrew Shurtz

We always knew NOLA would eventually become America's "City of the Dead." That we might lose everything. That people we shared dinner, drinks, lives with might disappear. And in some ways, we tried to prepare for this eventual outcome, in the deeper, more undisturbed parts of our souls.

Exodus, however- we never even fathomed such a truth.

I handle(d) media and art direction for Confederate Motorcycles in the CBD on Carondelet St. I lived in a house in mid-city. 15 years of drawings, writing, slides, negatives, rare books, 2000 records dating back to a 1915 Yaqui Indian chant, paintings from old friends, my bonsai... All gone.

I recently read a copy of "The End" not knowing that William Drenttel was deeply involved with that work. When I finished it I told myself I could never truly grasp such a feeling of loss. Even though I secretly wished I could. To helplessly lose a people, a city, in a brief moment of living. Now with many of my friends scattered to the four winds and unaccounted for, I think I've come closer than I ever wanted.

I'm sorry, but with much respect I find the above post really fastidious. I appreciate wholeheartedly the concern, I too was shocked and remain so, even days after - what a debacle. What happened is an awful tragedy but it will happen again unless we don't get a bit more clued up to what's really going on out there, a little more awareness, perhaps (as er..'baudo' said). The hurricane and its aftermath and the debauchery on the streets that followed have turned New Orleans into a kind of 'Venice from hell'- yet another brutal wake-up call, a horrible reminder of how things really are in this world right now. Where does DESIGN come in here? Hmmmm...
As for ....."the painful irony of a world in which the material evidence of our man-made environment can be pulled from under us in an instant, by a cascading torrent of wind and rain." Well, for starters, if we keep on kicking ol'Mother Nature in the pants, she's going to keep coming back to us and give us a good smackin'. You listenin', George?

Pace e bene

O you who wants to blame; Bad on you! The problem is not a simple one, bad weather, heat. If you want to blame some-one blame yourselves I think that the disaster is only a warning that worse may come if we do not take care of our environment. Global warming, and yip we Americans are the worst of the lot.

I do not know much about design/graphic design. Reading this article, made me think of natural objects in a different light, that also they can be seen in an art form and be man made at large scales and not shown in a museum. As I did not hear of Robert Smithson before I researched him and found the art work intriguing, although his art work was produced in the early 80's for example his 'earthworks and photo works'. With seeing images of hurricane Katrina I can see that both art work and natural disasters can occur without any influences, as art doesn't make sense at first. I find this really striking that the designer can produce something out of their own mind and the world can produce its own piece of artwork, whether it is good or bad, like natural disasters or the sun shining. There are global/local relationships with designers and the world.

As natural disasters come as bad news to the world, there also can be a beautiful side to it, where we have different points of seeing things, designers have opportunities to make people see this in a different light. Where the artist produces the work, similarly to natural disasters. They both are undetected until they occur, and they reach out to us whether it is in a physical or emotional way
sharmila rahman

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