“Katrina taught us much about ourselves here in southeast Louisiana. It taught the rest of America a bit about Louisiana.”
- Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City

I don’t mean to be a downer. As you know by now, this isn’t a show about Katrina. What’s more, URBANbuild was created as a response to the housing devastation that existed well before any of us knew who she was.

But ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL is, among other things, a show about New Orleans, and you can’t talk about New Orleans anymore without talking about Katrina in some way, because now it’s an integral part of the city’s collective identity.

And so it happened that we spent a muggy afternoon filming in the Ninth Ward [www.gnocdc.org], a section of the city that was thrust into the international spotlight on August 29, 2005 when, because of its proximity to a broken levee system, it flooded beyond repair. Unforgettable images of its drowned homes splashed across TV screens around the world, so that now people from Kansas to Kathmandu know it by name.

Needless to say, we couldn’t help but feel a voyeur’s sense of nervous anticipation when we went with some students to film 2005′s most talked-about location.

What we found was nothing more than a memory. Receding, distant, grey, empty. Broken. Even the wreckage I’d heard about from friends who visited a year ago was gone. What remained was an overgrowth of weeds, some taller than we were, swishing loudly in the hot wind. They grew up through every crack in the concrete, and in front yards where crumpled remains of houses stood on their last leg, and for long stretches of empty land, where once there stood an entire row of lively homes. Now just weeds. And mosquitoes, as thick as gnats.

When we interviewed Casey about her childhood house in California, we could feel memories from these ghost houses hovering around us while we filmed (under rubble and behind shredded facades, I swear, they were everywhere).

Afterwards, the crew stood on one of the many leftover concrete foundations, often the only discomfiting sign that anyone had ever lived there. Like the entire Ninth Ward itself, it was like walking on an outline of what used to be. Michael showed me how one could imagine an entire floor plan for a house that once stood exactly where we did, simply by following the lines on the concrete, and by paying attention to loose material in the ground. I mean, right down to the bedroom closet and the toilet! It was surreal.

As we drove away, we saw two guys rebuilding a house from scratch. The only people around for what seemed like miles, they whistled and hummed to each other while they hammered nails into fresh wood – like it was just another day in the neighborhood.

And for them, it probably was.

Rachel Clift