The abiding images of Hurricane Katrina are of violent devastation: cataclysmic floods levelling ranks of tottering timber dwellings; trees twisting and folding like so much tumbleweed; anguished faces wailing as they sink beneath an unforgiving tide. Yet what is remarkable about Larry Towell’s stirring photographic record of the havoc wrought by this singularly turbulent event is a lingering quality of stillness.
The opening picture – Highway 90, Waveland, Mississippi – is like an establishing shot from a Wim Wenders film overlaid with irony and surrealism. On the left a discarded door straddles the road’s central reservation, while on the right lies a sign bearing the legend “shallow water”. Above both, the line of the river seems becalmed – but almost certainly somewhat higher than it was before the tempest struck.
This preternatural sense of calm in the aftermath of such ferocity typifies Towell’s approach for the first and last thirds of the book. In Debris from Destroyed Homes and Wal-Mart, Pass Christian, Mississippi, a landscape of displaced sandbags frames what amounts to a “graveyard” of furniture. Here and there wicker armchairs stand stolidly, describing the interiors of homes whose walls have simply evaporated. Where figures do appear in these pictures they are statues: among them the ghostly, blank-faced Madonna of Catholic Church, Waveland, Mississippi and the open-shirted everyman flanking a sinking mausoleum in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, Louisiana.
The middle section takes a different tack. Suddenly, as if from out of the woodwork, real people start to appear – their expressions a medley of placid incomprehension and angry defiance. In Residents Returning Home to Assess Damage, Biloxi, Mississippi, two quizzical teenage girls survey a flattened suburb redolent of Dorothy’s Kansas City after the twister hit. Meanwhile, in Service Outside the Lighthouse Apostolic Church, Biloxi, Mississippi, an impromptu gospel chorus spills out into a street stuttering back into life with cars and trucks.
These are exceptions, though. Most of the photos featuring people are blurred and elusive: half-glimpsed, like phantoms of the old New Orleans. Such haunting images are apt companions to Towell’s bitter afterword. Revisiting the Katrina trail six months after his initial odyssey, he was struck by the lack of reconstruction taking place – by the rusting shells of abandoned gas stations, and the sad small town carnival that had replaced the once spectacular Mardi Gras. Devastation indeed.