A can of spray paint was a crucial tool for New Orleans rescue teams marking buildings in the search for survivors after Hurricane Katrina. Seven weeks later, the homespun graffiti is spelling out another kind of message.
“FEMA, where y’at?” reads the writing on a toppled column in the median of a deserted street in St. Bernard Parish, where residents remain bitter about the slow federal response to the flooding and winds that flattened homes and flipped cars.
In the storm-devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans, the DayGlo letters have transformed from emergency markings to a means of subversive commentary on the slow-paced recovery.
Houses in the city’s hardest hit areas still bear the now familiar X’s painted on front doors and walls by desperate search teams.
But other hand-lettered signs have also sprung up — some plaintive, some pointed, some absurd — as residents turn to graffiti in the ruins to deflect grief and anger.
In the poor, mostly black Lower Ninth Ward, an abandoned fishing boat has drawn a new name in mocking honor of the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown. “SS Brown,” the bow reads in bright orange letters.
Political commentaries — on refrigerators
Foul-smelling refrigerators, which line the streets of the French Quarter and the Garden District awaiting pickup, have become a public canvas. One on Royal Street has an obscenity directed at Vice President Dick Cheney. Another says: “Please send to George W. Bush.”
Outside one home still filled with half a foot of rancid mud, the owners have left an ironic tribute to the unexpected landscaping: “Garden of the Month.”
“Do Not Take,” reads a dark-blue Chevrolet pickup, while a crippled car nearby is tagged simply “Tow me.”
“Please don’t take my cats,” the sign on one house appeals to animal rescue teams, while boarded up businesses still bear stark warnings: “Looters will be shot.”
On a two-story, white-brick house in the St. Bernard town of Meraux, someone has left notice for cleanup crews who have not yet arrived that the tidal surge appears to have trapped and drowned a young doe now rotting in the front room: “Still Dead Deer 10/13.”
Surveying the suburban wasteland, Rob Pitre took a moment a moment on Sunday to spray paint a joke on his neighbor’s front porch after helping him tow out a wrecked car.
“One giraffe, four elephants,” he wrote, mimicking the signs left by animal rescue teams to detail pets found nearby.
The house’s owner, Mike Kazik, had a laugh when asked how the imaginary menagerie had weathered the storm. “They’re OK,” he said. “The elephants floated away, and the giraffe just had a look around.”
Gaining fame through graffiti
The city’s most notorious graffiti is a scrawled narrative in large black letters outside a boarded-up oriental rug store, where owner Bob Rue held vigil with a gun just after the storm to keep looters at bay.
“Don’t Try,” Rue’s first entry reads. “I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer.”
Several days later and clearly more desperate, Rue added: “Still here. Woman left ... cooking a pot of dog gumbo.” And then, winkingly: “Grin and bear it.”
Firefighters from New York, FBI teams and neighbors have dropped by to take pictures of the street mural.
“I just wanted to thank you. This is the only laugh I’ve had,” Jeff Thomas, who lives nearby, told Rue as the latter was out on the sidewalk trying to scrub salt water from an 80-year-old carpet.
Rue says he already turned down an offer from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper to buy his folk-art commentary and plans to put the installation up for auction on eBay.
“I’m a merchant, baby,” he said.
Rue was coy on whether the dog gumbo reference was just more of the gallows humor on display around New Orleans.
“You don’t know that,” he said.