The room is lit by flashlights, an escape hole chopped in the roof with an ax lying nearby. Steps away, rising floodwaters seep down a levee wall; across the way, a storm diary written in black felt marker on a housing project wall bears testimony to the hellish days after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Those items and more from the monster hurricane that battered New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,600 people, are part of a stunning new exhibit opening Oct. 26 at the Louisiana State Museum — "Living with Hurricanes, Katrina & Beyond."
The $7.5 million exhibit at New Orleans' French Quarter museum recounts tales of the 2005 hurricane, its chaotic aftermath and recovery. It also explores lessons Katrina taught, and the science and technology arising since to counter future storms.
"We see this as a game-changer for the museum," said its director, Sam Rykels, who came up with the idea for the show days after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. "We had become a somewhat staid museum, but no more."
Galleries and connecting areas move visitors through four major presentations: New Orleans' relationship to storms; firsthand accounts of people and predicaments of survival they found themselves in; a forensics gallery exploring the paths Katrina and Hurricane Rita took that year and the science of how the levees failed; and a final section on recovery and the technologies emerging since to combat the destructive forces of nature.
"We knew we wanted to do more than just show the storm's destruction," said Larissa Hansen-Hallgren of Experience Design in Boston, which helped prepare the show. "We wanted it to celebrate the city's rebirth and the resilience of the people."
Museum officials returned days after Hurricane Katrina and began salvaging many of the items now found throughout the exhibits.
"We had people who were dealing with damage to their own homes and yet saw the need to record the history around us," said Rykels, who recalled how preserving items from the floodwaters was like "collecting from Atlantis."
The collection ranges from a ruined baby grand piano dragged from the flooded home of rhythm & blues legend Fats Domino to a muddy teddy bear and the blue jeans that survivor Claudio Hemb wore the day after the storm hit. The jeans are inscribed with Hemb's name, his wife's name and telephone number at the Houston hotel she was evacuated to — in the event he was killed.
Then there's the exhibit of the ax in the attic. The brand new ax was bought by a woman living near New Orleans just in case she and her daughter should need escape from their attic from rising floodwaters — exactly the fate that befell them.
The Mabry Wall — a daily account written with marker on the walls of an apartment where Thomas Elton Mabry rode out the storm and over a month afterward — was saved just in time, said Jane Irvin, the museum curator of special projects.
"We were one step ahead of the wrecking ball," Irvin said. "But we knew we had to have that journal."
Working with the Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the paint was removed from the cinderblock wall and preserved.
Video exhibits display footage of the storm, oral histories and the work residents and a huge group of volunteers have done assisting recovery.
The exhibits reflect the museum's mission to collect and preserve the state's history, said Karen Leathem, museum historian.
A big part of the program is the educational programs that will follow it, she said. Scientists and academics at the Office of Marine Programs at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography are building websites tailored for students and the public to help understand scientific and technological advances in hurricane tracking and preparation for such storms.
There will also be content on environmental issues, flooding, coastal restoration and emergency management.
"We knew right after the storm we would be doing some sort of exhibit," Leathem said. "It did so much to change the lives of the people here and the city."
Louisiana State Museum: http://www.lastatemuseum.com