Collecting and Preserving Memories of the 2005 Gulf Coast Hurricanes

Sheila A. Brennan, Associate Director of Public Projects
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media

Soon after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared ashore on the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the staff at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media quickly realized that we were witnessing a very significant moment in American history. Working in partnership with the University of New Orleans (UNO), we quickly launched the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB) <> in an attempt to collect and preserve as much of the “instant history” and personal stories from these events as possible.

Our target audience was anyone who was affected by the 2005 hurricanes: survivors, emergency responders, volunteers, and concerned citizens. Because the hurricanes created a diaspora of individuals, we believed that launching a website could reach the largest number of the affected—wherever they may have landed.

Drawing on experiences from other collecting projects, such as the September 11 Digital Archive <>, we knew we couldn’t merely launch the site and expect people to visit and share their stories. First, we created a short and simple process for contributors to share and upload on-scene images, podcasts, or other born-digital files they might have, or to copy blog postings or emails and submit them to our archive.

Then, we developed a series of partners asking for assistance promoting the project and building trust among our audience. Our project staff members living on the Gulf Coast developed partnerships with universities, military units, non-profit community groups, and museums who informed their communities about the project and in some cases we archived materials they had collected. Because some of us were living on the Gulf Coast, we spoke to community groups, met with the local media, and attended events–everything from commemorations to Mardi Gras parades where we passed out drink cups and postcards printed with our URL.

One challenge we understood immediately was that the storms displaced thousands of individuals who were never wired and in the wake of the storms, remained so. First, we set up a local phone number through the online telephone service, Skype, that allowed those without connectivity, or for those wishing to talk through their ordeals, the opportunity to contribute via voicemail.

Second, we printed postage paid reply cards so that someone could pick up a card, write their story, and mail it in. We then scanned and uploaded cards to the archive. With these efforts combined with the broad publicity campaign, our outreach team sent a lot of traffic to the HDMB site.

Our efforts definitely paid off, as HDMB contains over 25,000 digital objects and remains one of the largest digital archives focused on the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Even still, we misjudged the intensity of destruction of these events when planning and budgeting for the project. While CHNM and UNO went to work soon after the hurricanes struck to begin collecting, we found that many residents, former residents, and volunteers were not ready to share their stories. The destruction along the Gulf Coast was structural, institutional, and emotional. For so many, dealing with the aftermath was difficult and for some that summer hasn’t ended yet. For others, the magnitude of the destruction of their lives and their communities was so great that they find it impossible to put into words.

We secured a grant for two years, but discovered that for this particular disaster two years was not enough time. If, like us, your project is devoted to collecting the digital record of a tragedy, plan to spend more time on outreach than you thought you would. Additionally, even though you built a digital project, plan to spend much of your time off-line talking to individuals and building relationships. People need to trust you and your project before they will share their memories and digital materials.

About the author:
Sheila Brennan is the Associate Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media where she manages many digital projects, and serves as the end user outreach coordinator for the Omeka platform.

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