Katrina-Battered Slidell, La., Must Also Rebuild Arts Scene

One year after Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, washing away hundreds of communities and lives, FOXNews.com's Catherine Donaldson-Evans visits Slidell, La., to find out firsthand how one town is determined to rebuild. This is the second of her series of exclusive reports.

SLIDELL, La. — Barbara Gaines was one of the lucky ones during Hurricane Katrina. The house she shares with her husband of 48 years in Slidell, La., miraculously didn't flood at all, even though neighbors all around them lost everything.

But the 66-year-old artist didn't come out of the fierce storm with all she'd had before Katrina rained down on in this small city 30 miles north of New Orleans. Her studio was inundated with three feet of water, leaving most of her paintings and art supplies ruined by the muck-filled salt water from Lake Pontchartrain and the mold that set in after it had receded.

“Everything was just melted,” Gaines said in her now-renovated art workshop, a tiny room at the back of her one-story home in a wooded area of heavily battered south Slidell. “But I was so thankful my house was not flooded. All this out here can be replaced.”

Video: Katrina survivors describe life in Slidell, La., after the disaster

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Gaines was one of several local artists in this town of 30,000 whose paintings, drawings and sculptures were washed away or crushed by Katrina's violent winds and waters. And as art is important to this community, it's another aspect of life that's had to be rebuilt since the storm.

The small city-owned museum was flooded with four-and-a-half feet of water, and most of the art there, including an exhibit of works by art students from New Orleans, was destroyed.

Luckily, the non-profit Slidell Art League Gallery on the second floor of the historic train station wasn't affected. The city gallery moved in to share the space — where it still is today, because the original location is still gutted.

Other kinds of arts were also paralyzed by the hurricane, which at its peak was a Category 5 storm but roared ashore as a still-powerful Category 3 on Aug. 29, 2005.

The community Slidell Little Theater was flooded, and its plays halted. Dance shows stopped. Area musicians lost instruments, equipment and jobs. And in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the city's Heritage Park — which normally fills with music in the summer and fall because of frequent concerts there — was quiet.

Though Slidell's culture is dwarfed by that of the much larger city it's a suburb of, New Orleans, the arts are one of the town's anchors. Those involved were determined to bring them back as quickly as possible so people would have that outlet during the devastating days ahead.

“In many ways, the cultural scene is the soul of Slidell,” said Kim Bergeron, acting director of the city's cultural and public affairs. “It's an escape from the reality of Katrina and all that comes with it. There's only so much we can take.”

A few weeks after Katrina wiped out much of Slidell, Mayor Ben O. Morris decided to resume the city's Bayou Jam Concert Series, knowing he would face criticism, according to Bergeron.

He wasn't worried about that, though. He was worried about his people. They needed their spirits lifted, even for a little while. They needed music.

The first concert was in September in the park, which overlooks a bayou, less than a month after the storm had blown through town.

There was no amphitheater stage, another casualty of Katrina — only a chair if the musicians needed it. The city couldn't feed or house the band, called Vince Vance and the Valiants, because there were no hotels or restaurants open. But the band came to perform all the same. And about 10,000 people — a third of Slidell's population — attended.

“The community came out in droves,” Bergeron remembered. “It was an opportunity for everybody to put down their hammers and their shovels and stop tearing out the sheet rock and gutting out their homes and remember the joys we had before the storm. For those two hours, it was like life was back to normal.”

Those shows — a mix of different bands and musical genres — continued through the fall, as did the Louisiana Philharmonic concerts. They helped the city's beleaguered residents, just a little.

Some artists dealt with the tragedy through creating.

One local, Charlie Brown — whose works are currently on exhibit at the Slidell Art League Gallery — used slabs of wood paneling that washed into his best friend's home as his canvas for a piece called “H.O.B.” which stands for House of Blues. The picture is named after the funky restaurant-and-soul-music chain, which has similarly “primitive” paintings on the walls, Brown said.

On top of the Katrina debris wood, Brown painted what looks like a tall, red heart.

“My friend's entire pier on the back of his house had detached and was sitting in his living room. We have no idea where the panel came from,” said Brown, 42. “It just looked like something cool to paint on. I don't know what that shape is; it just felt good to make it.”

He finished the piece in only two hours, he said, six months after the storm.

Other artists found they were too traumatized, ill or overwhelmed with house renovations to go back to creating.

A famous musician who lived in Slidell, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown — a mainstay at New Orleans' Jazz Festival — fled for his childhood home in Texas when Katrina bore down on the region, but died less than two weeks later, on Sept. 10.

Friends said the already ill, 81-year-old Brown — famous for mixing musical genres like Cajun, jazz, blues, country and swing — had been deeply depressed after news reached him that his Slidell house had been completely destroyed in the hurricane.

Slidell Art League member Wanda Jensen, a friend of Gaines, lived on Lake Catherine just outside the city limits and lost everything to Katrina. She's been plagued by depression for the past year and has found it difficult to get back to her art.

“A lot of our members are dealing with their houses and depression,” said Laurie Manley, the graphic artist for the city and the Slidell Art League gallery coordinator. “My grandmother had a hard time painting at first, but now it gives her something positive to do.”

Jensen has also found some solace in her painting again, partly thanks to the now-weekly artists' workshops Gaines has been hosting at her house.

Gaines, for her part, had fallen gravely ill shortly before Katrina with a life-threatening condition called pulmonary fibrosis — the same disease that killed her mother at age 47 — and was only given a few months to live.

She couldn't breathe without the help of oxygen tanks and consequently had to stay at her daughter's home in Florida, where she and her husband Harvey had evacuated, until the power was completely restored in Slidell.

When they returned, Harvey Gaines, 69, rushed to make over his wife's mold-ridden studio — paying $4,000 for the renovations and completing it two months after the hurricane — in the hopes that it would help his ailing wife, whose lifeblood is her art.

“He thought this would give me something,” said Barbara Gaines, who does mostly water colors. “I didn't paint for a while because I was sick. I'd come out and do a few piddly things that I don't care for. But then I got myself up and started painting again.”

Since that time, she has improved dramatically. She breathes on her own and is almost back to her old self, though she knows her health is fragile and she could get sick again at any time.

Gaines is sad about the paintings that fell victim to the hurricane. She tried to save some, but it was no use. Mold had gotten to them first.

“There were a couple of things I really hated losing,” she said. “That has been one of the hardest things for people, to just let go.”

It was particularly difficult to part with a painting she made as a Christmas gift of three angels, two of whom looked like her granddaughters when they were younger. Another favorite that couldn't be salvaged was of a pine branch with pinecones dangling from it, like the kind on the trees that are prevalent in this part of the country.

“Everyone loved it,” she said of the latter piece. “But it ran all over.”

In total, she lost 18 of her paintings — not counting all the ones she'd given to friends whose homes were destroyed — as well art supplies and books. She and her husband didn't have flood insurance then, like so many in Slidell, so they had to repair the damage by themselves.

But Gaines didn't dwell on what Katrina took away from her. She knows it could have been so much worse.

“We had neighbors that swam for their lives and took an ax to their door,” she said. “We had friends who lost their whole lives. I said, I can do more [paintings]. That's the way I felt about it. I was so grateful. I thank God every day.”

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She looked out across her little street to a dirt clearing where trees were uprooted by the hurricane. Her eyes clouded briefly with the memories of all the stories she's heard since she's come back home.

“Slidell has really been through a terrible, terrible situation with Hurricane Katrina,” said Gaines, perched on a piece of plywood where the railing used to be on her porch. “I think lives have been changed forever.”

The woman who says she paints “to support her habit” — her love of creating art — smiled then.

“Art helps people get the storm off their minds,” Gaines said.

Part I: One Year After Katrina, Slidell, La. Shows Gulf Coast’s Determination to Rebuild