NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - As the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, a museum in Mississippi is taking time to remember. Their exhibit isn't about the storm, but about the years that followed.
Beneath the whimsy of the twisted metal and brick structure crafted by master architect Frank Ghery sits the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art. Nestled at the edge of the Gulf in Biloxi, the museum dedicated to the mustachioed mad potter George Ohr lends portions of its halls to an exhibition weighed down by images of despair balanced with hope.
"It's just part of life," said Kevin O'Brien. "You live with nature, and again I think everyone here looks at everything here in terms of nothing is permanent, and you really have to focus on what is valuable to people's lives."
That sentiment is captured in the museum's Katrina + 10 exhibit that spreads across the sprawling campus of the beach-side gallery. It tells the tale of the days following the catastrophic storm, but more importantly life as it struggled to cling to the sands of the Gulf.
"A lot of personal stories and personal inputs about how people reacted, but really it tells the story of how resilient people are here and that they really had to look at life in a different way," O'Brien said.
There's the story of the electrical companies fighting to restore power to thousands in the dark. And the tale of the volunteers flooding the coast with hands of love and help.
Since March, this narrative unfolds before the eyes of hundreds who only saw the storm through a screen.
"They did not go through Katrina, and many of the people who actually lived here, the last thing they want to see is an exhibit about a terrible, terrible time in their lives," O'Brien said.
For the museum volunteers, these images are tough to consume. One woman said her first day at the exhibit brought back a flood of raw emotions, but she knew she couldn't give up because the story of what happened and the decade that followed, can't go untold.
"I was not sure I could do it," Diane Kiser said. "I had not seen the exhibit, but we signed up. I knew the anniversary was near and probably we had not really talked much about the details of the storm. We have a way of forgetting those details that really hurt."
"A lot of the times those same people who say they don't want to talk about Katrina will say I don't want to talk about it, and then they immediately will start talking about their Katrina story," O'Brien said. "It's just something that's a really important part of their lives and an important part of the Gulf Coast, so I think the biggest thing about the exhibit that we have is that, yes, we've gone through adversity, but we've come back and we're a strong people."
Kiser finds it hard to look back but still tells her story.
"It was very devastating, but everyone was all in the same situation, and we seemed to pull together," she said. "We don't know where the people came from. They came with bulldozers, Caterpillars, they just started showing up and cleaning up debris immediately."
The exhibit allows people to immerse themselves in the hours and days that followed the storm through the lens of our sister station WLOX. Visitors can grab headphones and get lost in the debris.
"In Camille we had roof damage on the beach and in Katrina we had a slab, so that was the difference between the two storms," Kiser said. "But this was our home where I had worked all of my life, where I went to school. We loved the area and loved the people, so we had to rebuild in the same spot."
It's that determination to rebuild that the exhibit aims to embody and express to the visitors who can only begin to wrap their hearts around the pain experienced - and the hope that remains.
"We've met people from all over the state and all over the world that have heard about Katrina, and it means so much to them to hear what it was like from someone who lived it," Kiser said. "It is a story that needs to be seen and heard. People need to know that they can build back a community of this size, that we were resilient."
The exhibit lasts through Sept. 12. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for kids and teens.