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5 years after Katrina

Returning to New Orleans again, five years on, is an exercise in the surreal, as some neighborhoods appear as if Katrina never occurred, while others remain essentially abandoned. One of the hardest-hit sections of the Lower Ninth Ward is now scattered with eco-friendly homes built by the Make it Right Foundation. Farther north, the landscape quickly metamorphoses into untamed vegetation as nature reclaims the land man has abandoned. To see fields of wild grass where dozens of families once lived is unnerving. But the city’s soul is intact. I spent Sunday afternoon marching through the streets of New Orleans with the Valley of the Silent Men Social Aid and Pleasure Club during its annual second-line parade. The classic brass music was hypnotic and the people bounded through the city in a gorgeous moveable street ballet. Second-line parades are one of the countless examples of the living history embedded in this city. The parades are basically jazz funerals without a body and represent a history of economic, social and political empowerment, community solidarity and cultural pride within the African-American communities of New Orleans. I'm optimistic about New Orleans, in spite of the recent oil spill, because of the astonishing resilience of the people. They have suffered wars, slavery, fires, riots, yellow fever, cholera, segregation, poverty and 27 major floods over the past 290 years. Their spirit, their dignity and their resolve will carry them through once again, as it always has.

Back in 2005, I photographed a man known as ‘Cowboy’ as he waded through the Katrina floodwaters on Columbus Street with a house fire raging behind him. I was always curious about his story, because I didn’t get to speak with him. I returned to Columbus Street a number of times over the years and asked about him, and rumors always swirled when his name came up. Some said he burned the house down intentionally (he was renting a room there) and fled the city. Others said he was dead. Monday afternoon I began to photograph Columbus Street again. A resident asked what I was photographing and to my utter surprise he said nonchalantly, "You wanna meet Cowboy? He's sitting over there under that tree." I went over and sure enough, it was him.

I told him I had photographed him on that day back in 2005 and he was slightly taken aback, but he said he thought he recognized me. He then began to tell me his story. His real name is Robert Fontaine. He stayed in the Columbus Street house during the flooding to care for some dogs that were left behind. He was using candles for light, due to the lack of electricity, but one of the dogs knocked over a candle, causing the fire. He said he nearly died trying to rescue the dogs as burning pieces of the house collapsed around him. For two years following the storm, he lived in a FEMA trailer in Baton Rouge. Fontaine has developed a brain tumor and has been given 3-6 months to live. He suspects it may have been caused by the fire or toxic floodwaters. He appeared to be about 20 pounds thinner. He said, "My whole life, my whole world crashed, for everyone, not just for me."

Photo courtesy of Umbrage Editions

Mario Tama's book, 'Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent' will be published by Umbrage Editions, Sept. 1, 2010.