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'A Chance to Heal'

A docudrama offers hope for hurricane survivors.

By Cindy Long


NEA Executive Committee member Michael Marks.


Even as they continue to rebuild their communities, Gulf Coast residents still struggle under the emotional toll of Hurricane Katrina. Some survivors are finding that the best way to dispel the trauma from the storm is to talk about it—to share their stories until the pain from the memory subsides. Sometimes an entire community needs to tell its story, not only to bring about healing, but also to create a living record of the disaster so its lessons don’t fade with time.

That was the idea behind a docudrama, co-written by NEA Executive Committee member and Hattiesburg High School drama teacher Michael Marks, about the Category 5 storm that devastated the Gulf Coast last summer.

An exhausted ER doctor treats a hurricane survivor in “The Katrina Project.”
For more images, visit our Katrina Project slideshow!


“The impact that the storm had on our local community, state, and region dictated that we turn our talents to healing and providing documentation for this disaster,” Marks says. “Mackenzie Westmoreland and I created ‘The Katrina Project’ for therapy’s sake and for history’s sake.”

“The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water,” a production of Hattiesburg High School Theatre, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, tells the story of the hurricane through a series of vignettes carefully pieced together to recall the buildup to the storm and the devastating aftermath.

A young Asian woman who speaks little English begs for a ride out of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bears down on the city. Another woman chooses to ride out the storm at home rather than on the interstate and is soon flooded out of her house. “I can still taste gasoline in the water,” she says. After trying to restore order to a city in chaos, an exhausted and defeated New Orleans police officer gives up, shooting himself with his gun. “It’s too much,” he sobs, before pulling the trigger.

Delivering Help and Hope

NEA member Raphael Waldrop led the effort to create a relief distribution center at Hattiesburg High School, where goods continue to be collected and shipped to the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone. The distribution center has provided:
  • Hundreds of boxes of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing
  • Dry goods, non-perishables, countless boxes of toiletries, and personal items
  • More than 500 backpacks with school supplies
  • Thousands of books to restock libraries
  • Mosquito netting for temporary, outdoor classrooms
  • Vouchers for research materials and magazine subscriptions
  • First aid kits
NEA Hurricane Relief Fund
So far, through the generosity of NEA members nationwide, NEA has raised more than $1.3 million for public school employees affected by the hurricanes. But there is still a need for help. To make a secure online donation, please visit NEA's Disaster Relief Web Site.
Similar to The Laramie Project—when a group of young actors and writers from a New York City theater company interviewed residents of Laramie, Wyoming, about the night gay college student Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead on a fence off a rural road—the student actors from Hattiesburg High School visited and interviewed survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the days following the storm. The play comprises their stories, performed by the students who gathered them.

With the help of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Oral History and Cultural Heritage, the students were trained on oral history interview techniques. The information they collected was not only used for the writing of the play, it will be housed in a permanent collection at Southern Mississippi.

“I’ve always said that theater should entertain, but that it has a deeper obligation to educate as well,” Marks says. “This was a teachable moment that I could not pass up. For my students—many who suffered tragic personal losses—it was an opportunity to develop courage, grit, and determination as we became a lighthouse for schools south of Hattiesburg. We delivered food, consumable supplies, and provided cleanup services. For our community, it was a chance to heal.”

Hattiesburg High School won the Mississippi Drama Championship with its production of “The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water,” in the state finals held in January at Mississippi State University in Starkville. In March, they will represent Mississippi at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Orlando.

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