Brad Benischek is a Bywater artist and one of the founding members of the Press Street literary and visual arts collective. Press Street's second publication is Revacuation, Benischek's graphic novel relating the experience of both the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the year that followed. The characters are anthropomorphized animals, such as birds (whose forced migration filled them with despair), and rabbits and cats (the strangers and friends who took us in when we needed help badly) that represent the whole horrific evacuation experience. The story also includes the pushy and tyrannical giant hands, representing the "help" sent by the government after the storm, who in Benischek's depictions more often got in the way than actually did any good. My favorite characters, though, are the scary scarecrow zombies who represent politicians and the bureaucratic mess of red tape and a disregard for the well-being of the people of New Orleans. And then of course there is George W. Bush, the only cowboy in the whole story.
Because Benischek began this journal during evacuation and continued it when life in post-Katrina New Orleans resembled the pioneering West, his depictions have a frenetic energy full of scribbly, anxious detail. Just looking at them reminds me of my own state of mind at that time. Feelings of loss and sadness and lack of direction. A feeling that the old rules of home no longer applied.
The book's characters ask: Who's in charge here? Who's going to help us? In the end, I'd have to say, and it seems Benischek would agree, that it was our neighbors, friends and strangers who helped us most. The book documents all the major concerns (no mail, no electricity, no cell phone reception), the news stories, the elections and most important, the feelings people discussed in bars, cafes and meetings all over the city. The story tells of the loss we experienced when longtime friends moved away to "Functionburgh" and the pain that went along with their absence. Benischek draws about the dytopian nightmares dreamt up by politicians and developers: green spaces, towering condo projects, the removal of all things precious and authentic about our city.
But practical life set in and people had to rebuild their homes and deal with the swindlers at insurance companies who had once promised to protect them from harm. The animals knew -- we knew -- that they'd been lied to and that they were on our own. Somehow life began moving forward and hammers came out and trailers moved onto homeowners' lots. Benischek's story tells of the great grief and amazing adaptability we all found swelling inside us, even to this day.
The book hits home for me, because I just recently decided to move to Functionburgh myself. A very hard decision indeed, but the right one for me. I consider my impending move to be my own "revacuation," and the guilt and relief that comes with this decision must mirror that of those who left after the storm. But the time I spent here over the last two years -- a time full of the love and resilience of great people, their fighting spirit and the hard work done during even harder times -- fills me with overwhelming pride for the good and caring citizens of New Orleans. I only hope the Cowboy and the scarecrows of Benischek's story work half as hard as the people of this city have. In the meantime, more birds are flying home and new birds are coming down because they see the beauty in this one-of-a-kind, unnameable place.