An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

The X-Codes: A Post-Katrina Postscript

Dorothy Moye, Decatur, Georgia

Published: 
26 August 2009
Overview: 
Dorothy Moye explores the prevalence and significance of the X-code, a symbol used by search-and-rescue teams in 2005 to mark searched property in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. She considers the purposes of these codes and how returning New Orleanians felt about these symbols, as well as the stories these markings continue to tell. Moye is currently organizing a Katrina X-codes exhibition in collaboration with professional and amateur photographers under the fiscal sponsorship of the Southern Documentary Fund.
The X-Codes: A Post-Katrina Postscript:
Dorothy Moye, Upper Ninth Ward house with "KEN" marking from private contractor, 2009.
Dorothy Moye, Upper Ninth Ward house with "KEN" marking from private contractor, 2009.

It was a late afternoon in June 2006, and I was lost in New Orleans. It was my first trip into the city after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and I had been touring a friend around landscapes and cityscapes that I remembered from living there as a child—landscapes and cityscapes that were completely and permanently changed. Somehow I had gotten into the Gentilly neighborhood and was searching for an exit. Vaguely recollected bridges across Bayou St. John had disappeared. Street signs were nonexistent or homemade

Traffic signals dangled uselessly or had been swept from tangled utility wires. The potholed streets were deserted, as were the homes that had been submerged for weeks after the failure of the London Avenue Canal levee on August 29. The only signs of human intervention in this neighborhood almost a year after the storm were cryptic markings on each house, recording the progress of first responders down the streets. Large spray-painted Xs on every home, with numbers and letters in each quadrant of the X, recorded coded information.

Later, as I recalled my odyssey through drowned areas of the city, I kept returning to that visual image. As I have revisited the city in the intervening months, it has continued to haunt me. The spectacle of house after house on street after street marked with this bold coding is unforgettable. In its repetition it signified the scale of the wreckage, destruction, and abandonment that surrounded us, and inadvertently told a story.

I realized that the aftermath of a previous hurricane and flood primed me to respond to the X-codes, or Katrina crosses, as many in the city refer to them. When my family moved from New Orleans we settled in yet another hurricane-prone zone, eastern North Carolina. In the fall of 1999 I returned to Greenville, North Carolina, for a wedding and observed the aftermath of that September's devastating floods resulting from the torrential rains of Hurricane Floyd. Shells of houses stood spray-painted with large Xs. The impact of the X (which I assumed at the time to mark a structure for demolition) was powerful—were these homes and lives being X'd out? What about those who had lived there? Those Xs raised questions without answers, and although the symbol was strong, I filed it all away as a memory of Floyd. Almost seven years later the X-image resurfaced, a predecessor to my response to the thousands that appeared in New Orleans.

Investigation of the code revealed that this graphic is clearly prescribed by the Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Task Force manuals.1 As I learned to decipher the codes, I found that each included a date, a time, an identification of the search unit, and sometimes other information about hazards encountered. Whether anyone was found, alive or not, was recorded in the bottom quadrant. Federally certified US&R teams, deployed either by neighboring states or by FEMA, used their standardized coding system as neighborhoods throughout New Orleans were searched and marked, including some that had not been flooded. Many other units searched, especially in the earliest days after the levees broke, including National Guard units, police and fire department representatives from all over the country, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies, and platoons of volunteers in private boats. During the periods closely following the levee breaks the available resources were invested in urgent rescues, with little marking taking place. After the initial crisis, more systematic searches were directed using the markings to avoid duplication of effort, and the dates that are recorded during that phase range from early September until the end of October.

Katrina Flooding in New Orleans (larger version). Map by Richard Campanella, 2008.
Katrina flooding in New Orleans (larger version). Map by Richard Campanella, 2008.

In addition to the US&R groups, with directives on details of recording their findings with the code, other units used their own systems. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) appears to have searched in the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward, and their coding system is similar to that used by the US&R teams. The mysterious TFW team, still not officially identified, used a circular coding system; these markings are found largely concentrated in the Upper Ninth Ward. Other individuals leapt into the rescue effort using private boats and native knowledge of the landscape, and were responsible for saving innumerable lives. However, if these heroic individuals used any system to indicate that they had already searched a structure, it was improvised or copied from others. These volunteer efforts, known informally around town as the Cajun Navy, are referred to by official sources as "self-dispatched" individuals. Various National Guard and police units added their own variations to the graphics. For all, the purpose of a marking was to indicate that someone had already been there, searched that structure, and moved on. The straightforward purpose of the coding systems was to avoid duplication of effort.

By the time the later dates were recorded, there would have been little hope of finding victims alive, and the effort by then seems to have focused on locating bodies and identifying hazards such as instability in waterlogged structures and toxic air quality inside flood-marinated buildings. The discovery of bodies for months afterwards by citizens indicates that these searches were not totally successful. In some areas two sets of markings, with a different color of spray paint superimposed over the earlier code, indicated that a structure had been re-searched after the water had receded; this is most often seen in the Lower Ninth Ward. The later searches also overlapped with the activities of animal rescue units whose free-form spray-painted reports noting animal welfare were sometimes lengthy epistles adhering to no discernible protocol.

Dorothy Moye, Gentilly neighborhood, searchers' and animal rescue markings, 2007.
Dorothy Moye, Gentilly neighborhood, searchers' and animal rescue markings, 2007.

The location of the code on a building was often an indication of when in the progress of the flood a search had been conducted. A code sprayed on a roof or at the roofline, as seen occasionally in Lakeview, would have been applied from a boat. A code painted over successive water lines (indicating where the water level had settled long enough to leave a mark similar to a bathtub ring) was obviously applied after the water had receded from higher levels. The most common site for the graphic was a front door or window clearly visible to subsequent teams who might be criss-crossing the areas with unassigned territories. Other locations included garage doors; siding, brick, or stucco walls; and other architectural targets of opportunity that converted homes into billboards.

The linear reporting within neighborhoods offered by the markings offers a unique Katrina narrative. Although the tale told by these codes is still raw, the importance of the narrative in this unexpected format promises to persist, along with the memory of the graphic itself as an inescapable reminder of post-Katrina events. Individually, one code is interesting, but together, thousands are a stunning recording and reminder of the power of the storm and its impact on the city. The accumulation of the images can be viewed as both a found art installation and a vivid reminder of a moment in New Orleans' history. The image has become iconic as a part of the larger story of a devastating storm and its aftermath&emdash;graphic shorthand for those involved on any level.

"In retrospect there was something almost biblical about those markings on all the front doors around here," writes New Orleans Times Picayune columnist Chris Rose, "posting notice of who was spared and who was not."2 Traditions of coding dwellings date back to descriptions in Exodus 12 (the Passover story), when markings appeared for protection instead of after-the-fact reporting. Throughout history, markings have indicated death, quarantine, ghettoization, and destruction, as well as protection.

Although in contemporary life we tend to ignore coded messages not meant for general interpretation, the scale of the X-codes, both numerical and physical could not be ignored. Because of where and when returning residents of marked buildings discovered them, they produced strong emotions. Although applied to structures for the straightforward purpose of signaling completed searches, the markings stirred a range of feeling. Finding the markings on his own home, University of New Orleans professor Frederick Barton commented, "That first day and for many thereafter, we did not understand what the mark meant. In fact, I am not sure that I do yet."3 The codes were one more mystery in the flood of unknowns.

For others, the meanings were negative. "As a New Orleanian, the Xs are a glaring and still present reminder of how our government failed us," says photographer Jenny Bagert. "Not only failed us, but made it worse. . . . In addition to this frustration [of the markings being too late to be helpful in rescue], X's were used where they amounted to nothing more than graffiti. Whole neighborhoods with people living in them, that did not flood, were marked."4 New Orleans-based American Routes radio host Nick Spitzer refers to them as "conjuring a cross between the Vévé signs of voudun and a kind of military coroner's occupation."5 Many rumors circulated concerning the meanings of the marks, indicating that all too often the message sent to one group was received entirely differently by another.

What has happened to the markings as the city has slowly recovered? As neighborhoods of New Orleans rebuild and regroup, the majority of the coded artifacts have disappeared through demolition, repainting, or weathering; the emotional impact from the repetition of the graphic in these areas has eroded in the intervening months. However, even in 2009 there remain largely untouched areas of the city with deteriorating structures and fading markings, seemingly melting away. Where they are protected from the weather—under porch overhangs or balconies—Xs may shine with startlingly clarity. In neighborhoods where renovations and repairs progressed more quickly, most homeowners painted over the codes early in the process. Some still remark on how errant markings required a complete paint job that could have been avoided with more care in placement. "As we returned to the house again and again throughout the fall [gutting, cleaning, and repairing]," observes Barton, "we let ourselves express annoyance that the paint had been sprayed directly on the stucco when a plyboard plank covering the window was readily available and would not have damaged our house paint."6

Dorothy Moye, Bywater neighborhood, Tibetan prayer flags and poster with preserved code, 2009.
Dorothy Moye, Bywater neighborhood, Tibetan prayer flags and poster with preserved code, 2009.

Other New Orleanians purposefully preserve their X-codes as powerful memory markers, integral to the history of a particular structure and a reminder of personal histories. Rose, in a July 24, 2007 column, refers to them as "badges of honor." He notes that more codes are preserved in the some areas than in others and speculates about preservation of the marks in one neighborhood: "Perhaps it's due to the somewhat bohemian tilt of the Bywater neighborhood, with its cultivated affection for the offbeat, the unusual and the just plain weird."7 The most interesting example I have seen in Bywater is a preserved X-code draped withTibetan prayer flags.

As the codes fade, they persist in the collective memory of the city and its visitors. They are recorded by amateur and professional photographers who evoke the emotional power that comes through the repetition of these graphic icons, conveying the scope, variety, and sheer numbers of locations affected and the part that the X-codes played in mapping collective tragedy. 

Dorothy Moye, Padlocked parochial school with water lines, Elysian Fields Avenue, 2008
Dorothy Moye, Padlocked parochial school with water lines Elysian Fields Avenue, 2008
About the Author:

Dorothy Moye is a long-time art consultant based in Decatur, Georgia. She has curated and managed various exhibitions and collections. Moye earned a BA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an MS from North Carolina State University at Raleigh, and has studied independently with a variety of artists and arts historians.

About the Project:

After her initial encounter with the X-codes, Moye realized that such a powerful visual experience should not go unrecorded. Since 2007 she has been collaborating with a variety of artists, photographers, writers, observers, friends, first responders, and supporters to bring a documentary photography exhibition on the X-codes into existence. The proposed exhibition is under the fiscal sponsorship of the Southern Documentary Fund. Moye can be contacted for submissions for this project at davismoye@bellsouth.net.

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Recommended Resources:

Print Materials:
Antoine, Rebecca, ed. Voices Rising: Stories from the Katrina Narrative Project. UNO Press: New Orleans, Louisiana, 2008.

Baum, Dan. Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans. Spiegel and Grau: New York, New York, 2009.

Brennan, Virginia. Natural Disasters and Public Health: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Center for Public Integrity. City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2007.

Clark, Joshua. Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in its Disaster Zone. Free Press: New York, NY. 2007.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2006.

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2009.

Maklansky, Steven, ed. Katrina Exposed: A Photographic Reckoning. New Orleans Museum of Art: New Orleans, Louisiana. 2006.

Mann, Thomas. Storm Cycle: An Artist Responds to Hurricane Katrina. Bellevue Art Museum: Bellevue, Washington, 2006.

Piazza, Tom. Why New Orleans Matters. Regan Books: New York, New York, 2005

Polidori, Robert. After the Flood. Steidl: Göttingen, Germany, 2006.

Rose, Chris. 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina. Simon & Schuster: New York, New York. 2005, 2007.

Spielman, David G. Katrinaville Chronicles: Images and Observations from a New Orleans Photographer. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2007.

Film:
Lee, Spike. "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." HBO Films, 2006. This documentary includes varied commentaries on the codes.

Links:
Hurricane Digital Memory Bank
http://hurricanearchive.org/

NOLA.com, "Katrina: The Storm We Always Feared."
http://www.nola.com/katrina/

NOLA.com, Interactive Flood Map of Hurricane Katrina from the Times-Picayune
http://www.nola.com/katrina/graphics/flashflood.swf

Spitzer, Nick. "This Is Not My Beautiful House: Act Four: The Long Way Home." This American Life, Episode 297, September 16, 2005.
http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/297/this-is-not-my-beautiful-house

 

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  • 1. National Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Response System: Rescue Field Operations Guide. US&R-23-FG. January 2006. pp. 41–43.
  • 2. Rose, Chris. "Badges of honor: Part historic preservation, part act of defiance, the spray-painted markings of Katrina rescue workers remain prominently displayed on many reoccupied New Orleans homes." New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 24, 2007.
  • 3. Frederick Barton, E-mail correspondence, November 24–25, 2008.
  • 4. Jenny Bagert, E-mail correspondence, October 15, 2008.
  • 5. Nick Spitzer, E-mail correspondence, June 16, 2009.
  • 6. Barton, op. cit.
  • 7. Rose, op. cit.