The Center recently learned that a long-time collaborator and friend, Michael Mizell-Nelson, passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a driving force behind the success of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB), and was a public historian committed to his hometown of New Orleans and to teaching and fostering civic activism in his students.
Two weeks after evacuating from New Orleans, a young Assistant Professor at the University of New Orleans (UNO) contacted Roy seeking advice for developing a documentary on Hurricane Katrina: the destruction, the responses (and lack thereof), and recovery. Roy discussed Michael’s ideas and the possibility of creating an online collecting project modeled after the September 11 Digital Archive with Center staff. Thankfully, the Sloan Foundation wanted to support an electronic collecting project. As Roy began to assemble a project team, he asked Michael to take the lead at UNO and to serve as the project’s Outreach Lead for what would become the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank: http://hurricanearchive.org/.
Michael and his community of colleagues, friends, and neighbors were profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina and the second hit from Hurricane Rita a few weeks later. They struggled not only with physical destruction of place, but also with emotional trauma and cultural displacement. He worked hard to preserve and document those struggles and to highlight the small triumphs in HDMB as a way to foster some positive legacies.
Michael wanted all individuals affected by the storms to feel comfortable telling their stories in their own words online. We worked hard to create a user-friendly website, and ensured that anyone who submitted a story or photograph never relinquished ownership over their contributions. All contributors also decided how they wanted their materials shared on the site itself.
Michael spearheaded outreach efforts in the greater New Orleans area, first through his students and colleagues at the University of New Orleans, and then with community non-profits, other local colleges and universities, artists, and local media. We decided to officially launch the project during the 2006 Mardi Gras celebrations, which occur all along the Gulf Coast. Michael and his students distributed nearly ten thousand Mardi Gras-style cups and bumper stickers emblazoned with the project logo and URL during numerous parades and celebrations, and left them in coffeehouses and libraries with wireless Internet access.
He also asked that we design and distribute pre-paid reply cards with space for writing a short personal reflection (that were scanned into HDMB), so that those without web-enabled devices could still share their stories. Michael also worked to bridge language barriers with students in the English as a Second Language program at Delgado Community College to compose and contribute their stories. A consummate public historian, Michael worked tirelessly to include the largest number of individuals in this community-sourced archive.
During the three years of the Sloan grant, we collected over 25,000 digital items in HDMB. Michael continued with the project by working closely with his students to create special Katrina-related collections. All of these items are part of the historical record will remain accessible to a wide audience.
We encourage you to read Michael’s own words about his experiences of pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans:
- “Historians in the Midst of Catastrophe: Reflections of the University of New Orleans’s Department of History after Hurricane Katrina,” http://hurricanearchive.org/items/show/12991
- “Not Since the Great Depression: The Documentary Impulse Post-Katrina” in Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina (2009),
The Center, and the HDMB team in particular, are saddened by his death. We remain committed to maintaining hurricanearchive.org as a resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the 2005 hurricanes. Michael’s wife Cathe has asked his friends and family to donate to RRCHNM in his memory. We will use any funds for the long-term care of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.