The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The art — and controversy — of Hurricane Katrina ‘X-codes’

A shrouded body lies on a bed inside a home with spray paint markings indicating its presence in the Mid City section of New Orleans, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2005.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)

NEW ORLEANS -- Dorothy Moye grew up in New Orleans, in a neighborhood just off City Park that folks today call Parkview.

Moye ranked among millions of Americans who in 2005 watched the news from the Gulf Coast with horror, as Hurricane Katrina ravaged cities across the region. Ten months later when Moye, a Georgia-based art consultant, finally got to New Orleans, it seemed as if the entire city had become a tragic and massive installation of found art. Remnants of the storm and its wrath were everywhere.

But soon, Moye began to notice something else. It was something powerful, something reoccurring and something quite political.

What she saw were X-codes -- sometimes called "Katrina crosses" but officially called "search codes" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). What Moye saw on building after building, house after house -- what she later learned amounted 80 percent of the city's structures -- were spray painted X's with letters and numbers in each quadrant.

Everything there had meaning.

The shorthand painted to the left identified the rescue squad. That at the top of the X delineated the time and date the team arrived. Moving clockwise, the next summarized the hazards and horrors found within. Then, in that last quadrant, at the bottom of the X, rescue workers listed the number of people found inside. Some were alive, and some were dead.

"These were the immediate documents created right after this storm," Moye told me. "These X-codes created a narrative. They told the tale."

And once you know how to read them, they also register like an evocative scorecard.

Look there at that house off its foundation, sitting in the street. That house is gone. But the X-code bore the merciful news: Zero people were found inside, alive or dead. That is the most common news. But look a few neighborhoods over, and take a moment to consider that two lives were lost here. One person survived with them, possibly for days.

"The repetition of the same form, from house to house, building to building," Moye said, "it impressed on you how pervasive it was, how deep and incredible this storm had been."

Soon, Moye set to work photographing and researching the X-codes, learning all that she could before writing about them for Southern Spaces, a digital journal based at Emory University. Moye was never able to find a gallery or museum interested in her work. The recession hit and most of the arts world was busy just trying to survive. Further complicating her efforts was the fact that there are other efforts to preserve and document the X-codes and other aspects of the storm. Some are digital. Others are tangible.

In the Bywater community in the Upper 9th Ward, an artist recreated an X-code in wrought iron and displayed it on her home. A New Orleans jewelry designer created X-code-inspired broaches. In French Quarter hotels, framed and matted photos of X-codes hang on the wall. That's true too in churches, in community centers and preschools. That's true everywhere that people seem to want to say, 'Look what this storm did. Look what this city, this family, this business, survived.' As one pastor told me, "By the grace of God, some of us -- we are still here."

Yes. Get people talking about the X-codes in New Orleans, and it will pull at every emotion you have.

"There's something about them," Moye said. "The X goes straight to the heart."

Jim Ingledue is a captain with the Virginia Beach, Va., Fire Department. He's also a search-team manager with the Department of Homeland Security's Virginia Task Force 2, Urban Search and Rescue Unit, and chairman of a national FEMA subgroup for search. This man has saved lives.

And he's also the man who wrote the manual on urban search-and-rescue field operations for FEMA. Back in 2005 when Katrina hit, FEMA first dispatched Ingledue to Waveland, Miss. Waveland took a direct hit from Katrina and most of its homes were wiped completely off the map. A week after the storm, FEMA dispatched Ingledue to New Orleans. It needed more help.

The X-codes served their purpose in New Orleans.

At a time when people around the country were wondering how such a seemingly un-American type of inefficiency and, to some, race-related indifference left so many people in terrible conditions after the storm, the X-codes were an antidote. They were a form of official notice. This home had been searched. This home had not. Help had arrived, or it had not yet.

But like so much of what FEMA directed and did in New Orleans, the X-codes have their critics, too. Some felt that the X-codes put an almost biblical document of death and destruction on homes all over the city. That Bywater artist's neighbors, for instance, weren't happy. And when Moye was in the middle of her research, she heard rumors that insurance agents were reading X-codes like palms, trying to find clues that might help them to deny insurance claims. Lots of people became frantic about scrubbing them off, cutting them out or covering them up.

And if that sounds like paranoia, it's not -- especially when thousands of claims were, in fact, denied and whistleblowers have helped to launch entire investigations into precisely how.

Ingledue learned that mayors began complaining to members of Congress. Congressmen and senators took those gripes to FEMA. In storms and recovery efforts that followed Katrina, where homes and other buildings were damaged but in most cases not close to totally destroyed, people really complained about spray-painted X-codes applied to houses.

Years before Katrina, at some point in the early 2000s, FEMA experimented with a kind of X-codes sticker. Really, it was more like a cross between a stencil and a sticker that could be affixed only to glass. Once applied, search and rescue crews could use a marker to fill in the codes. But Katrina had been so massive and involved so many different agencies from all over the country that just using the X-code and a can of spray paint became the primary goal.

"This work -- it's almost like medicine," Ingledue said. "You don't want to make anything worse, but there are points where you have to do whatever you can in the crisis."

Today, FEMA has made official changes.

Ten years after Katrina, painted X's can -- and still will -- be used, particularly in situations where many properties may be beyond repair, require extensive work, or no glass or stickers are available, Ingledue said. But when possible, FEMA and FEMA-trained search-and-rescue teams will make an effort to use those stickers.

The people have spoken.