I first saw our X upon returning to our house on September 14, twelve days after my wife and I fled the flooded city. The sight startled me: blood red, perfectly centered, on the pastel pink facade of a 112-year-old house. A professional graphics designer could not have created a more perfect icon of the Katrina catastrophe: striking, well proportioned, loaded with relevant information without being noisy, hectic yet methodical. It was so ugly, it was nearly beautiful.
– Richard Campanella
via “Katrina +5: An X-Codes Exhibition“
The X-code is a marking left by the Urban Search and Rescue teams, coordinated by FEMA. It was first developed after the 1985 Mexico earthquake, when many people died in later building collapses, trying to rescue people who were already trapped. As each building is searched for survivors, it is marked first with a slash, and then when the search is finished, an X. Then, the quadrants of the X are marked with a code to define who made the search, when, and what they might have found.
In New Orleans, the marks became famous in the aftermath of the flooding from hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thousands of buildings were searched one by one, the marks the sign of the slow nature of the rescue process, and the extent of the devastation.
The marks were able to decoded, though the aesthetic is shrouded in mystery. Dorthy Moye, in “Katrina +5: An X-Codes Exhibition”, records some of the reactions of residents upon being confronted with the codes for the first time.
“. . . there was something almost biblical about those markings on all the front doors around here. . .”
“. . . conjuring a cross between the Vévé signs of voudun and a kind of military coroner’s occupation.”
“Now each house bore runic signs in orange spray paint. . .”
“Ah, the X—truly the most powerful symbol, for better or worse, that we have, I think.”
The actual meaning concerns which agency made the mark, the date, whether they found anyone, and what hazards might be in the building. Other similar marks were used by groups searching for pets and animals, and also indicating whether the structure might survive the damage, or if it had to be condemned.
But the mythological impact of the marks is hard to overlook. Many sources comment on the similarity between the X-codes and various voodoo or other occult and religious symbols. But in the lines of this code, the relationship between the marks and the lingering psychological effects of the flood form a unique cosmology. First, as a symbol of the devastation and death, and the uneven distribution of the catastrophe, heavily centered in poor and traditionally black neighborhoods. Then, as symbol of the convoluted recovery. Many people like Richard Campanella, quoted above, wished to save the X-codes on their buildings, but heard a rumor that insurance companies were treating the marks as a sign that the building was condemned whether it intended that or not, and would refuse to pay out money if the marks remain. And so they painted them over, again working through the ritual at the behest of forces larger than themselves. The force of the original harm, was matched by the forced healing process, through these erased symbols of trauma.
But not everyone will let them go. This building, and others in the Bywater district, bears a steel marker cut by artist Erica Larkin that overlays the fading X-code precisely, so even as the paint fades, the symbol remains. In this way, the history of the building is recorded in a way that a historical plaque can never achieve. The affects of the flood may be repaired, and the demographics of the neighborhood may change. But the building is coded. Coded with both the specific meaning of the X-code, and the significance of a wall that is, forever, marked with the history it survived.