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Oral history series examines how region coped with shooting, floods

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Sunday marks the second anniversary of the Grand 16 Theater shooting, a tragedy that tore at Lafayette’s heart, but also revealed its resilient soul.

Floods in August 2016, slightly over a year after the shooting, posed a second, more-widespread challenge to the city and state.

During a series of History Harvests, public history students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette plan to use oral history interviews to document how individuals responded to both events.

The first interviews are scheduled for 8 a.m. to noon Saturday at Moncus Park at the Horse Farm. They will examine the July 23, 2015, Grand Theater shooting, which took place less than a mile away.

A gunman rose from his seat during a screening of the comedy “Trainwreck” and opened fire on the audience. He killed two people – Jillian Johnson, a 2004 UL Lafayette graduate and well-known musician and artist, and Mayci Breaux, an honor student at LSU-Eunice – and wounded nine others. The shooter committed suicide as first responders swarmed the area.

The second and third rounds of interviews will focus on the 2016 floods, which affected 56 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes and damaged 112,000 homes statewide. They’ll be held from 8 a.m. to noon Aug. 12 at the Horse Farm, and on Aug. 13 in Baton Rouge. Organizers haven’t finalized the time and place for the final event.

Over the last year, UL Lafayette public history students have held History Harvest events that encourage residents to bring in artifacts that contribute to a wider understanding of the region’s past. The objects are then photographed, catalogued and described in a digital database.

They’ve also collected oral histories of people’s immigration experiences.

The upcoming interview series is part of an interdisciplinary effort, funded by a $195,000 National Science Foundation grant, to assess Lafayette’s response to the 2015 Grand shooting. It’s since been widened to include how the city coped with the floods that occurred 13 months later.

UL Lafayette’s National Incident Management Systems and Advanced Technologies and its director, Dr. Michael Dunaway, pursued the grant in conjunction with Dr. Taniecea Mallery, the director of Equity, Diversity and Community Engagement in the Office for Campus Diversity.

“The study is meant to understand what makes the community so resilient,” Mallery said. “It’s understanding what it is about Lafayette that makes us able to recover from tragedy and able to come together despite all the disasters that happened, whether that be the shooting or the floods.”

In the wake of the Grand Theater shooting, Lafayette grappled with the tragedy and its senselessness. The public planned memorial services and fund drives to support the victims and their families. “Lafayette Strong” signs – emblazoned with an Acadian flag encased within an outline of Louisiana – dotted the city. Students gathered in the University’s Quadrangle for a candlelight vigil.

These examples show people did not have to witness the shooting to be affected by it, said Dr. Liz Skilton, an assistant professor of history. She is the NSF grant historian. Other members of the interdisciplinary team include an economist, a statistician, first responders, and representatives of Acadian Ambulance and United Way of Acadiana.

Skilton is coordinating the History Harvest interviews. She studies how people respond to disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, and traumas, such as shootings.

“Lafayette is a unique case in that we have this shooting that occurs in July 2015, and then we have a massive flood that occurs in August 2016. In some ways, our disaster response community was already heightened by the time we get to the floods,” she said.

Skilton already has conducted more-formal oral history interviews with families and friends of the shooting’s victims, first responders and government officials. By comparison, the interviews Saturday will be “very much off the cuff and not controlled in terms of who’s going to show up.”

Participants can expect the interviews to take about five minutes.

“They are mini-interviews,” Skilton continued. “They will be done in a way that allows an individual to express what they want, but we are not going to push for them to say more.

“It is a difficult subject. Oral history is a useful method to collect memories of trauma because it allows historians to gauge how individuals experience events within their communities and what details stick with us long after an event occurs.”

Skilton’s interviews and those collected by students during the History Harvest series will be deposited with UL Lafayette’s Center for Louisiana Studies and made available to researchers.

 

Caption: University of Louisiana at Lafayette students and community members gathered in the University's Quadrangle for a candlelight vigil following the 2015 shootings at the Grand 16 Theater. (Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

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