back to the Big Easy

new orleans katrina

In between packing and planning our trip this weekend to New Orleans, I went through some of my photographs from covering Katrina and its aftermath back in 2005. A few weeks before, my wife and I had packed up our home in Portland, Oregon and drove cross-country through the Southwest, Texas, and Louisiana before heading up to Washington, DC. We were just a few days ahead of Katrina and two days after we arrived at our new, empty house, I was on a plane down to Birmingham, Alabama, the closest airport I could fly into at that time. The next week was spent sleeping in the back of a rented SUV and encountering some truly grim situations as I drove into the city each day, talking my way through checkpoints and praying I wouldn't run out of gas and be left to spend the night somewhere in the city. Also in my folder of images, I discovered some writing I had done the last day I was in the city, as I sat waiting for my images to transfer from my tethered phone to an editor waiting at a desk in Germany and thought I'd share that here.

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New Orleans is cut off from the rest of the world. As my reporter and I drove slowly through deep water in empty parts of the city, the thick smell of decay and rot fills our windows-up, air-conditioned car. With the help of a man leaving the city, who shook his head at us when we told him we weren't carrying a gun, we found our way downtown. Strangely enough, it was the road closest to the levee that stayed dry. We passed out whatever food and water we could. A bag of pop-tarts had much more value to a person who hadn't eaten for 48 hours. People are trapped, there is no way out of this city on foot, there are no nearby suburbs or help centers that would make this disaster manageable in most American cities. This didn't stop people from walking up the steep highway overpasses that snake through the city and form vital connection routes above the flooded roads. At the Civic Center, a man had died the previous night, and many who stood outside in the sun hadn't had food or water in 48 hours. There was an intensely frustrated feeling in the air that sometimes spilled over into fights. Since we had a car with gas, we were a target and I left there feeling helpless and frustrated. Why were all these people bused there and just left to sit in the hot sun? There was no police, no National Guard, and people sat on the hood of the lone police car that had lost its wheels in the preceding night. In another part of the city, people were lined up to get on buses that often didn't come for several hours, and the lines deteriorated into a crowded, boiling mass. It's hard not to give in to a feeling that nothing is going to get better here, that aid will never get to the people stranded in little pockets throughout the city who need it most. What I kept thinking, as I took photos and talked to people, was that I could get out of here. As the sun set, Alexander and I got in our cars and left while thousands of people suffered another long night in sweaty darkness broken up by gunshots.

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I'm tired, I slept in the back my car for the past two nights, getting maybe 4 hours of sleep each night. That image of the body floating says everything about this disaster. No one's getting help, bodies just lie there, facedown, floating. It's a war zone, the LA riots and the tsunami, and everything's so quiet, but the city is pushing up against itself, the tension is in the water that traps people in their homes, just sitting in darkness. It's a horrible quiet, with flashes of anger when there's just no more calm left. People still there are in survival mode, family comes first and families walk together down empty freeways, all of their worldly possessions in a shopping cart. They stand together under the Louisiana sun that warms bottled water like tea before it reaches their needy hands. Each step is an extensive process of its own, each step would be an exhausting day on its own, but today the steps create obstacles that make the eventual return to normal life seem just about impossible. Yet they are here, waiting for the bus, asking for just a little bit of water for a newborn baby or a frail old woman. There's no guarantee that any of this will work out, with each step comes several potential missteps that drain any sense of power from people's hands. A bus to the Civic Center drops off thousands of people and rape and drug use fills the night. The buses that would take them away from there are rocked by angry refugees who become angrier as the buses drive away, having picked up no one. Loren looks at us earnestly, out of ear shot of his friends and colleagues all stranded at the Convention Center, one of whom pleads with us with desperate teary eyes over his shoulder, "They're going to kill me tonight, I know it." He quietly states a case that we simply can't say no to and still think of ourselves as good people. We slowly pull around the edge of the center, away from the crowd and load them up, Loren, his wife Janette and their two children, Andrew and Jessica. As Janette quietly cries and stares out the window as she abandons her colleagues from a nearby hospital, Loren matter-of-factly states his case, that family is first, that he must protect them. Jessica's face fills with little girl tears and she looks at her brother and asks, "Are we going to die tonight?" As we drive under concrete overpasses and through tree-strewn streets, Andrew tells Jessica to think of the happiest thing she can, and to keep thinking about it. Andrew wipes away his own tears each time she looks away. It was the one good thing we did, and it was only a small good thing, that only helped four people. But it was good nonetheless and it is the best thing I can take from my time here. I don't think my photos will change anything, I'm not sure I got every photo I should have, I'm not sure I worked as hard as I should have, but I know I did this, and this is the thing that will keep me going back, because I can help people and do my job and being a journalist doesn't mean not being a human being. That last photo is my record, as they move through the door of a hotel outside of town to wait for a friend to pick them up, their lives having been changed forever and they can never go back.

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The city feels evil and toxic right now. People are so kind, we came across a man and a woman walking near their home. As we talked to them in our air conditioned SUV, they said they didn't have much, but we could have some tuna and crackers if we wanted. The little acts of kindness are what's going to save the city and what's already helped so many people survive when government and law no longer exist.