Hurricane Gustav gets personal
August 29, 2008 was a strange day. As I covered commemorations for the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the tension in the air was palpable. Hurricane Gustav was coming and decisions had to be made. Do we stay or do we go? I was staying.
In 2005, Reuters assigned me to cover Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. After seeing first hand the scope of the storm’s devastation, I decided to move back to New Orleans. I then began to focus my work completely on documenting the city’s recovery. In the months following Katrina, there was a pioneering spirit among the few living in the city, and I became personally involved in the story. Last year, I bought a home here.
As Gustav approached, I knew I couldn’t stand to be outside New Orleans as this new chapter was unfolding. By Saturday, officials were making dire predictions about the probable impact on the city, and I got a little worried. After shooting pictures of resident evacuating early Sunday, I spent the afternoon securing my house and belongings. Although I live in the Bywater, an area that did not flood in Katrina, I needed to take a few precautions. I put my desktop computer, external drives and other valuables on the highest shelves in my house. I planned to work completely out of my rental car, with a laptop, inverter and portable batteries. I placed my duplicate drives (which should have been shipped to a safe city) into an ice chest and brought them to the Chimes Bed and Breakfast in Uptown, where most of Reuters’ staff was housed. They have three stories and didn’t flood in Katrina either. I stayed for dinner, went home and slept easier after hearing Gustav’s punch was weakening. I was awoken by storm gusts and my power was out.
I live two blocks from Inner Harbor Navigational Canal. We call it the Industrial Canal and its role in the Katrina nightmare is notorious. My first stop was the east bank of the canal, where the breech in the Lower Ninth Ward occurred in Katrina. After climbing the floodwall, I became a bit concerned to see water already two to three feet from the top. I drove around the neighborhood, shooting a bit, and then headed over the Claiborne Bridge. I stopped at the top of the bridge for a wide view. That’s when I saw waves cresting over the top of the floodwall onto the east bank of the canal, my side. I photographed the scene, called correspondent Tim Gaynor, and went to a coffee house in my neighborhood with power to file the pictures.
When I returned to the bridge after filing, news crews were crowding it, probably tipped by their desks after seeing Reuters pictures of the situation on several news websites. I was glad they were. I wanted everyone to see the impending danger. Water was now accumulating at the foot of the bridge. Not a good sign. I photographed National Guardsmen arriving on the scene of the flooding, and went back to the top of the bridge. The waves had gotten stronger. It was amazing to watch the force of the water push against the concrete walls and try to imagine the incredible pressure on them. How could they possibly hold? Every thing I owned was just beyond those walls. They had to hold. They did, at Category 3. We need to build higher, stronger walls because other, stronger storms are sure to come.
In the days since Gustav, I have photographed the clean up and people returning to the city. I haven’t had to go far from my neighborhood to find pictures. My house is the only one on the street without electricity, so it is powered at night with a generator. But it’s there. So is my stuff. Things are feeling a little less dangerous, for now.