A hurricane named Katrina

August 26, 2010

Elton Driscoll, Jr. carries a U.S. flag that he removed from a hotel down the deserted and boarded-up Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans August 28, 2005.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

While covering Hurricane Katrina ripping through New Orleans five years ago, it struck me how the individual events that unfolded in the aftermath echoed similar tragedies I had photographed around the globe.

Cynthia Gonzales runs through the rain with a stray dog she rescued from a destroyed gas station (background) in Gretna, Louisiana, as Hurricane Katrina hit August 29, 2005.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

It was like several stories in one – a hurricane of course, but there was little typical hurricane damage in the city. In fact, before the levees broke and it turned into a flood story I was close to leaving to move further east along the coast to cover the near-total devastation in Mississippi.

Two men push their truck in flooded New Orleans August 30, 2005.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

It was a huge human tragedy story, reminiscent of 9/11 in New York in some ways with dazed, confused and distraught people wandering the streets.

People affected by Hurricane Katrina walk on the elevated freeway in downtown New Orleans August 31, 2005.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

It developed into a crime story with gangs of looters and hoodlums in charge and almost no police presence – all the hallmarks of Haiti during its wilder times.

A police car is submerged in New Orleans East August 31, 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit the area.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Witnessing floating bodies in New Orleans struck me in the same way as seeing bodies discovered daily on the Port-au-Prince streets.

When the National Guard showed up to take control and help refugees stranded at the Convention Center, it was a scene that reminded me of covering U.S. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia as the war wound down.

New Orleans SWAT police armed with machine guns patrol downtown New Orleans August 30, 2005.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

But it was all in one place – a major U.S. city – where this kind of thing was unheard of.

There are many images from the disaster that will remain with me forever. The most horrific was watching an elderly woman slowly die before my eyes. She sat in a wheelchair, still in a hospital gown, surrounded by the mob still waiting to be evacuated downtown almost two weeks after the storm hit.

Dorothy Divic, 89, is surrounded by onlookers who are trying to keep her alive on a street outside the New Orleans Convention Center September 1, 2005.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Miss Dorothy they called her but no one could say where she came from or how she got there.

Before she passed away a man carrying a baby shouted for my attention. He whisked an old dirty blanket off another elderly person, this one a man slumped over and dead in a lawn chair in the middle of the street.

A man holding a baby uncovers the body of a dead man, suspected to have been sitting there for two days, outside the New Orleans Convention Center September 1, 2005.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

It was nearly incomprehensible. But, it was important to be there and show that scene to the world. Shortly after these images were published and seen by the world, National Guard troops showed up with water and evacuations began.

I’ve been back to the Gulf only once since then and that was to cover the BP oil spill. Signs of the storm are still everywhere, boarded up buildings, the smell of mold and vacant lots with only a set of stairs remaining to show where a building once stood.

A brick path leads nowhere on what once was a home on the Mississippi Gulf of Mexico coast May 5, 2010.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The area may physically recover someday but the emotional scars will be permanent. No one will ever forget the terrible loss caused by a hurricane named Katrina.

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