Photographers' Blog

A hurricane named Katrina

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.

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.