Photographers' Blog

Living through a disaster

Golden, Colorado

By Rick Wilking

In a career as long as mine, spread across several continents, I have covered many, many natural disasters. If you have read my blog posts lately that seems to be all I write about. But this time is different. This time, I am a victim of a disaster.

The first week of September was unusually wet for the Front Range of Colorado, but not shockingly so. In fact, we were enjoying how green it was with wildflowers still in bloom instead of fretting about wildfires as we normally would be this time of year. But on the fateful day of 9/11 the rains picked up. I was away from my mountain property most of the day and when I came home noticed new waterfalls on the rocks I had never seen before. Still, I didn’t think much of it and just listened to the rain pound the house all night long.

Early on the 12th, while still dark, my wife got a call from her hospital asking if she would be able to make it in as they were hearing some roads were closed due to flooding. I turned on the TV and it looked like the highway to our driveway might be closed. I decided to wait until first light to take a look. I drove down our mile long driveway a short distance and soon realized it was heavily damaged and impassable by vehicle with a major washout where the road used to be.

So, I made the 30 minute hike through the forest down and was shocked to see the little creek at the bottom was now a 50’ wide river cutting us off from the highway. My shed containing my snowmobile, mountain bike, motorcycle were all gone, swept away.

I managed to find a shallower spot to wade through the water and get up on the road and began to take some pictures for the wire. I also shot some short video clips.

Hiking in to a stranded town

Jamestown, Colorado

By Rick Wilking

My rule in covering natural disasters has always been: Find the worst damage first. That’s what the reporters will be writing about and it’s what people want to see. It also may be the hardest to get to.

Such was the case in the Colorado floods of 2013 that started on September 11.

Word came in early that the Boulder County town of Jamestown was devastated and cut off from all road traffic. Three creeks converged right in the middle of downtown, sweeping away whole houses. A man killed in a house collapsed by the flood waters was the first reported death in the tragedy. But there was also (supposedly) no way to get to the town short of going in on a helicopter. National Guard CH-47 Chinooks were ferrying people out so the logical thing was to try and get on one of those. That ride was denied immediately so I decided I would take another route, coming in the “backdoor” as it were.

Jamestown isn’t that far from where I live, normally taking about an hour. But with road closures it took almost two and a half hours just to hit another road block six miles from the town. I was fully prepared for this, having planned on hiking in all along.

Fighting fire with photos

Ketchum, Idaho

By Jim Urquhart

Fire in the west has always been part of my experience. In the summer months I often find the blue skies replaced with a dark orange glow of smoke. With my chosen career path these smoke-filled skies can mean a busy time of year but they seem to have started later in the summer than usual.

I keep a complete fire kit (nomex shirt, nomex pants, emergency fire shelter, leather boots, leather gloves, helmet and goggles) in my truck from the time the snow melts in the spring to until several inches of snow have returned in the fall. I found you always have to be ready to go and nimble because in the heat of the west all it takes is one errant cigarette butt, one hot car engine parked in the dry grass or one well-placed powerful lightning bolt to be called to work.

GALLERY: IDAHO WILDFIRE

The year’s fires began to take shape for me last week. During a camping trip bolts of lighting had started several fires that were visible on the way home. These fires for the most part were in unpopulated areas. Then an afternoon looking at photos with friends was interrupted with the news of fire breaking out east of Park City, Utah, of the hills above the Rockport Reservoir. I monitored the growth from afar through the night but when it was determined that it had begun to take homes I struck out to cover it in the morning.

Marathon inferno

Marathon, Greece

By Yannis Behrakis

It was a typical August day in Athens — very hot and windy. I was driving around town on my scooter when I stopped next to a fire brigade jeep at a traffic light. An officer in the vehicle asked me if I was happy with my scooter. I said: “yes I’m happy. Are you happy with the weather conditions?” He smiled and said: “I’m sure we will have many forest fires these days. There are a few burning in central Greece as we speak.”

It was less than an hour later when I received a message on my mobile phone from the fire brigade about a fire in Marathon, some 40-45 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Athens, where the Athenians fought the Persians in a historic battle in 490 BC. Sources said that police and the fire brigade had started evacuating a hamlet in the area. I took my gear and a few masks for the dust and raced to the area on my scooter. It was really windy and for the last few miles, the traffic on Marathon Avenue was heavy — both ways — as some people were fleeing and others were trying to reach their homes and protect them from what looked to be a fire out of control. Police were stopping vehicles from reaching the area to provide clear access to fire engines and fire brigade troops. In order to pass through, I drove closely to a speeding ambulance and managed to pass all the police check points.

The area was covered by smoke and the one main road was full of water containers, police cars, fire fighters and a few local volunteers. I left the scooter off road in a field and rushed into the forest behind a group of fire fighters and a couple of volunteers. It was intense. The strong wind would change direction again and again, burning trees and thick bush as helicopters and fire fighting planes flew overhead dropping water. The heat was extreme and the smoke made it hard to see. In some cases, I was taking pictures unable to see as the smoke made my eyes watery and sore.

Poolside floods

Germany

By Thomas Peter

It was a sunny and calm Monday afternoon when I flew in a German army transport helicopter above a flooded region north of Magdeburg, the capital of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. The Elbe river had swollen to over seven meters (yards) above its normal levels and broken its banks and a dyke near the village of Fischbeck. Farmlands, forests and whole villages were inundated by its waters. Hundreds of people had to flee their homes.

Strapped to a bucket seat I sat beside the helicopter’s open sliding door and surveyed the water landscape below me: sunken buildings, tree tops and the tops of abandoned cars dotted the glistening, caramel-colored surface of the deluge. Here and there a street or a pristinely groomed hedge rose above the water as a reminder of the human order that had been submerged by the force of nature.

One week earlier I had waded through flooded villages upstream. Up to my waist in water I photographed the efforts of rescue teams and volunteers trying to contain the rising river and evacuate trapped inhabitants. When covering a natural disaster of this kind you have to be in the middle of it to capture the emotional dimension of the tragedy.

Waves of fire

As wildfires rage through California, photographers Patrick Fallon and Jonathan Alcorn describe working on the fire line.

By Patrick Fallon

Driving up the 101 towards the Dos Vientos neighborhood in Newbury Park, California, I could see the fire’s thick, black smoke – a sign the fire was burning fresh brush, fueled by strong winds.

When I arrived the neighborhood was under an orange tint from the smoke in the air. Sheriff Deputies were going door to door, helping people evacuate, while a group of young men helped their neighbors, jumping from yard to yard to hose down the back yards as firefighters held back the fire on the hills above the home.

Catastrophic lessons in a quake zone

Ya’an, Sichuan province, China

By Jason Lee

It was 8:02 am on April 20th, 2013, three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which killed nearly 70,000 people, when another strong quake hit the city of Ya’an in the same province. More than 190 people died, 21 others are still missing, and more than 11,000 people have been injured.

I must admit when I first heard about the disaster, I was a little reluctant to cover it, hoping that this time it wouldn’t be very serious. The catastrophic images from five years ago were still lingering in my head. However, when the death toll started to climb, I quickly cleared my thoughts and got on the next flight to the quake zone.

I don’t want to use too many words to describe how much I overcame to get there because my difficulties mean nothing compared to every victim’s face I saw and every cry I heard on the way.

Destination Fukushima: Two years on

Fukushima, Japan

By Issei Kato

“Let’s put our hearts together and keep going, Fukushima!” reads a large banner that hangs across a large steel structure that stands next to the No. 4 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The plant was overwhelmed by a massive tsunami and earthquake two years ago, triggering hydrogen explosions and a nuclear meltdown.

I was at the Fukushima site for the second time on Wednesday, ahead of the two year anniversary of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, as a pool photographer, taking pictures of the crippled plant on behalf of foreign media based in Japan. This time, I was struck by how many more workers were on-site and the large number of tanks filled with contaminated water scattered around the area.

When the floods come to your hometown

Hoboken, New Jersey

By Gary Hershorn

For thirty-four years I have been a photojournalist covering events the world over, but never have I had to live within a news event in my hometown. Too many times to count in my 28 years with Reuters, I have packed my bags and flown off to cover the news but never have I looked out my window and seen a story unfold before me. It is an indescribable feeling watching waters rage and rise in the street below, feeling as helpless as one can be.

Saturday:

It was a perfectly normal day in Hoboken, New Jersey. I was out and about knowing that forecasters were calling for Hurricane Sandy to come ashore somewhere between Cape May and New York late Monday night. By mid-afternoon I walked to a pier that juts out into the Hudson River to see if I could get some pictures of Lower Manhattan with gray clouds looming in the sky. I was fortunate to have some newlyweds walk out to the pier to have their wedding pictures taken using the New York skyline as a backdrop. The contrast of the white dress and the dark gray skies made for a nice photograph.

The only thing out of the normal was making sure I had the supplies one is supposed to have if a storm of this size hits. However, my biggest concern was if I was going to get wet covering Monday’s NFL game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

“Bring the generator, and a chainsaw”

By Gary Cameron

Finishing the last day of a nice Canadian fishing vacation, (in 70 degree temperatures with no humidity I might add), I got “the call” from my wife Joann last Saturday. She had just returned to our Silver Spring, Maryland home of 29 years.

“Bring the generator, and a chainsaw.” Oh, oh, sounded like vacation time was over.

Heading home on Interstate 81 south, I saw plenty of power company trucks from various U.S. states and Canada going in the same direction. Little did I realize that quite a few of those trucks were heading for my very own neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland. I stopped for gasoline just over the Pennsylvania-Maryland line to fill up as I wasn’t certain if gasoline pumps were operational in my home area. A man approached, asking if that was a generator on my hitch carrier. He said that they were already sold out regionally and admired my 5300 watts of surge power.

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