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.

A visual journey

On the bus

With the hopes of seeing a slice of Americana and a desire to get back to the Big Easy, I thought what better way to get to see the country than take a Greyhound bus. My trip, which originated at Port Authority in New York City and was to end in New Orleans, covered 1,400 miles, 15 scheduled stops and 4 bus changes.
As hoped I met some really interesting characters along the way : A man who claims to have staged a pre-meditated suicide in hopes of claiming a new identity, a pastor who has fathered 13 children, a kid who hiked the whole Appalachian trail by himself, a marine who claimed to have not been home for 6 years and was returning to New Orleans via Boston to see his six-year-old daughter for the first time and his wife, amongst many other people who if I dared to approach I’m sure had their own stories to tell.

Waiting at the terminal
I left Port Authority at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday (8/12) and arrived some 31 hours later on time in New Orleans at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday (8/13). Along the way we made a few meal stops as they were called and I have to admit I see why America has an obesity problem. The only food options at these stops were McDonald’s or random other stops that had the options of Fried Chicken with or without fries. Unless you were packing your own meals, healthy options were few and far between.

Sleep was tough. The first bus I was on was pretty comfy, however, when we switched to a Carolina Tramways bus chartered by Greyhound it was far from comfortable. A school chair had more cushion that these seats and unfortunately it was the longest non-stop leg of the trip. Once in Atlanta, we changed buses to what felt like a Rolls Royce compared to tha old bus and I was able to get my only 3 hours of sleep along the way.
Seeing the night come and go was great and I really knew I was in the south when we stopped in Opelica, Alabama for a meal and ordered some good ‘ole salt cured bacon, grits and sweet tea. Getting close to New Orleans I chatted with a bus driver and reminisced about Katrina. She was telling me how she drove Greyhound buses to evacuate the people days after the storm and I remembered being on one of those flooded overpasses myself watching these people finally being taken out of that dire situation.

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