I can’t believe that four years have gone by since Hurricane Katrina devastated much of South Louisiana and Mississippi. We knew it was going to be a bad storm, but the reality was much worse than predicted.
My call came late Friday night to go to Louisiana or Mississippi the next day, the storm was in the Gulf of Mexico and headed towards New Orleans as a category 5. Early Saturday morning I got up and drove the scenic route through Biloxi along the Gulf. Many folks had already headed out, some were boarding up to ride out the storm. There was an eerie feeling in the air.
The rest of the day I spend in Slidell, La photographing the preparations for the storm. I found a couple who lived in a fishing camp on Lake Pontchartrain. They were thinking of staying. Thankfully, they heeded my warning and left. A few days later I was where the camp once stood and there was nothing left. I spent that night at my father-in-law’s home not knowing that the sprawling five acre homestead would never look the same after that day.
As the weather rapidly I photographed some more preparations and then met my friend and fellow photographer for the Baton Rouge Advocate Mark Saltz at a fire station in Lacombe, La, five miles away from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. We were lucky, the station had food and a generator. We were able to transmit images until the next morning when the storm made landfall. Then we knew the wrath of Katrina. As we were outside the station attempting to make images, we watched homes literally get blown away. At one point I heard what I thought was a fighter jet, realizing that it was a tornado we made cover. It struck two blocks away destroying everything in it’s path. The damage was mostly wind we thought, until the eye of the storm passed over us and the backside came. With it came the lake as well. People who had stayed in homes by bayous and the lake came swimming into the station. And the water continued to rise. There was no way out. Large trees blocked the road on one side and a bayou had overflown on the other. As some of the firemen were discussing taking the ladder truck to the last remaining home in the area and putting everyone on the roof, others were at the new lakeshore trying to rescue victims swimming in from flooded homes. It was a hectic mess.
Just as suddenly as the lake had risen, it began to fall. It had gotten just a half block shy of the fire station. We made it to Baton Rouge that night to transmit images at around 11pm. No phone lines were up and we were unable to make contact with any loved ones. I had no idea how my father-in-law and husband had faired or even if they were uninjured. My brother who was working at the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time stayed late at work hoping to see me transmit any images to know if I was okay. He said the first one came over at 1am. We finally got to leave Baton Rouge and head back to my in-laws home. We were unable to drive there, so we had to park the car and traverse through fallen lines, debris and trees the last mile with our computers and cameras in tow. Even in the darkness, it was immediately evident that one or more tornados had struck the home. My heart was in my throat as I knocked on a window hoping someone was there. My husband and his father were both there and fairly okay.
The next two weeks were a blur. People on houses, destruction for miles, water and thick mud and the smell of death. It is something that I will never forget. We worked hard and had to drive over an hour each night to transmit. Other journalists shared stories they had heard of both tragedy and triumph. It was a bonding of sorts, the need to reach out and tell the stories of the people who survived. We were documenting history. I think the Fix-a-Flat company had a bumper year due to the journalists in the storm. Every trip I made to Baton Rouge I had to pick up several cans to dole out to my fellow journalists in need.
In the meantime, my father-in-law suffered a hurricane induced heart attack. We lost him a little over a month later. He is now listed as one of the over 1,300 victims of Katrina.
On a bittersweet note, an image I created was part of the Pulitzer nominated package by the Associated Press and many of my images were on magazine covers and in books aboout the storm. It was an honor to be a part of the team, but I hope we never have another storm like that.
Here are a few of my Katrina images.
This was the image that was part of the Associated Press Pulitzer package.
Nursing home evacuation.
Contraflow on I-10
The couple who wasn't going to evacuate at their home.
The home after the storm.
Wild hogs run across the yard as kids play in a tent.
This man clung to the top of a magnolia tree during the storm, his neighbor was not so lucky.
A flooded Slidell
The Rigolets bridge