The Landfall of Rita

How to begin. There are so many things that have happened since I last wrote anything. I will try to hit the high points.

First,the storm. We lost battery backup just minutes after I wrote my last blog entry. Then I faded off into a shallow sleep as the storm raged on outside. About 3am I was jolted awake by the sound of the howling wind and ripping sheet metal. The awning over the outside porch had come loose and was banging around in the breeze. Minutes later the 20x30 foot sheet ripped free and took a good bit of the cafeteria roof with it. The water started to pour in and the "civilians" staying with us freaked out.

The storm raged on for about 6 more hours before anyone could get out of the building. Two civilian cars and the Houston Chronicle truck had windows bashed out and were filling with water.

We set out the next morning and made photos of the flooding and wind damage. The next three days were a blur. I have to look back through the images to even be sure what we did on what day. I worked closely with my old friend I.T. from the Dallas Morning News and fellow North Texas grad (and hurricane virgin) Rick "Gusty" Gershon and Matt Roark from the Austin paper. Ricky Hickman with the Lake Charles paper was the only local photog who stayed. Over all it was good. Two days after the storm we left to make a gas and beer run to Crowley. .

When we got back to the paper we sat on the tailgates of the trucks and drank beer and told our tales. It was a great experience. It is the way things like this are supposed to go.

The next day I found out Ricky Romero (the firefighter who stayed in Holly Beach) had gottten out and survived the storm. His house, as we all thought it would be.... is totally destroyed. I cannot imagine how he will rebuild or what he will do.

Yesterday was my last day working with Yancy. I am sad to see him go back to New York, but we did great work on a shrimping story in Delcambre. We met a couple who was just married a month ago. Her name is Stormie and his Cody. She explained the irony of her name and the fact that on their wedding night they watched Katrina batter New Orleans and on their one month anniversary they fled from Rita. As she finished, Cody's friend said under his breath.... "Get out while you can."

On Deadline

Writing a blog on a deadline.. isn't that contradictory to the point at hand?? But here I sit, a battery backup beeping in my ear telling my that any minute the small bit of juice left in it will be gone. And while my laptop is battery powered, the network switches are not. When they are gone, so is our connection to the outside world.

Around us the wind drives the rain into the sides of the building... the large glass panes flex with the pressure and the children still play chase on the other side of the newsroom.

This is always the worst part.... the waiting. Sitting here knowing there are great photos all around and no one can get out of the building. We just heard there is an 18-wheeler turned over on the interstate and no one can get there... not even the ambulance service.

By morning we hope it will all be over... that the storm will have broken and left us to document its damage. But tonight we just wait. Pacing back and worth, falling back to old vices to fill the time.

Yesterday we were on the coast with a family who will likely lose everything. Their home sits only 400 yards from the breakers. I felt like crying as I watched him kiss his wife goodbye and watched her take one last look at the home where she raised her children. Of course there is no time for that now. The only thing to do is to acknowledge the feeling and deal with it later. But I cannot imagine what they will go back to. If anything it will be 24 pilings standing strong... with nothing to hold up but salt air and the hopes of a family.

"Thank You Sir! May I Have Another!"

Assignments like this are so strange. You never know where you are going to end up the next day.

Two days ago a woke up off a floor in Plaquemine at 5am and drove to New Orleans. I worked in New Orleans yesterday and today, stayed in a $3000 dollar a month apartment last night, left New Orleans at 3pm and now, seven hours later I am in the Lauberge Du Lac hotel and resort in Lake Charles, on the other side of the state.

My newspaper doesn't really like me enough to put me up in digs like this BTW... a Best Western or Motel 6 usually does the trick. But this was one of four rooms available in the greater Lake Charles area, and this is where they want me in the morning.

"Thank You Sir! May I Have Another!"

Tomorrow we start the cycle over again. Talking to hopeful homeowners and fleeing residents about their worst nightmare.. a Cat5 storm parked off the coast and building itself into a life and home eating machine.

Today we were in St. Bernard Parish and so many of the deputies and firemen there were praying for the storm to swing and hit them again. "We have nothing left..." one said. "It can't hurt us anymore, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else. If I could take it I would." Such an unselfish act is amazing to me. Here we sit in the dining hall of a cruise ship. The only place left in all of St. Bernard deemed inhabitable. The rest of the parish is truly destroyed. No power, no water, oil slicks cover the neighborhoods.

And these men want to take on Rita to save a community in the next state.

In the meantime I await orders from the man in charge to decide if I should chase this storm into Texas or stay behind and shoot the LSU-Tennesee game on Saturday.

Blackhawk Down

Yesterday was great. I never made it to town, but I got a tour of the Supple's sugar cane plantation by my host Felipe. He is also a bird hunter and I have enjoyed, when I have the energy, swapping stories with him at the end of the day. We share many of the same interests and enjoy the same authors.

He showed me where he hunts woodcock, a bird I believed only to exist in the pages of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Hunting Annual. He showed me a crawfish pond where they duck hunt. He showed me the tree lines where he flushes quail with his beautiful german short-haired pointers.

Towards the end of the tour we stopped and chatted with his friend Mark who lives alone in a grand house just off the river road. Giant oaks draped with Spanish Moss line the drive to the house, which was the home of John Randolf while he built the famous Nottoway Plantation home in the 1850s.

Over all it was a good day.

Taken in stride today was just as good. But the military can be so frustrating sometimes. Today we rode into the city on Blackhawks. We being a group of media attracted to the National Guards' promise of soldiers returning to their homes at the hard hit Jackson Barracks for the first time. We were all accounted for; Gannett, AP, The Advocate, The Times-Picayune and an amazing photographer from Corbis working for the New York Times.

Unfortunatly, when we disembarked from the helos we were informed there would be no soldiers returning today, but there was ONE Lt. who would be along shortly to talk with us and walk us through his home.

ONE soldier to share between 5 still photographers and 2 tv stations.

You can imagine the ensuing three ring circus.

We all made our photos as politely as we could and boarded the choppers to fly back to Baton Rouge. Other than the ride out, being able to see the friendly face of Bill Feig and chatting with the lovely Lynsey there wasn't much point to the entire exercise.

Tomorrow I go to stay in the city for a few days. It will be the first time I have slept in the city in weeks. Each day we have traveled in and out of the city and found that it was becoming more and more time consuming every day.

Now a new storm looms on our horizon. As Rita moves across the Florida Keys tonight we wait to see where she will turn.

The city cannot take another hit. But the possibility is a very real one. And this time if she strikes near the city we will be on the east side where the strongest winds, largest surge and heaviest rains reside.

Its a scary thought, but I can't think it now. We have till Thursday to see what happens.


Didn't write anything yesterday. But I will recap. Yesterday we rode with LSP SWAT on patrol through the city.

It was an interesting day. I got to ride in a HUGE armored vehicle, made a few cool photos and got a private tour of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Lloyds of London hired a private SWAT team to get into the museum and protect the priceless art... including a large collection of Faberge eggs.

It was so cool to see all that survived the storm and the looters. (Looters broke into the snack shop... But left the painting of Marie Antoinette alone). It was cool to see SWAT team members with M-16s who had spent weeks in hell walking through a museum marveling at famous art works in one of the most beautiful buildings in New Orleans. The contrast was unreal.

At the end of the day Doug and I talked about what we had done on our days off. I told him about the first day off I had after the worst first week. I went to Dallas and was in a wedding for one of my best friends. To see him that happy, to see how much love he has for his wife and how good life can be... it really recharged me and allowed me to go back to work strong. Doug told me he intended to sit in his living room and watch The Sound of Music with his wife and children. What a beautiful simple way to celebrate your life and being back in it.

Tomorrow's is my second day off this month. I am planning on going to the Louisiana Art and Science Museum and spending the day wandering through exhibit after exhibit and thinking about nothing but the art on the wall before me.

On Monday they reopen the first parts of the city.

A reporter and I will be airdropped into East Orleans by a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter to document National Guard troops, who have been deployed in New Orleans since the storm, return to their homes and belongings. Most of which lay in total waste under 6-12 inches of river silt and mud.

I am not sure what awaits me there. But I am honestly glad I will spend the day before in a place of beauty.

The Purging of Bourbon Street

Today I puked.

I have braved dead bodies, dead dogs, dead cats, dead horses, open crypts and the swampwater filled streets of New Orleans. But my nemesis finally caught up with me.

Rotten food.

I knew it would happen and it finally did. At the end of Bourbon Street we stumbled upon Redfish. A fine restaurant that serves mostly seafood. The hazmat workers looked at me like I was crazy when I came close to shoot photos of them cleaning out the racks of the seafood freezers. But sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

I choked it back several times and then just decided it was stupid to try and put off the inevitable. So I tried to hold my cameras and press tags back and puked right there in the middle of Bourbon Street..... Three times.

With all the hurricanes, beers, bourbons and yes even a few $9 daiquiris, I have had ample reason to let fly on Bourbon Street but have always held my own. However, thousands of pounds of rotten fish, shrimp, oysters, crabmeat and even chicken being thrown in a giant dumpster, not to mention the sight of all that water and goo running down the gutter, was just to much to handle.

Later we did a story on the draining and body removal of the Charity Hospital morgue. I felt better about my intestinal fortitude when I stood over the stinking stairwell where dozens of bodies lay in a soup of lake water and sewage. The water yet too high for the Army and doctors to make the trek down, the presence of the bodies was still duly noted by all. We met the doctor who stayed with his patients and saved so many of them. It took the rescue crews six days to get to the hospital. With only enough power to run one respirator the residents patched together tubing and kept all 7 patients alive with one machine.

Earlier this week I heard the story of a young boy who went into heart failure at a hospital. Unable to revive him without any power the hospital crews cracked his chest and massaged his heart by hand during the evacuation by helicopter... to Houston.

As I think about that story now I wonder how it would change your outlook on life to be the doctor or nurse who kept that young boy alive. How would anything in your life really upset you after that experience. Could you ever really complain about anything again? Sometimes I long to have an experience like that one. An epiphany of great magnitude. But most days I realize I am probably not able to handle it.

Another 12 Days

The days seem to get longer and the nights get shorter. But each morning I wake up eager to make new photographs, to see new things and to meet new people. That is where things stand with me now.

I received two emails today. One was from my mother threatening to call my boss and check on me if I didn't let her know I was ok. The other was from my editor informing me that I would be here another 12 days before I leave to go back to Shreveport. That is comforting becuase I feel I have more time to work on this story which has become very important to me. On the other hand its very difficult to comprehend keeping this pace and drive for nearly two more weeks.

"All this water and nothing to drink."

"All this water and nothing to drink." - Written on the wall of a flooded New Orleans home.

Day Four of this trip and day seven of coverage in south Louisiana. It's funny how you adapt to things. For instance, I was almost killed today when I ran a stop light in the middle of Baton Rouge. Its the stop light in front of Gov.Kathleen Blanco's house as a matter of fact.

I have run it three out of the last four days.

No one in New Orleans pays any attention to traffic lights, or any other traffic laws for that matter. No speed limits, no correct use of one way streets... .hell no correct use of expressway on and off ramps.

It is a total free for all.

I have never covered the ground between New Orleans and Baton Rouge as quickly as I have this week. Anything less than 85mph on Interstate 10 at the end of the day and you are a grease spot. Or at the very least a hazard to those around you.

But back to the stop light. You see its the first (and only) functioning stop light that you come to between New Orleans and the Gannett Capitol Bureau office in the state capitol building. So every day after spending 12 hours in New Orleans, Plaquemines, East Orleans or some other hell hole, I simply breeze right through that light without a first glance. Today I had a near miss with a very upset woman.

Adaptation. Its an odd thing.

Today I took my first boat ride through the city. It was not very fruitful in the way of photos. But the things I saw were pretty amazing. At many houses people had tried to make boats out of whatever they could find. Most didn't look like they would float and all where still tied to front porches. I hope that means that the builders were plucked from their houses by air or boat.

Those covering the hurricane have adapted too. From learning that pieces of gear we once carried are no longer needed to the adaptation that we go through as humans to try and cope with a disaster of this type.

The things we see never go away. They will always be with us in some way. Months, even years down the road events, people and places will trigger memories of the things I have seen and the stories I have heard this week. But yet we adapt to them in the short term. Today I watched as a sheriff searched a building for the body of a 14 year old boy. He had found the body days before and each day came back to the same flooded building to check to see if a recovery patrol had picked him up. "I wish they would pick him up," he said. "Someone really needs to pick him up. Its not right to leave him here." The words have echoed through my head all day. But I have adapted the way I think about things. Right now I can't really think about what they mean. Nor about the incidents that led up to that situation. But some day I know I will have to..... I fear that day and long for it at the same time.

High Above the Nightmare

Today was better in some ways. I flew in a seaplane high above the ground level of the destruction. The first 30 mins of the flight out of Baton Rouge were peaceful. I watched as a soccer team in white uniforms practiced against the field of lush green grass. Their movement as a team across the field was evident and brought new meaning to the words poetry in motion.

Later as we crossed a swamp basin I saw what I thought was the same thing only this time it was a flock of white egrets moving across the emerald canopy of the swamp. I started to draw parallels in my mind between the two but found that the visual beauty of both was plenty enough for today.

As we crossed over the lake I prepared myself for what I would see. Just as the day before the west side of the city was dry. But I would have never imagined the expanse of the flooding on the east side. I honestly didn't even know New Orleans was that large. Block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, mile after mile it was the same thing.... black water. Even at a 1000 ft you can smell the stench of the rotting fauna and flora.

As we crossed the city and left it and the black water behind we found another kind of blackness. Crude. Hundreds of thousands of barrels spilled out of their containment tanks and flowed out across the canals, rivers and marshes of Plaquemines Parish.

The storm surge was so strong and deep that it actually floated the tanks and crushed them when the tide fell and they settled back to earth... sometimes miles from thier original locations.

Freshwater marshes were destroyed... killed by the saltwater that rushed up from the coast by Katrina nearly two weeks before. The rotting vegetation will cause the oxygen level to drop which will kill off millions of fish and once it has all rotted the marsh can begin to rebuild itself.

Its pretty amazing what nature can do to replenish itself if man will just stay out of the way and let it take its course. But like the mighty Mississippi itself sometimes that course is not what we want. When we try to control it we often do more damage than we could ever think possible.

Death and Dismay Surround Me

We are in the middle, literally, of the worst natural disaster in the history of the US. Katrina has destroyed much of the coastline and killed thousands in the process. The city air is thick with the bacteria and filth spewed forth when the water rushed into the city. Today I did the unthinkable. I got a tetanus vaccine from a woman who I didn't know... sitting on the back of an suv..... parked in the dirtiest environment I have ever seen. The Louisiana Health Board had sent ten of them to vaccinate volunteers and media for free. I was relieved to feel that sting as the serum was forced into my body.

Today we spent much of our time in the Quarter and the CBD.... Both of which are dry and very dirty. It was interesting and by the end of the day it almost started to feel like New Orleans. The people were pleasant, there was no shooting, no killing and aside from the stench, no visible signs of the thousands that lay still beneath the black water or high in the attics of houses.

We even stopped and had a drink with a great old man on St. Louis Street who talked about how wonderful the Quarter would become once the outlying projects and troubled neighborhoods were leveled. At the end of the day I started to think to myself that all was not lost. That New Orleans was still intact.

But on our way out we found a way onto the I-10 high rise to the east. So we decided to survey the worst from the air.

The worst is an understatement. Along the interstate thousands of water bottles, MRE packages, trash and human waste lay along the shoulders as a grim reminder of the people whom had suffered there. Baking in the sun on a cookie sheet made of concrete waiting for help to arrive, waiting for someone to carry them out of the hell they were living. For me, being there suddenly made the entire situation very real, very immediate and very saddening.

Below, the black toxic water lay still over the 9th Ward like a heavy blanket of death and disease, folding itself out over some of the most impoverished people in the nation.

As we look out across the city we see the signs of escape.. the walls beat out of attics and the holes cut in ceilings to escape the rising water pouring in from the breached levees. But for every escape you can count there are 10 houses that show no such signs.

We ride in silence down the highway.. media, medical and security forces swarm back and forth. There is no order to the situation. Traffic moves both east and west on both sides of the span with little regard to laws or direction of travel. Riding the the left hand lane is a bad idea.

And then it hits us... like a slap in the face. There he lies on the side of the road. A black man... a body. Someone's father. Someone's brother, Someone's son. A kind soul with good intentions has tried to cover him in a black plastic garbage bag. But he is a large man and the attempt was futile.

We do not stop.

Bodies are the story of the day. What to do with them, where to move them, how to store them and other questions wallpaper minds of everyone down here. Even those who do not speak about it. Today we heard that the pumps may be jammed with bodies and therefore are not working like they should. But this one man.. this one lost son is here alone. With no one to pick him up.

Early Return

Well.... I am back.

Far too soon.

And I am pissed.

Of all the stupid things. I am so irritated that I was called back so soon. It wasn't my fault and I have made my feelings very clear to those who made the choice.

The largest natural disaster is happening in my backyard and I am stuck here... shooting photos of old men who gripe about the cost of gasoline for their RVs.

But I was there. And I will be back there hopefully sooner than later.

I learned a lot over the last three days and I remembered even more. I learned that people can be naturally good or naturally bad. I used to think differently, but now I do not. I don't know who or what controls what makes people who they are and the way that they act. I learned that God controls this earth and there is not a damn thing that man can do about it. Build all the levees you want. Pretend you can control one of the most powerful forces in nature with piles of dirt if you want. But sooner or later God and his creations will prove you wrong.

I remembered that I love people. I really do. Its one of the reasons I am who I am and I do what I do. I love people. I love to be around them. To hear and tell their stories. To see them succeed and to comfort them when they don't.

I realized I have been doing a lot of hating lately. Being there and seeing what I have seen has reminded me that life to to short to be hateful. That there is no point in hating the people you love. That having people who care for you is the greatest thing in the world. And losing them is the worst.