Trying to describe this entire experience is impossible. So, perhaps the best I can do is to walk through one of the more memorable days.
September 2nd, 2005 - Baton Rouge, La.: It starts at 5:15 a.m. It's almost impossible to tear myself out of bed; every muscle in my back hurts and I have a horrid headache. I'm exhausted, definitely, physically, and now I'm starting to be mentally exhausted too. This worries me because that's when I make those real stupid mistakes that I can't afford to make out here. I've gotten four hours of sleep which is great given my track record so far. I never recommend sleeping in the back of a Ford Expedition, even with the AC on all night, which I found uses up to a third of a tank of fuel. Incredibly uncomfortable. I've got to get up somehow, nonetheless. No time for a shower today - last night's (or this morning's to be exact) shower will have to do.
Although people have gone out of their way to be nice to us at the hotel, I've been sleeping on the floor of the helicopter pilot's hotel room because the house The New York Times found us had no power and, therefore, no AC. The woman at the hotel won't let me get a bowl of cereal. "I don't open until 6 a.m," she snaps at me and I mumble to myself that it will likely mean I won't eat until I get back that night. I grab a few granola bars: breakfast and lunch.
I meet the pilot and co-pilot and we hurry out to the Baton Rouge airport across the street. We're flying in a Robinson helicopter which is far from the ideal chopper for this because it only has one turbine. If it fails ... well you have no backup. But these two are great pilots and they're frankly the only bright spot of my day because they somehow manage to make me laugh. Ardie and Tom have been best friends since high school. They're both very successful businessmen who also are starting a helicopter business. As you tend to do in these types of situations, we've become close friends incredibly quickly. We take off quickly. It took us 45 minutes to get clearance yesterday due to the incredibly high level of traffic and that was after 7 hours of being grounded due to bad weather. We then had only 90 minutes of light before the sunset. Today has to go differently. Takeoff is 6:23 a.m. - sunrise - I'm not taking any chances of pushing deadlines again.
It's a 40-minute flight down to New Orleans; within 20 minutes you look down at the Bayou to find it covered in oil - far from any sign of strong damage or a source for the oil, but the fuel has made its way out here. I'm afraid all life will die in a matter of days within a 50-mile radius around New Orleans because of the oil pollution. I see train tracks that have been completely blown off of their foundation. The metal is curved with power lines intertwined in the oddly beautiful mess. I pass a parking lot where someone wrote out on the pavement, "We Need Fo...," never finishing the last word ... ominous ... did they get out? Rescued? Why did they never finish?
Ryder trucks are overturned, roofs completely blown off. We fly by a chemical fire downtown and photograph a few rescues. Flying down here is extremely dangerous - none of the veteran pilots have ever flown in helicopter traffic this heavy - ever. It's so tight in fact that there is little air traffic control, other than getting in and out of the tactical flight zone. We're VFR - or flying in Visual Flight Rules - on our own. Either you see the other guy and avoid him or you probably never see it coming. I've got both a pilot and co-pilot because we need all of our eyes peeled at all times. Somehow we have to look down as well to find some photographs. The radio chatter is nonstop. Pilots keep stepping over one another, only adding to the problem by having to repeat everything constantly. The air traffic controllers have sleeping beds in their towers and they're so tired they gave us clearance to take off right into the path of a landing C-130 yesterday. Good thing we caught that one ....
We photograph the rescues from 700 feet up. We can't hover so we make constant loops - hovering is too dangerous in a single engine chopper. It's dangerous, period. This isn't time to take extra risks anyway.
I'm shooting with a 500 mm and a 28~300 zoom mostly. The door to the helicopter is removed. The rescues are amazing. These "frogmen" that lower themselves out of the choppers from a hundred feet or less are incredibly brave and lucky. It looks like a well-rehearsed ballet. People are so tired, dehydrated, hungry and/or scared that you don't see much emotion on their faces as they are being brought up into the chopper. Many of these people have never flown before. Some of these neighborhoods were so poor that they had no phones, power or TV - and they never even knew Katrina was coming. I was mad at people who stayed behind at first - didn't they realize others would have to risk their lives to save them? Now I realize, many were too frail, too poor, or didn't know what the hell was on its way. Some were mothers who had handicapped children they couldn't get out - an impossible situation. All of this is crazy.
The pictures are coming together but it's getting repetitive. My wife and I had a conversation at 1:30 a.m. or so this morning and she reminded me that while the aerials were looking nice, they can tend to be impersonal. I needed to get on the ground too. We land for fuel and I see this incredible line of choppers landing at Louis Armstrong Airport. Wave after wave of choppers loaded with people. I ask the pilots to drop me off on the other side of the airport in an area they're calling "Triage" on the radio. We land and I walk out with two camera bodies and lenses but not much else, leaving disks and batteries behind. I want to stay low-key. I'm not sure I can get in anywhere so I want to blend in.
Within minutes I see this is developing into something: one woman is waiting for her husband; she was the last evacuee into her chopper - there was no room for him. It's tough for me to ask about her plight but I make sure he was okay when she last saw him. He was fine and I tell her that there's nothing to worry about - it's only a matter of time until he shows up. She's crying. Praying. She's so scared. I find out that I photographed her group from the air an hour ago being rescued atop the Jefferson High School roof. Ten minutes later she sees him and they run towards each other - pure unbridled joy - the only smiling I'll see all week. This is the most beautiful reunion I've ever seen in person.
By now I've text messaged the pilot to let him know that this is developing into something (cell phones don't work yet but text messages get through). I ask him to grab my Newswear vest with the rest of my lenses and disks (I'm running low). He comes with a radio so that we can keep in touch with the other pilot who stays with the helo.
We walk into the lower level of the airport and make our way into what is one of the worst scenes I've ever seen. Our jaws drop. Literally. Right in front of us is one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen in this country and would never have imagined could ever occur in this, the richest nation in the world. Sixty or so people, most of them elderly, most near death or definitely in critical condition, have been spread around the luggage area. Some are on the conveyor belt. I have a real hard time shooting this because it's so overwhelming that I know I need to make a strong image. I'm not sure I have it even to this day, but at one point there is a photograph with an older lady with her eyes sunken into her skull, mouth agape, looking in my direction. She was gazing out, not really focusing on anything. I'm fighting back tears as much as I can. I have trouble breathing: these people are so close to death and they're just lying there. The staff is completely overwhelmed - 900 people an hour are arriving into the airport. I'm shocked that they haven't kicked me out yet but when I speak to the staff they encourage me to photograph the scene, "We need all the help we can ... we can't keep up here," one of them tells me, almost coming to tears. It's hard to make these images. It's tough to press the shutter but it has to be done because this is the clearest example that this whole thing is going wrong. There were the best of intentions probably, but a horrible execution by the top people in charge. What a horrendous mess. Shameful.
The pilot hasn't said anything in 15 minutes. He won't even walk into the triage area with me. He's the one who's usually making all of the jokes - but he's dead quiet right now.
We leave and make a quick tour of the airport. The scene in unbelievable - total chaos - no one is being told ANYTHING. No instructions: no go here, wait there, nothing. Some just sit and wait not realizing they're falling far back in the line with each minute. Most will be flown out to Texas: Houston and San Antonio. No one is taking a list of the incoming people so if families are separated they just sit around and wait, hoping to be reunited. One family with a 2-month-old baby has been sitting outside for 24 hours with no news about their grandmother. I try to help them out only to find that no one seems to know anything and that no records are being kept of who's going in or out. Chaos incarnate. People line up at phone booths but have no change, no money, no ID, no birth certificate, no wallet - nothing.
Every outlet has cell phone chargers plugged into them. I realize I have to get a reporter out here. I call the office and let them know that these scenes remind me of the photographs I saw from the Holocaust: bodies lined up side by side. The editors don't get it at first but soon they realize this is an important story. I know I need to get these images back - if I miss the deadline for page one (4 p.m. EST) they may never understand the scope of this.
We radio Tom to start the engine. On our way back out we see some pretty incredible scenes: one mother is escorted out by a pilot, a toddler in one arm, an approximately 8-year-old boy holding her other arm, his hands clenching onto her shirt, frightened to death by the rotor wash and noise. I break out into tears and so does the pilot I'm with; we just can't hold it in any longer. Then another man jumps out of a Blackhawk with his Golden Retriever who's so afraid of the helicopter that he's trying desperately to free himself from his owner. We break out into tears a second time.
We have to go - this is all for nothing if we don't file in time. As we take off I take a sip of water and almost lose it right there. The only thing that keeps me from throwing up is my empty stomach. It's a long flight back. We land and I begin to download disks.
I have no idea where to begin with my edit and that's unusual for me. I generally know which frames I want to send first - this time I'm completely overwhelmed. When the images first make it in, Dave Frank, the deputy picture editor, tells me he's got them. When the second photo lands, the frame that eventually ran on the front page, he goes quiet. Good - I know I did my job. He abruptly gets off the phone with 5 minutes before the page one meeting starts and I keep filing.
It's been a long day already. But I talk to one of my colleagues back in New Orleans and he tells me they're desperately in need of water and fuel. They're almost out. He and another colleague were thrown to the ground last night by SWAT team members at gunpoint. They were making cell phone calls on the porch of the home they had been staying in but it was past curfew. He tells me that he's thinking of getting a shopping cart and pushing it over to a neighbor's pool to get water to bathe in ... I've seen the pool water from the sky - it's either deep green or black. I'm concerned.
We've spent too much on the chopper for the day (i.e., spent too much $$$) so I'll have to drive fuel and water down to them. There are two hours left until dark. I jump in the SUV and start on the 80-mile drive down. When I get there neither of the two guys seems too excited by either the fuel or water but when I show them the two warm cases of Corona and Heineken I brought down, they light up and one almost hugs me. I'm not sure they were ever happier that week. I can't enjoy a drink with them as I have to get out of New Orleans before nightfall, when things get very dangerous.
It's 80 miles back to Baton Rouge and just a few hours until we start this all over again for the next day's coverage.
© Vince Laforet
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