The Digital Journalist
Transmitting the Misery

by Michael Ainsworth

I got the call on Saturday around noon from one of the photo editors, Leslie White. She told me to get ready to fly to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. She promised me that she would not send me to any more hurricanes next year since I had already chased Dennis and Emily earlier in the year.

I packed quickly and got on the last Southwest flight leaving for New Orleans on Saturday night. I made two mistakes - not taking a satellite phone and not buying and packing some hip-waders.

Evacuees from the Superdome argue as they try to get lined up for a bus trip to the Houston Astrodome on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005, days after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans.

Michael Ainsworth
When I got to New Orleans, I was amazed to hear that the mayor did not have a mandatory evacuation planned. Even I, as a journalist coming into the city, knew of the high potential for flooding from a direct hit. The city did not require a mandatory evacuation until about 24 hours before the storm hit. The Superdome was originally only open to special-needs evacuees before thousands showed up for refuge. Needless to say, too little - too late.

That Sunday, I photographed people trying to enter the Superdome as well as people preparing for the storm. Of course there were the people (but just a few) getting drunk on Bourbon Street.

I stayed up most of the night in my 9th-floor room at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel at Bourbon and Canal Streets, napping as the winds got stronger.

I snuck out of the hotel around 6 a.m. and shot plywood being ripped off a storefront across the street. At that point I was told they were going to lock me out if I did not get in the hotel.

Cynthia Scott sits with her grandchildren Dwayne Alphonse and 3-month-old twins Eric and Erin Alphonse as she and thousands of evacuees were forced to sleep on an overpass next to the Superdome on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Frustration is evident for these evacuees, who say they were promised busses to get them out of town. "A whole city in ruins and no one doing nothing" she said. People have been without water and food for days while sweltering on the bridges.

Michael Ainsworth
The storm kept blowing and more debris was flying everywhere. Finally around 1 p.m. I woke up reporter Lee Hamilton to sneak out the back entrance. The police had sealed the front entrance. There was still debris flying through the air, but we snuck out, trying to get to the car, which was in a parking garage five blocks away. We dodged debris and made it to the parking garage - except that the metal doors had bowed out. My car was stuck. We did photograph some of the first looters of the storm and got pictures of them being arrested. The wind was still blowing about 70-80 mph and the looters were running through the flooded streets with shopping carts full of loot.

We finally secured a car and toured the city which was wind damaged. Reports were coming in of the levees breaking, that the city would be flooded. We took our initial photos of people being rescued from the rooftops of their homes. Not knowing the area, I had no idea the extent of the flooding and loss of life. The streets we drove down would soon be impassable. Monday passed into Tuesday and the horror was just beginning. Journalists who parked their cars in front of their hotels near the Superdome woke up to discover them under water. I had pulled my car out of the parking garage late Monday night and moved it to higher ground. One of the smarter things I did this trip.

I struggled to transmit photos. Cell phones signals were faint or overloaded with demand. I spent five hours trying to transmit photos until I was told that WWL, a Belo television station, had Ethernet available. With their help I has able to transmit the photos from the day.

The days start to blend together at this point. I photographed looting and evacuees, but my main goal was to try and get on a helicopter and photograph rescue efforts. Hancock and I waded into the Superdome and photographed Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco and rescue personnel trying to come up with a plan for saving people's lives. I did get to fly on a helicopter that was flying to supply sandbags to protect the generator at the Superdome. It was my first sight of the massive flooding that had overtaken the city.

New Orleans residents make their way to the Superdome through rising floodwater from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.

Michael Ainsworth
Because of the lack of security, we decided to sleep on the I-10 overpass near the Superdome, where many evacuees were stranded. We figured that it was the safest place to be. By morning we saw the thousands of people stranded on the bridges who had been rescued or evacuated, but were without food and water for two or three days. People were frantic, especially not knowing where they should go. Some walked from the Superdome to the Convention Center, then, scared of being at the center because of the lawlessness, they would start walking to the West Bank. Police were turning them back, so these same people would walk back to the overpass near the Superdome. All without water.

I went to the Superdome once the evacuation busses were starting to run and people were desperate to get out of the Dome, which had been their savior, but had turned into a hellhole.

I think the hardest part of the whole experience is being helpless. People came up to us and told their stories or asked us for current information. Where was the food and water? All I could tell them was to try to be patient because of the enormity of the catastrophe. It is hard to be patient when you see your relatives dying. I think most were just thankful to have someone - anyone - hear their story. I felt their hopelessness and can only hope that the images of their plight helped bring them some relief.

Some people say the media disrespects people, but people here wanted their stories told. With the exposure, people were able to let people know they were alive and well. It also gave them an opportunity to start fresh, with the help and support of the millions of people who read their story.

© Michael Ainsworth

Michael Ainsworth, 39, has been a staff photographer at the Dallas Morning News since 1995. A former intern at Greensboro, N.C., and The Hartford Courant, he is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington.

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