Hurricane Katrina had already hit Florida, and now it was headed for the Gulf Coast. In preparation for our photo coverage I was assigned to head from my home, San Antonio, to New Orleans in anticipation of the coming storm. Other AP photographers were also sent to New Orleans as well as to other major cities that appeared to fall in the path of Katrina. When I left San Antonio Saturday evening Katrina was a category 3 hurricane. I awoke Sunday morning to learn Katrina was now a category 5 storm, headed directly for New Orleans, a city below sea level.
I arrived in New Orleans with my gear and provisions, expecting the worst and hoping for the best. I was to stay at a hotel in the French Quarter. I opted for a room on a higher floor in the event of flooding. Sunday was a day for residents and businesses to make their last efforts to prepare for the storm; Katrina was to hit early Monday. My first photos were of businesses in the French Quarter boarding up their windows. Later I trekked to the Superdome to document the thousands of residents who had opted not to leave New Orleans, but preferred the shelter of a building stronger than their homes.
With the early winds and rains, cable TV was the first luxury to go. So much for the Weather Channel. A couple of hours later we lost power. It would be a day or so before we were without water, but in the end all utilities were lost.
I was teamed with AP writer Alan Breed. We were the only journalists in our hotel. The storm howled like elephants through the French doors of the hotel as it shook the walls. A portion of the roof gave way and a couple of holes allowed water to flow into some of the rooms.
As daylight broke, the storm was passing. But it was still too dangerous to travel with all the debris sailing through the air. With winds still howling, we decided to team up in our SUV and make an attempt to assess damages, at least to the French Quarter. Rain was still falling and the winds were high. We found one man walking up Bourbon Street. Damage seemed minimal, so we decided to widen our search. Katrina had taken a bit of a right-hand turn, placing it to the east of New Orleans. So we headed east. Our direct path east was flooded, forcing us to drive on sidewalks and parking lots and other alternative routes. We made a last push through some high water and moved up to Interstate 10, an elevated highway, and headed east.
From this vantage point it was easy to see the city had taken on a great deal of water. Later we would learn that a levee had breeched. Homes were flooded, some to the rooftops. At one point we found a couple who had climbed onto their rooftop to escape the rain. Upon closer examination we discovered other people in their homes as well needing to be rescued. It wasn't long before I made my first rescue photos when a boat arrived for the couple clinging to the roof, as well as the others.
We had to change one flat tire on the expressway in the storm. By the time we returned to our hotel we had two more.
With a handful of rescue photos ready to go, the next hurdle was getting them transmitted to New York for distribution. Land phones were down. Cell phones did not work. I was stuck.
Thanks to a good friend and the generosity of the San Antonio Express-News, I used a Satellite phone to get the photos sent to New York.
Tuesday brought another surprise: The floodwaters continued to rise when another levee was breeched.
Alan and I were stunned when we came upon a woman mourning the death of her husband, a lung cancer patient who had run out of oxygen. Their home was flooded, so she and other family members wrapped the body in a sheet and floated him on a board to an area where they thought he could be picked up.
The challenge of sending photos remained. Although the phones at the hotel did not work, some residents had phone service. Alan did some door-knocking and we were back in business. We did get the photos out, although slowly.
Our week was met with many challenges. Basically you are affected by the storm the same way as those whom you are covering. Flashlights are always needed. Limited food and water. Limited gas. And of course the difficulties of maneuvering about the city.
Basically Alan and I had no agenda in covering the storm. Many people were affected by Katrina, so we just let the story unfold and we recorded it as we saw it. The resolve of people is an amazing thing to watch. And with a little luck we were able to share some amazing stories of some incredible people.
© Eric Gay
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