DECEMBER 2005: “Wake up. The levees have broken!”
These were the first words I heard as I was awakened on the floor
of the Times-Picayune library Tuesday morning following Katrina. Everybody knew
what this meant. The worst-case hurricane scenario was upon us. The city was
filling like a bowl and there was no time to waste.
As publisher Ashton Phelps ordered the staff to evacuate our
offices in the Picayune‘s circulation trucks, I noticed an abandoned flatboat
on the building’s back steps. I ran to it, hoping for a motor or at least a
paddle. Instead, I found a broken broom.
“God has sent me a boat,” I thought and with two cameras, my
cell phone, my laptop and a small bag of food and water I shoved off and
paddled away over co-workers’ flooded cars.
I suddenly realized the moral and ethical dilemma I was
facing. Everyone stranded by the flood would want my small boat and would do
anything to take it. Scenes of the Titanic and overloaded lifeboats pulling
away from floundering survivors filled my head. Would I let people drown when I
had the only boat in sight? I decided if I came across people high and dry, I
would have to leave them there. But if they were in the water, I’d rescue them.
Then, almost on queue my fear became reality. I saw a head bobbing in the
waters. I paddled quickly and yelled, “Are you OK?”
“Ted!” came the reply.
I paddled quickly to find fellow photographer Alex Brandon
swimming toward me with a Ziploc of photo cards clenched in his teeth.
Brandon and I quickly parted company. I rowed westward
through decimated neighborhoods filled with desperate people screaming for
help. There was nothing I could do. I paddled under a bridge where a man
shouted to others, “If we work together, we can take it from him.” They ran
toward me and I eluded them. After four hours of hard rowing, I found dry land
in Metairie. I walked for a couple of miles,
not knowing where I was going or what I would do when I got there. I fell, half-dazed and exhausted in the median of Interstate 10.
About half an hour later helicopters began landing around me
with crews unloading elderly and crippled evacuees onto stretchers. I stared at
them for a while without ever reaching for the cameras lying beside me in the
dirt. Then my second wind kicked in.
“There’s probably a picture here,” I thought, and before I
knew it I was working again. I hitched a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter and
shot aerials over the flooded city. I hopped a boat with rescue teams taking
people off rooftops.
As days passed, anarchy took over, lawlessness escalated and
everyone’s nerves frayed. One
evening I was mistaken for a looter. A retired cop intent on protecting his
neighborhood leveled a shotgun to my head.
“On the ground!” he demanded. Fellow photographer David
Grunfeld and I quickly tried to explain that we had broken into his neighbor’s
house with permission from the owner to use it as a place to sleep. We weren’t winning
his confidence or calming his antsy trigger finger until David made the
“Are you Al? Meg told us we might meet you,” he said. Within
seconds, Al was offering us food and drink, but few apologies. Later his wife
confided with me that local deputies were telling residents to shoot looters
without questions and dump them in the canals. I thanked Al for asking
As chaos reigned, despair took charge. You could see it
everywhere: on cops’ faces, inside the Superdome, in the eyes of refugees, at
the Convention Center, in the mirror. Fellow shooter Brett Duke and I were
photographing mobs of people desperate for food and water. Dead bodies lay in
the medians of grand boulevards. A woman pleaded to the world through our lenses
as she dropped to her knees and shrieked, “Help us, please!” A short time
later, fighting back tears, Brett put his arm around my shoulder pulled me
close. “Can we pray?”
I’ve covered tragedies all over the world, but it’s
different when it’s your own town. Cataclysmic annihilation is starting to feel
normal. This story is ours to cover, but it’s more than that. This is now our