The Eyes of the Storm: Reflections from Gulf Coast Photojournalists

A year after what surely was America’s most devastating natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina has become a household name. Among those exposed to the impact of ravaging wind and water were photojournalists.

For them, memories of covering the storm and its aftermath remain. For Ted Jackson of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, one of the lingering moments of the coverage was watching helplessly while a family of women and children clung to posts on their front porch, forced from their Lower Ninth Ward home by rising floodwaters.

“(The family) tried to get into their attic space, but they said the floor wouldn’t hold them,” Jackson said. “I pleaded with them to stay where they were until help could arrive. They said they had been clinging to the posts since 8 a.m.”

It was just after noon. Jackson went for help. When he returned with a rope and inflatable boat, he said, “They were gone.” It wasn’t until after Thanksgiving that Jackson learned the family had survived.

Irwin Thompson of The Dallas Morning News said Katrina represented “the most emotionally draining assignment I have ever covered.”

Poynter Online asked Jackson, Thompson, Brandi Jade Thomas of St. Paul, Minn.’s Pioneer Press, freelancer Vincent Laforet and Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat photojournalist Mark Wallheiser to talk about the things that linger a year after the storm.
 
They talked about the costs of choices they made, about the depression, stress, despair and hope that are all part of the story they documented. We asked them to tell us about what they’ve learned. Here are some excerpts from what they had to say:

Ted Jackson, staff photographer, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune

I see an entire city population with post-traumatic stress disorder. We all flinch at the mention of a tropical storm developing thousands of miles away in the Atlantic. We talk of preparations and muster our courage, but just beneath the bravado, the idea of a named storm freaks us out.

Living in New Orleans these days is difficult at best. There’s a palpable sense of foreboding that drains the psyche. I believe that one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind is the gift of anticipation. We humans are able to endure all kinds of hardships when we have the anticipation of better things to come. Right now, New Orleans is starving for positive anticipation. The city is grasping for hope. That’s why I believe it’s so important to escape this hurricane season without another storm. We need a reason to believe.

When our good friend and colleague John McCusker reached the end of his Katrina rope, he lost his grip and took all of us at The Times-Picayune on a spine-tingling ride of introspection and self-doubt. We all privately asked ourselves, “Who’s next?” It matters not how brave-hearted we think we are. We now know that everybody has a breaking point. Everybody!

I have lunch with friends who quietly tell me their dark inner thoughts. (Stories) about Katrina-related suicides are frequent. It breaks my heart when friends call from around the country saying they understand things are getting back to normal here. Wow!

I’ve learned that when this level of trauma hits you, you’d better have something solid to hold on to. I have two: my wife Nancy and my faith in God. If you don’t have something solid, a jolt like Katrina will truly rock your world.”

Irwin Thompson, news staff photographer, The Dallas Morning News

Not a day has passed that something or someone hasn’t reminded me of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. What the evacuees had to live through — the struggle to survive, the stress of losing everything, not knowing where their next meal would come from or where they would lay their heads and being shuttled throughout the United States — was a heart-wrenching and painful assignment to document. I think we will feel the Katrina affect for the rest of our lives.

I drove from Baton Rouge into the outer bands of Katrina around 2 a.m. I made it as far as Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, and spent my first night ever in jail at the Kenner Police Complex. I slept for three hours and was up at 5:30 a.m.

I had a chance to witness Katrina’s winds through the eye of my camera (while) photographing two small trees getting hammered by over 140 mph winds. All of a sudden, I heard this loud “pop,” and lots of crackling. I saw the roof of the Backyard Barbeque violently being ripped off and tossed into the neighborhood.
 
In the United States, we take the smallest of things for granted — gas, electricity, ice, water, food. When those things are taken away, you tend to step back and look at what’s really important in life: family, friends and relationships. It strengthened my commitment to love the people that are special to me and treat everyone with courtesy, dignity and respect.

Brandi Jade Thomas, staff photographer, (St. Paul, Minn.) Pioneer Press

I still see the sense of hopelessness and despair in the eyes of those I came across… I can still feel some of that hopelessness and despair myself. I never knew what empathy was until I set foot in the Gulfport/Biloxi area after it was ravaged by Katrina.

Although I was only in Biloxi, Miss., helping our sister paper (the Sun Herald) for two weeks, the time spent there was like being zapped into some other world in some other dimension, where the concept of time was nothing that I was used to. Two weeks felt like two years in some aspects, and two days in others.

One thing that I’ve learned in all of this … is that this story is so multidimensional and complex that it’s an injustice to those who’ve suffered to just fixate on one point or on one demographic. One of the stories I’m seeing now more than ever is the psychological damage this disaster has brought about.

You can build a new house, you can repair a roof, find a new job, but you cannot erase the pain of walking into your home and seeing everything you’ve worked your whole life to attain destroyed. You cannot take away the memories of watching people suffer and die as you struggle to survive. How do you help people with such complex troubles?

As journalists, I think we help them by keeping their stories and their images in the pages of our papers, on our Web sites and in books and exhibits.

Knowing your communities is another lesson learned. If a disaster similar to what happened in New Orleans happened here in the Twin Cities, how many of the journalists would actually have access or trust in the Somali, Hmong, Hispanic and various other communities? Understanding those communities is vital to understanding the complexities of their stories.

A Katrina victim from the Lower Ninth Ward is going to have a different story than the victim from the Garden District. The bottom line may be the same, but each individual’s story is shaped by their own lives. Therefore, understanding as much as you can brings you closer to the truth than you were before. What you see on the surface is never the complete truth.

Vincent Laforet, contributing photographer, The New York Times

I told (Assistant Managing Editor/Photo) Michele McNally, “Please send me anywhere else in the world but New Orleans. I’ll work as many days as you want me to, but I’m just not ready to go back to New Orleans. Last time was very bad.”

A few days into my “anniversary” trip down here, I went to photograph a jazz band that I had followed on a daily assignment to a bar named Vaughan’s in the Ninth Ward — one of the few bars that are still open down there. The music they played and the statements the musicians intertwined with each set and the heartfelt reaction from the crowd about their love for their city and their resilience to these challenges nearly brought me to tears. I felt so proud to know these people and to have been given the chance to tell their stories. I’m sure the road will not be smooth, but I know that this city will survive because of its people and their spirit. We, as journalists, just need to make sure the people on Capitol Hill don’t come to rely solely on that spirit.

I covered the first 10 days of the storm and its aftermath. It was the most difficult assignment of my career, and the toughest situation I’ve ever had to deal with on an emotional level. On one hand, I felt like it was the only true journalism I’ve ever been allowed to do in my career. What I mean is that there were no PR people or other interests trying to control your every move or what you could and couldn’t see.  Here, I was left to tell the story that was in front of me. There was no interference. I felt that I had a duty and served a purpose there as a journalist: to convey what was happening there to the rest of the world through photography.

I then went back three months later and became pretty depressed. I couldn’t handle the lack of progress and didn’t see much hope in the future of a city that had been my favorite in this country. I started to go through the classic symptoms of depression. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t get out of bed, started to drink at night.  After one week I raced out of there, never wanting to go back.

As a journalist, this event made me realize how important a role we play and how necessary it is for us to go out of our way to share stories. I had, of course, felt this sense of purpose since the day I graduated from journalism school. But never to this degree. Never this deeply.

Mark Wallheiser, staff photographer, Tallahassee Democrat

What comes to mind from my coverage of Katrina is not the destruction or loss of life per se, but what happened as I left Biloxi. I met and went with (Sun Herald reporter Anita Lee) the day Katrina made landfall.

At one point, she wanted to run by her house to check on her cat only to find her house completely gutted by the storm surge. The walls were there but no doors or windows or belongings. Her cat was gone too, along with a treasured trunk of items her mother had given her prior to her passing. The surge had taken it all from her. I remember working our way through the massive piles of broken lumber and homes on her street with my arm around a lady I had known for less than a day trying to console her and convince her how cats did indeed have nine lives and somehow hers could have survived. She was devastated, but somehow, like many others at the paper, managed to keep working.

Despite their losses as a newspaper and employees, they were handing out Sun Heralds that they published and trucked in from Columbus, Ga., within 24 hours. I admired that courage and fortitude in her and her co-workers. I heard some months later that her cat did survive.

I rode out the storm in the Sun Herald building, venturing out once the winds died down and shot in Biloxi for two more days before having to head back to Tallahassee.

With the Sun Herald‘s broadband connections in the toilet, I stopped and parked on the sidewalk atop a bridge over the inter-coastal (waterway,) where I managed to get sporadic cell service on which to transmit. I spent the next seven hours transmitting photos to Reuters and the Democrat.

Once I started transmitting and over the next several hours as night fell, I found myself in a very unusual emotional situation that I was not familiar with. I wound up sitting atop the bridge alternating between holding my face in my hands crying and praying for the people of coastal Mississippi. There was no particular person or scene from Biloxi in my head. I didn’t know what brought the emotional flood on, but flood it did.

A year later, I find myself glad it’s been a light hurricane season so far. I know it won’t stay that way, so if, or when, the next one heads into the Gulf, I’ll pack my truck and head that way.

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