For 2 photographers who covered Katrina, Baton Rouge floods bring back lessons
The first thing that got him was the smell.
It was not quite the same as it was after Hurricane Katrina. But it was very close. That smell — a mildewy, wet, soggy mush of a smell — is hard to describe and impossible to forget.
"It's always the smell that gets me, more than the sites. It's a smell," said Chris Granger, a photojournalist for The Times-Picayune and nola.com. "You smelled it before you saw anything, and you knew you were about to get into a mess."
It was true during Hurricane Katrina. And it was true last week in Baton Rouge. Granger and fellow photojournalist Ted Jackson photographed both. The two disasters certainly aren't the same, but both men took what they learned from Katrina with them into South Louisiana. And this time, they had new tools to show the world what they saw.
'Wow, this is live'
On Aug. 14, Granger asked a few off-duty Lafourche Parish sheriff's deputies if he could ride along on a rescue. He didn't want to take someone's spot who might need it, and he didn't want to be in the way. But the deputies said sure, come along.
As they traveled down a road that looked like a river, careful not to hit fences or the tops of cars, Granger noticed that he had a pretty good cellphone signal. Maybe this would be a good time to try Facebook Live, he wrote in a Slack message to editors.
He joked with the deputies that he was going to try and go live. They all knew he was talking about Facebook. It took about five minutes before editors back in New Orleans jumped into the conversation and told him how to get started.
Granger broadcast his first real Facebook live-stream with his phone in one hand and his camera in another, trying to stay steady and dry on a wobbly boat traveling down a watery road.
"I suddenly realized, wow, this is live," he said.
Granger, who has worked for the Times-Picayune for more than 20 years, got butterflies. Comments streamed quickly by on his phone. While one of the deputies was on the roof of a home where they'd gone to rescue people, Granger set his camera down and held up his hand. He signaled a five, then three zeros.
The deputy knew exactly what he was saying. Five thousand people were watching.
"It was just this weird moment for all of us where he is rescuing people and it's being broadcast live," Granger said.
Since it aired, the video has had 335,000 views.
Eleven years ago, Jackson didn't really think about using his phone for messaging. The first text he ever got was from his son right after Katrina hit.
Then, it took about an hour to send a low-resolution image using his phone. It felt like he was sending photos into a black hole. In one day, he maybe got four photos through.
Now, faster transmitting times also mean more responsibilities: shooting video, writing stories and managing social media. Often, memorable moments from big news come from the cellphones of the people who are wherever that news is happening, Jackson said. Jackson, who's been at the Times-Picayune for more than 30 years, doesn't feel threatened by that.
They're doing their jobs, capturing what they see where they are. And he's doing his, going where people can't or won't go to show the rest of the world what's happening.
'I never really saw anybody crying'
The rising floodwaters in and around Baton Rouge caught a lot of people off-guard, Granger said.
But among the people he met there, Granger saw a look he recognized.
"It's almost like they're past sad," he said. "I guess it's the state of shock, I never really heard complaining, I never really saw anybody crying."
Like with Katrina, there's so much damage, so much destruction, that people are just numb. But unlike Katrina, he knew exactly how they felt and what they'd soon be facing. Both Granger and Jackson have shared things they learned from Katrina with the people they've met in Baton Rouge.
For people who knew water was coming, Granger recommended putting important things they couldn't carry out into the dishwasher. After Katrina, he saw people gut their homes and open dishwashers to find clean, dry dishes.
If people had kiddie pools, he told them to blow them up, throw it in the middle of the living room with anything they can't carry out, like medical records or paper work. It's another thing he learned after Katrina.
Jackson has tips from New Orleans, too, and he's seen people around the area applying lessons of their own from Katrina. Many people didn't wait for help when the waters rose. It can take days for the government and the National Guard to mobilize. So they took care of each other.
And, he's told people, be grateful for what hasn't happened, for the things that can be replaced and the people you still have. And don't forget your memories.
"You can save those photographs. Don't throw them away. Don't throw them in a pile just because they're discolored or stuck together. You can save that stuff."
He saw a family with photos in a heap, and he told them, save it.
No, one man said, I just can't deal with it right now.
"I said, 'save your pictures. Save your pictures. Just put them somewhere and deal with it later.'"
The flooding in Baton Rouge is different than the water that inundated New Orleans. But, for Jackson, one thing has felt pretty similar.
"There is the dread of when you see a storm coming and you see the water come up," he said. "You just think, not again, not again, not again."
Last week, both men slept in homes and lived in communities unaffected by flooding. They had power and food. Stores were open. Things felt normal.
But about an hour and a half away, they weren't.
On Thursday, Jackson walked into one home in Baton Rouge. The man inside had also lived through Katrina. He looked at Jackson and said, "'you smell it?' And I said, 'yeah I do.' And he said, 'yeah, it's the same as Katrina, it's the same smell.'"