Reflecting on Katrina Five Years Later

A mans body floats on Airline Way in New Orleans following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

It was the morning of my son’s 9th birthday and the phone rang before I had even finished my coffee. Before I picked up the receiver I knew the celebratory trip to San Diego was not going to happen for me. After watching Hurricane Katrina destroy everything in it’s path from the safety of my home nearly two thousand miles away, I knew the phone call was likely to result in me heading to the devastated region. Looking at the Caller ID confirmed it was a call coming from within the Time Inc building and less than three hours later I kissed my son and wife goodbye at the airport and headed to Louisiana for People Magazine.

Anyone who has covered disasters knows that you just have to roll with whatever is thrown at you. Major catastrophes make planning for things almost a useless task. People magazine had assigned a number of writer/photographer teams to create their coverage. The writer and I were first told to find some incredible tales of survival amid the masses of refugees in Shreveport, Louisiana. With thousands of people taking shelter in hotels and arenas, it wasn’t hard to find those who had escaped death in the streets of New Orleans. As is often the case, our directions from New York took a turn the following day when we were told to find Doctor Ronald Myers in Greenville, Mississippi, a small town not far from hard-hit Jackson, Ms. Doctor Myers had had his own home heavily damaged but was taking care of others in a Ramada Inn as well as a nearby Red Cross shelter. Known for his dedication to aiding the poorest of the poor from the Mississippi Delta region, Dr. Myers was a classic tale of country doctor coming to the rescue despite his own misfortune at the hands of the Category 5 hurricane. We spent most of a day with Dr. Meyers before receiving new directions as People altered it’s coverage:

Head to flooded New Orleans and document the plight of a refugee family being evacuated from the city. See, the city of New Orleans was ordered to be completely emptied of residents. Everyone had to go with no exceptions.

Talking our way through police checkpoints with nothing more than my PGA Tour press card from Sports Illustrated, the writer and I found our way to a staging area for fireman doing house-to-house searches by boat. The vast majority of residents who had stayed behind to ride out the storm had already been rescued, but no one could be sure if others remained. Once on a rescue boat and navigating down Airport Road, we soon encountered the bloated body of a man tangled in some flooded bushes. Pushing past, the firemen hollered into homes and searched open areas for any sign of life. Parking the boats near armed guards, we got in our SUV and made out for Louis Armstrong airport, the epicenter for the city’s evacuation.

Helicopters swooped in, rotors turning violently, and emptied their bellies of newly rescued residents, all clutching the few belongings they could carry on their backs. Men, women and children were rushed to a carts linked together that are typically used for luggage transportation. Whisked to the terminal, the evacuees filed through a row of volunteers who pushed basic amenities such as soap and toothpaste into their outstretched hands. Once inside the chaotic airport, registration and a basic medical check up were provided before each evacuee was told to wait for their flight at a particular gate.  They had no idea where they were going, nor did they have any say in the matter. Grab whatever you have and wait with others at the assigned gate, they were told. Once a flight was filled and the doors to the aircraft closed, the evacuees were told where they would be going. Together with the Chaney family, who the writer and I had chosen simply based on my observation of a serene looking older woman fanning herself with a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr fan as she was whisked to the terminal, we pushed off for Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Kenneth Chaney evacuates New Orleans.

Arriving in the rain with only my camera bag, computer and clothes on my back (everything else was left in the rental car at the airport), I was immediately struck by the contrast in environments. We left a destroyed city in chaos and were soon eating a hot meal at a shelter at a renowned thoroughbred training facility in upscale West Palm Beach.

Having documented the plight of the Chaney family the next day at the shelter, we received notice that the magazine was doing a piece on Katrina’s Kids. I had seen many children traumatized by the deadly hurricane at the shelter, so I went back the next morning and spent with several families with children. It never amazes me how people can endure such trauma. Many were upbeat and philosophical about their future, whatever that might hold.

I returned to LA the following day and spent a day at The Dream Center, another Katrina shelter, photographing for TIME magazine. The Caesh family, who the magazine had asked me to document, was gracious and steadfast in their determination to find work and go forward with their lives despite the hard working, proud family having to rely on borrowed clothes and handouts from strangers..

It’s my hope that all those I met and photographed have found peace and a degree of normalcy in their lives five years after Katrina.

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