January 1, 1970Hi All:
Well, my work on the Piper Rountree book took a detour when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. For the past year, I've done some on-again, off-again reporting for People magazine. The day after the storm hit, the Austin bureau chief asked for volunteers to work the story. I agreed.
Why? Well, it's tough duty, I know. I expected the worst. But I'd been in Oklahoma City after the bombing, interviewed a 9-11 family, and somehow, it seemed like I belonged covering Katrina as well. So I spent the first day after the storm at a Red Cross shelter in Baytown, TX, interviewing evacuees. My heart went out to them. Most had left days before the storm, and they were glued to the television, hoping for news of family and friends left behind. Each time footage of the devastation and flooding flashed on the screen, many started crying while others stared stunned, hardly able to believe it had happened. So many had lost everything. All they had left were the few possessions they'd loaded in their cars.
On Wednesday, day two after the storm, I drove to Baton Rouge, LA. The city was awash in evacuees. Hotels were booked for months to come. So I slept in my car. The following night a generous Red Cross staffer took me in and shared her hotel room.
Thursday, I drove into New Orleans with a People photographer. We saw the devastation first hand, uprooted ancient oak trees, snapped power lines, flooded homes and streets. People were emerging slowly from their homes, shell-shocked, as if they'd endured a war. We saw mothers walking through waist high flood waters, pushing their children in plastic tubs, trying to get them to safety. People asked us when help would arrive, who would come to save them. Many, especially the elderly, were frightened to try to leave on their own. We had no real answers for them. We took the names of some, calling their families that night to tell them we'd talked with their loved ones and that they were still alive. It was all we could do.
The farther we drove into New Orleans, the more damage and flooding we encountered. We saw shattered buildings, flooded homes, looters running from stores. And everywhere, those who were trying to get out. When asked why they stayed, we were given two answers. Most said they didn't have cars or couldn't afford gas or hotel rooms; they had no where to go. The others, often the elderly, who'd endured many hurricanes in their long lives, told us they didn't expect Katrina would be so powerful. Late in the afternoon, at the foot of the Superdome, the water was deep, and we couldn't get through by car, so we reluctantly turned around and started back to Baton Rouge.
On Thursday, I drove with another photographer to Slidell, LA, on the opposite side of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Slidell is where the storm surge hit first, and the waterfront and canal homes and businesses looked as if they'd been hit by a bomb. Near total destruction. For hours we drove through the wreckage. We saw revelers from a hurricane party still at the Blue Highway Bar, waiting for help to arrive. The night of the hurricane, the water swelled up to 15 feet. The bar now had a 55-foot yacht in its backyard, and a building that had housed a beauty parlor was pushed a full 250 feet to the opposite side of canal. We found a New Orleans woman trying to return home to get her critically ill daughter's medicine. She had yet to realize she had no home to return to.
In Slidell, I met a firefighter who'd walked 18 miles from New Orleans into Slidell to check on his home and find his three dogs. His home was flooded, everything he owned destroyed, and, when we encountered him, he had two of his dogs and he was walking back over the Highway 11 Bridge toward New Orleans to return to his fire station. When we asked why he was walking back into the city, when so many others were trying to get out, he said simply, "I don't know what else to do."
I remained in Louisiana for two more days, interviewing victims, evacuees, and those trying to help them. It's an experience I will never forget. I met families who’d lost children. Children who’d lost parents. The following week, I went to the shelters in Houston. There I met a mother who couldn’t find three of her six children and three beautiful young children who told me how they’d waited on their roof to be rescued as bodies drifted by in the flood waters.
Covering Katrina was one of the hardest things I've ever done, one of the most disturbing. Yet I wouldn't have missed it. I met so many remarkable people, survivors who shared their stories with me and the courageous folks determined to help them. Still, I wonder, what went wrong? How is it possible that the response was so slow? Who is to blame? I look forward to the inquiries to come. Let's hope nothing of this magnitude hits our country ever again. But, if it does, let's pray we're better prepared.