Today, while working in my home office, I came across a picture that I have not seen in about 7 years or so.
That picture shows me and my former KLAS-HD co-worker Dave Courvoisier, standing in the middle of downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. We were there three weeks after Hurricane Katrina had lashed the region with harsh, high winds and a massive amount of water.
I remember getting the assignment to go to New Orleans. It was about 3PM on a Friday afternoon and my managing editor, Eric Hulnick, walked out of his office and over to my newsroom cubicle. He asked me if I wanted to go to New Orleans to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I told him I would be willing to go. I asked him when I would leave and he told me “11:30 tonight”.
The trip to New Orleans ended up being about an 18 hour affair. Because conditions in the Big Easy were still far from normal, we could not fly directly into the New Orleans airport. What ended up happening was a flight for me from Las Vegas to Dallas, Texas. Then another flight to Jackson, Mississippi. Then a long drive from Jackson into New Orleans.
I ended up covering the Mississippi Gulf Coast region. Though our satellite truck and base of operations were in New Orleans. So every day, myself and photojournalist Mark Mutchler would make the drive from New Orleans to the Mississippi gulf region (we centered mainly on Biloxi and Pascaguala) and then we would drive back to New Orleans, edit our stories together and beam them back to Las Vegas. We did this for about 10 days.
I have said this before and I will say it again: covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the best and worst experience of my professional life.
It was the best because there was a never-ending story to tell. A disaster of this magnitude is (thankfully) rare and to be able to be right in the middle of it was the equivalent to a master’s degree in on-site, real life, impactful journalism.
But it was also the worst experience of my life because of the sheer volume of human suffering. Our days were filled with interviewing people who were in tears, shell shocked by what had happened to their lives. The destruction was mind blowing. I would stand in the middle of what had been a neighborhood and I would turn 360 degrees and everything was destroyed. In many cases, areas had been wiped completely clean. The only thing left behind was the cement slab where their homes had been. But in other cases, there was debris left behind. And what left behind looked as if it had been the victim of some type of bomb. Walls of homes had been peeled away like some type of wooden banana; just turned back by what had to have been a force of unimaginable power.
There were signs on property, with all sorts of different sayings.
“The South shall rise again.”
“You loot, I shoot.”
“Katrina, you won’t win.”
Which I was in Mississippi, Las Vegas Metro Police volunteered some officers to work in the region and help overworked local cops….many of whom were also victims of Katrina. One of those police officers shocked me one night. I was interviewing him and I asked him what his time in Mississippi had taught him. I don’t remember his name but I will always remember what he told me. He looked at me and with a real wisdom, he said to me;
“Don’t let Katrina steal your soul.”
He said it with all the conviction of a pastor on a Sunday morning. It was something he had come to know from working in this area. And it was something I realized as well.
One night, as the sun set on Biloxi, Mississippi, I surveyed my surroundings. Everything around me was bent and broken. Debris was still in the streets. You could smell stagnant water that had yet to evaporate. We also smelled what I am sure what the stench of death; people who had tried to ride the storm out and paid with their lives. It felt like the end of the world. But what I told myself on that night was, unless something catastrophic happened, the sun would rise in the morning. And those who had survived had a choice: to go on and find a way to resume their lives…or their could let Katrina steal their soul.