[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/29/art.katrina.tracysabo.jpg caption="Tracy Sabo on her way to a shoot in New Orleans"]
Editor's Note: Anderson Cooper 360° is in New Orleans tonight, as Tropical Storm Gustav barrels toward the Gulf of Mexico, expected to reach Category 3. We'll look at whether New Orleans is ready, after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina exactly three years ago today. Watch our special report tonight at 10p ET.
CNN Senior Producer
"Wow! Has it already been 3 years? It seems like only a few months ago that I was jolted out of bed in the early hours by an atypically panicked and overly concerned voice which said, "Get to New Orleans immediately! We need you there!" That moment was one I will never forget. To me, it was a real plea for much-needed assistance from the "CNN team," not just the usual call I often receive saying, "news has broken and we need a team on the ground to tell it."
That memorable call also came from the late Beverly Broadman – a tremendous and amazing woman, a CNN original and an amazing National Assignment Desk Manager – who lost a long health battle earlier this year. Bev was the first to remind us all that whatever unpleasant conditions we faced in the field were nothing in comparison to the struggles of those we were sent to cover.
I immediately flew into the nearest open airport in Baton Rouge, LA, and I rented a 4-wheel drive SUV. At the time, I never imagined I wouldn't return it for three months!
I packed the vehicle with supplies like batteries, flashlights, bottled water, canned and pre-packaged food... and yes – even underwear and clothes for fellow employees stuck in NOLA. I bought as many empty gas cans as I could locate, strapped them into the car and onto the roof of the SUV and finally started what would prove to be an 8-hour trek into New Orleans (normally it's only an hour and a half).
Along the way, I was able to talk my way through some checkpoints using my media credentials. However, I'd have to refer to many of the other manned and unmanned checkpoints as requiring "a more creative and technically challenging approach." Suffice it to say, I didn't always follow their advice.
I knew the area, the topography and alternate routes as I'd been to the area many times to visit my sister who, luckily, had since relocated. There were times my route required driving onto riverbanks and raised sidewalks. I saw a local restaurant explode in fire before my eyes – not a soul in sight to assist. I drove over downed tree limbs and stopped more than once to use a construction site's porta-john while en route. I had no cell service for most of this journey, so when service did appear momentarily, I'd send out a quick blackberry text to Atlanta updating them on my progress. I made it into downtown New Orleans (the last leg meant driving unnoticed on the famous Riverwalk raised footpath). Less than one mile from downtown, I came upon a Wal-Mart store. It was at this point that I could tell the conditions in New Orleans had not only physically worsened for those left behind, but it was greatly deteriorating socially as well.
I witnessed 3 young men running across the street in front of me with rifles and handguns. This Wal-Mart was in a full state of chaos – the front plate glass windows had broken and the store's contents were being looted right in front of me- televisions, appliances and clothes were being loaded into trucks. Some on foot were walking with boxes of food on their heads.
It finally struck me – this was a dangerous risk I was taking. With full gas cans on my roof and a month's worth of "emergency" supplies in my vehicle, I quickly realized I could become "Target #1." They had guns and I didn't even have a working cell phone (not that police would likely have be able to come rescue me anyway). I quickly pulled off the road before I was noticed and waited more than 30 minutes until I felt it was safe to pass.
I could now see the hotel in the distance – and I knew CNN personnel were waiting there inside. I parked the vehicle in the shelter of a multi-level garage, reluctantly waded through waist-deep water next to a very large rat and finally reached the hotel lobby... and my overly surprised and thankful colleagues.
Not surprisingly, NOLA Police also met me at the hotel door and demanded my car keys saying, "Martial law is now in effect, and we are "commandeering your vehicle." After a very heated debate, I relented (after removing and relocating all of our supplies). All I will say about that is... I may or may not have used a decoy scenario to rifle through the PD's lockbox the next morning to take back what was rightfully ours." All I have described up to this point – that was the EASY part.
Words cannot adequately describe the sights or emotions I witnessed over the next 2-3 months. I cried as I watched new mothers in hospital gowns being airlifted to New Orleans Int'l. Airport on Army choppers. They told me they were separated from their day-old babies, had no idea where they were taking them and no pictures to even prove their existence. Some of these babies had not yet even been named, and I honestly wonder to this day whether they made it back to one another correctly. I watched as several airlifted patients lost their battle for life – laying with IV's in darkness and extreme heat – right on the floor of the NOLA airport lobby. I spoke to people who had been stranded at the NOLA Convention Center for days. I smelled the foul stinch of human feces – which were lying in the open air on the streets – right next to the makeshift sleeping quarters of small children and families which very easily could have been my own. I watched the removal of several of the dead, who were elderly and unable to get out of their homes as floodwaters rose. Family pets all over town met the same fate.
I watched as fear began anew only a week later as Hurricane Rita began a similar, ominous path in the Gulf. Meanwhile, the "initial cleanup" went on for months. The foul "Katrina smell," as we dubbed it, remained much longer. The levees were in disarray, and emergency pumps were not sufficient. I watched as entire neighborhoods flooded and re-flooded to their roofs multiple times.
All the while, CNN and other media outlets lived in RV's and in tents placed right on top of the famous trolley tracks in the middle of downtown Canal Street. The "ghost town" effect brought palpable anxiety as darkness set each night. Gunshots could be heard – only sometimes followed by emergency sirens. When one downtown block regained limited power a full three weeks later, it signaled hope for us all.
Much of my time in NOLA flew by as we were all entirely focused and committed to a common goal – seeking and demanding help for these brave Americans and allowing them to tell their own stories. Not a day went by where I wasn't thankful for this amazing and historic opportunity.
I still think much of what I saw and heard in New Orleans lives deep in the recesses of my mind. There is no way any mortal mind could possibly process this kind of shock and dismay. I've traveled to many "less fortunate" countries and seen the plight of starving Africans... the mental effects of endless wars in the Middle East... and hundreds of homeless on the streets in Asia, Mexico and S. America. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I'd ever cover a 1-day event that resulted in a similar mental and physical plight for several hundred thousand people... right here in America.
As Hurricane Gustav continues to gain strength and chart an eerily similar course towards New Orleans this week, I rationalize, "Mother Nature can't possibly be that cruel, can she?"