Editor's Note: CNN's Jerry Simonson is a photojournalist based in Miami. He was in New Orleans when Katrina hit and was the one photographer who stayed for a two days and nights when CNN pulled everyone else out of the city. In that time he was able to capture the iconic images from the convention center we all remember. He shares his story with the blog:
The smell of burning buildings lofted down the street. The noise of helicopters roared overhead. Mothers, holding small children wandered by me. They had no where to go and nothing but the clothes on their backs. We would give them whatever water we had. They didn’t have to ask, their faces spoke for them, Groups of young men continued to roam the district, breaking glass, pushing in doors and looting. The threat of police stopping them didn’t exist and the glare of the world press did nothing to deter their criminal behavior. It was the typical scene you would expect in a third world country after a major natural disaster, the only difference was this was America, this was New Orleans.
Only four days earlier as I jumped a plane from Miami to New Orleans, my main thought was how quickly could I get into the Quarter. I had covered hurricanes for years and I knew that the window of opportunity to get some good Big Easy Cooking was closing as the storm moved close. I could taste the red beans and rice, jambalaya, and gumbo all covered with Tabasco. With a Category five coming I wanted one last meal.
I had already met Katrina once as she came ashore in South Florida. The eye came right over my home in Miami, leaving me with no power, and a mess of a yard. I didn’t even have time to throw the food out of my refrigerator before I was schedule for another meeting with this storm.
There was a whole slew of CNNer’s heading to all parts of the Gulf Region to cover the event. If you have to go somewhere to cover a hurricane New Orleans is a great city to get assigned too. Saturday night was going to be a gathering and I was looking forward to seeing my old friends.
Before the Party could get started there was business to take care of. I was traveling with producers Kim Segal and Rich Phillips. Being from the Miami Bureau we had covered many storms together. I had come to the conclusions they all pretty much were the same. You start them all by going to Home Depot and Wal-Mart to get supplies. We loaded up on flashlights, batteries, gas cans, Twinkies, and Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and all the things we thought we would need. Now that we had our provisions we went to check into the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel located right outside the French Quarter.
As the many photographers, producers, reporters, engineers and bookers arrived in the city a crowd grew at an establishment on Bourbon Street. The hurricanes were poured; I bought Mardi Gra beads, a good Cajun cowboy hat and listened as the talk of the storm dominated the conversations. I had heard the doomsday scenarios and talks about the “big one “ for years. It was a bit of Déjà vu for me. Just a year earlier I had been in New Orleans for hurricane Ivan. The city had braced for a major storm, but in the end it didn’t even rain. It always seemed that the storm to missed me, so I figured this time would be like the rest.
Sunday saw teams of reporters and photographers come and go as our handlers tried to figure out who need to be where and when. At this point it was clear that the dreaded possibility of a Category four or five storm hitting New Orleans was not just likely but would be reality within 24 hours. By late afternoon most shops had boarded up and the vast majority of the city was gone. The decision was made not to risk a Satellite Truck by keeping it in New Orleans and it was moved out of the area. This meant that our only way to do live television and transmit video was with our (DNG) Digital News Gathering kits. We would use a laptop computer and two satellite phones to get our story out. We had four of these kits in New Orleans. The satellite antenna needs an unobstructed view when in use. Our hotel was in downtown and the tall buildings meant using the DNG kits from the street outside our hotel was not possible. Knowing that during the storm we would need a fall back position if all the other three DNG crews were unable to broadcast and transmit I looked to set up mine in the hotel. I found a room on the 10th floor that would enable us to broadcast and transmit no matter how bad the weather got. My only concern was power, but hey I had lots of time to worry about that.
Our Miami crew of John Zarrella , Rich Phillip and fellow photographer Miller headed to the Superdome to do evening live shots. The Superdome had long lines of people looking for some place to ride out the storm. These were by in large poor people, many old and many homeless. While there were some tourists and people whose hotels had closed down, they were in the minority. We talked to many of them who told us they had been waiting for over six hours to get into the Dome. As we started to do our broadcasts the rain began.
Most of the masses waiting to get in had to just stand there and get wet. An old woman who looked to be in her 80’s came up to me and asked me for help. She took me under a ramp where people had huddled to get out of the rain. She pointed to a man on the ground that appeared to be passed out. Holding onto the man’s waist was a cute little boy around two years old. He looked scared and held tightly onto the man’s pants. The woman told me that I needed to get the police or national guard over there to check out the man. They couldn’t get him to wake up and they said the boy had no one else there to look after him.
I looked at the fear in the boys face; he reminded me of my own son who was almost the same age. I went and found someone from the National Guard who brought a medic over to the man. At first they couldn’t get him to move, I thought the guy was dead. After using smelling salts under his nose they woke him up. It was apparent he was under the influence of something and was in no shape to take care of a child. Yet there was no one else there to take this child. They sat him up and told him he had to stay awake. He said ok and propped himself up. They left and he laid right back down and went to sleep. The old woman who originally came and got me started yelling at him but he didn’t respond. I wasn’t sure what else to do. I went and got the boy a Gatorade and some crackers. I kept an eye on him over the next hour. His father started to wake up and I got him some water and gave him some food. I told him “listen you have to stay awake for your boy, if you don’t I am going to get the police again.” He agreed and a short time latter made his way into the Superdome with his son in tow. I held out hope that once inside he would sober up and there would be others who would keep an eye on the boy.
As the sun fell the lines of people making their way into the shelter of last resort faded away, and most people filed inside. There was a group of four young girls and one young man that stayed outside by the door and watched as we did our reports. In between they came over to ask us to put them on TV. They were from Australia and had been at a summer camp in Michigan. They had come to New Orleans before they traveled home. They were laughing and joking at the big adventure they had found themselves in. They asked if we thought they would make their Tuesday flight. I told one girl that she could be in the Superdome a week if New Orleans gets a direct hit. She looked at me with disbelief. I told her about the flooding that could take place, they laughed at me like I was trying to pull one over on them. They made their way into the Superdome. I often wonder how their adventure played itself out.
We finished our live shots and headed back to the Renaissance Hotel. We tried to find somewhere to get a hot meal, but we ended up eating Ravioli from a can. We headed to bed knowing that Monday was going to be a long day.
On Monday morning I was up well before my 5:45 am crew call. I spent the night making sure I had everything hooked up and ready to go. I had my batteries charged and everything was working well. On TV I could see the size of Katrina and it was obvious this was a very large and powerful storm. Over the years I had been told stories of the “big one.” In my nine years of chasing storms I hadn’t witnessed the type of destruction I had heard about when they talked about Andrew, Gilbert, Betsy and others. I had a feeling that today I would see the “big one.”
Room 1016 was my room and the designated workspace. As I got ready to do morning lives there was a knock on the door, it was Kay Jones, CNN booker. She had had enough rattling windows and wanted some company. She was my first visitor but not my last. As 6 am drew closer several others joined us on the 10th floor to find comfort in numbers.
We did one live shot from inside of my room. We got word form producers and shows that they didn’t want a shot from inside the hotel they wanted us on the streets. It didn’t matter that we had two other crews out in the storm; they wanted Zarrella blowing in the wind. Beyond the fact that it was impossible to be live from the street I was trying to think beyond those first few hours of the storm. My main concerns was since we didn’t have a Satellite truck, by putting all our DNG kits out in the wind we would risk losing them all and then we would be completely unable to get the story out. After some back and forth it was decided the best thing to do was some taped look lives and FTP (file transfer protocol) real time video.
Monday was like most storms. The wind and rain came and then it went. it knocked out the power, the toilets didn’t flush, the elevators didn’t work, and we all ate out of a can. Sounds glamorous doesn’t it? In the late afternoon hours the damage assessments of New Orleans didn’t seem all that bad. Communication was difficult with cell towers being down, but from the little information we could get it seemed Mississippi had gotten the worst of it.
By the evening my main concern was power. I had been sending video to the Atlanta DNG server all day and was running out of power. I had to make the trek down to my SUV fire it up and run three invertors until everything was juiced up. Power was going to be a big issue. I had no idea the other shoe was about to drop.
It was around 10 pm and I was down in the breezeway to the hotel-parking garage trying to charge up all my gear for the next day. Kim Segal approached me and told me photographer Mark Biello was headed back to the hotel with amazing footage. I needed to be ready to get it on air as soon as we could. I asked producer Ben Blake to continue making sure we charge up what we can and headed up the ten flights of stairs to New Orleans control in room 1016.
Once Mark arrived and showed us his pictures it was obvious that New Orleans had not dodged the bullet, but had been hit and hit hard. He had jumped on a boat with a Good Samaritan and they traveled through a very flooded 9th Ward. There were hundreds of people trapped by the floodwaters. They had used an axe to free several people who were trapped in the their roofs. Mark reported on the phone as I sent in the video. He told of people screaming and he didn’t know where the screams were coming from. One very memorable shot of a home flooded up to the roof with a lone hand, holding a plate, poking out, trying in desperation to alert anyone that there were people alive in the home.
Into the late hours of the night we went through the tedious process of sending in these shocking pictures in, while Mark and reporter Jeanne Meserve reported on the phone what happening in the city. As we continued to work, Kim got a call; Tulane Hospital was starting to flood, could we get a crew over there? She and photographer Jeremy Harlan attempted to get to the hospital, but the water was too deep. In the middle of the night we wondered, the storm had passed hours ago, where was this water coming from. It wouldn’t take long to find out.
Into early hours of Tuesday morning I laid my head down for just a minute while the last bit of video fed to Atlanta. I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember was my phone ringing in my room. It was Rich Phillips, we were scheduled to take the DNG gear into the Quarter and I had overslept. I said “Rich, sorry, I will be right down. He said, “take your time the water is starting to rise, I don’t think we are going to leave the hotel.” The levees had failed and the water was quickly coming into the city. We didn’t know how quickly or how much time we had before we might me trapped in the hotel. I went downstairs and looked down the street. The cars parked on the road already had water up to their doors. In the breezeway of the hotel we moved our vehicles as far back from the water as we could. There was a parking garage that went up several floors, but the problem was the hotel had shut the door and without power they couldn’t open it. As everyone tried to figure out what to do I knew I needed to get all our batteries charged. We could use the cars for only so long. The water would either shut us down or we would run out of gas. We started pulling some batteries out of cars, if that didn’t work we would be out of business.
By mid-day the city plunged into chaos. Looters were going throughout the city taking whatever they pleased. Many people were trapped around the town and no one knew if the water would continue to rise. The Superdome had suffered badly in the storm. There was a hole in roof and the generators weren’t working. The people inside had not planned on being there that long and many people with drug and alcohol problems had not planned on quitting cold turkey.
Throughout the day our reporters and crews got the news out. We had 28 people in the town and everyone was working hard. A Satellite truck was no where in site and I spent most of the afternoon draining car batteries in room 1016 so I that I could get footage on air. Ben Blake and D.C. based producer Jim Spellman found something better than gold, an actual high speed Internet connection at the Sheraton Hotel. It was perfect timing, I was out of power and we had great video with no way to get it on air. We headed down Canal Street to the Sheraton. I had gotten most of the footage in when I received an email. It told me that all CNN personnel should stop what they were doing and get back to the Renaissance hotel right away. I didn’t want to stop sending material, but I was told that there had been a prison break and there was concern the prisoners were on the streets. I packed up my stuff and headed back down Canal Street to the hotel. The walk back was surreal. Families left homeless wandered the streets, pulling carts behind them with the few meager possessions they had left. Stranded tourists looked down from their balconies as young men ran out of stores holding boxes of shoes and bottles of liquor. Things were getting bad; New Orleans was starting to look like the Wild Wild West.
On Wednesday morning it was obvious that things were only going to get worse in New Orleans. The Renaissance made the decision that they had to close the hotel and everyone would have to leave. If the water continued to rise then we could all be trapped. The sanitary conditions were getting bad, drinking water and food were in short supply, and if the people left behind in the city continued to become desperate things could get out of hand. . The word came down that CNN was going to pull personnel out of the city. Word went out for everyone to leave their stuff and be ready to go within the hour. I made a quick call to my wife and mother. They had both been very concerned over the last 48 hours and were very glad I was getting out.
Within minutes of hanging up the phone with them and Kim Segal came in my room. She said, “Me, Ben Blake, and Jim Spellman are staying, do you want to stay?”
“Of course, if you’re staying, I’m staying.” So just that quick my evacuation was over. It was a good idea. We would keep a small mobile team that would stay behind and assure that CNN still had a presence in the city. I paired down my gear to the bare minimum and headed down the stairs. The last thing I grabbed, before I closed the CNN operations in room 1016, was my hat and beads that I bought four days earlier on Bourbon Street. Some people might wonder why in the aftermath of natural disaster I would walk out of my room with a cowboy hat and beads. To me it made perfect sense. The hat would be optimum at shading my face and neck from the sun. The beads I wore as a good luck charm. In the middle of this chaos I figured a good luck charm couldn’t hurt.
Out of the 28 people that had awakened in New Orleans just us four remained. Most of French Quarter had remained dry. We weren’t sure if the water was going to rise, but for now that was the best place to be. We had to wade through almost waist deep water holding our bags up so they would stay dry. It was obvious that the water was not safe to be in. It was mixed with gas, oil, sewage and lots of debris. My boots had mysteriously gone missing from the hotel, so I was left with a pair of sandals. On such a hot and humid day I hoped the water would at least be cool. It was bathwater warm and came with a nice odor. We had to suck it up and just walk through it.
We made a pile of stuff in the middle of Canal Street. The whole scene was straight out of central casting. The looters seemed more like shoppers. People continued to go in and out of shops at their leisure. At one shoe store a cop sat outside. As people went to leave with boxes of shoes he would ask them what size they were. If they had shoes that weren’t their sizes he would make them leave them. I guess he figured if they needed them they might as well take them, but only what they needed. People were just wandering everywhere. Some pulling rafts through the water with the few belongings they had. There were Mothers carrying small children asking us where they should go. I had no answer for them.
One mother yelled at her son, he appeared to be around eight. We recognized them as having been staying at our hotel. Her son had wandered away from their room while she had been out and she was mad at him for not listening to her. What she didn’t tell him was the reason she wasn’t with him was she had been out looting. I started to judge her in my mind. How could she leave her son after all that had happened and to go steal? I couldn’t fathom it in my mind. I thought maybe she had nothing left and that was the only thing she could do. Was it stealing or was it surviving. I wasn’t sure, but the rules here were different now and I couldn’t just make blanket judgments.
From hotel balconies stranded tourists watched the street below them like a movie of the week gone bad. The media below them did live shots as helicopters flew overhead. They had come here as tourists and now were getting a sightseeing trip that they wouldn’t forget
Kim sat guard over the gear while Ben, Jim and me went back to hotel to try to get a vehicle out. In the haste to evacuate our fellow CNNer’s had taken all the SUV’s and our only option for a vehicle was a mini-van. We didn’t think it would make it through the water on the street, but we had no choice but to try. Ben was our wheelman. Jim and I wadded into the water so we would be able to push if need be. Ben didn’t get very far into the street, and the van died. We pushed out our waterlogged vehicle for about one block till water was just half way up the tire. We tried in vain to crank her but after giving it our best shot we abandoned the van there on the corner of Bourbon and Canal Street. It was noon. We he had no car, we had no place to stay and the situation around us was descending into chaos. So we did the only thing we could do, the thing we stayed to do, we started getting the story out.
I set up the camera and videophone and broadcast a live picture of the flooding and looting. Much to our surprise there were two pay phones on the corner that were working. That was key because our cells didn’t work and communication was very difficult. Kim started doing reports on the phone, while Ben and Jim made their way to the Superdome to see what was going on. When I did eventually talk to Amy, my wife, to let her know that I was still in the city she said “I know, I know. The minute I heard Kim’s report on air that she and three others stayed behind, I knew that you were one of them.” What can I say she knows me.
We had been reporting for about an hour when I looked up the block and saw a building on fire. I grabbed my camera and videophone and ran down to get a live shot out of the fire. It was amazing to see all this black smoke coming out of the shoe store, yet people continued to go in and loot what shoes they could. Smoke and flames wouldn’t stop them from getting free sneakers.
The stranded van was right in front of the fire so I jumped up on the roof of the van and started setting up. There was water all around so if the van hadn’t ended up there I would never have gotten the shot out. Right after I set up a New Orleans police officer came up to me and asked, “Are you in CNN?”
I was wearing a t-shirt with a large CNN right on the front; so I looked down and said, “Yes sir.”
“You have to report this fire on television, we can’t get through to dispatch,” he said. If they don’t get fire units here soon we’re going to lose the whole block. If they see it on CNN they will send the fire department.”
I told him “I am broadcasting it live right now. See that woman on the phone booth, her name is Kim Segal, she is on the phone with Wolf Blitzer right now. Go down there and tell her what is going on. “
The officer went down to Kim and she put him on the air. I broadcast the shot from the top of our stranded van. A short time later we had five to six fire trucks fighting the fire. They fought the fire, and I spent three hours straight on top of that van. I was two blocks from Kim, and the only way for me to communicate with her was to send messages via a young man who we had met out in the street. His name was Jason and he had a bike that he would ride down to Kim and give her the information I would get from the fire fighters. Here I was able to broadcast this fire using the latest technology we had to offer; yet the only way to get the story on the air was to use a bike and a good old fashion pay phone. It was truly new school meets old school.
While I was shooting the fire I saw three men go into a jewelry store and attempt to break into another store. I swung the camera off the fire and over to the looters. They started yelling at me that I had better get that camera off them. I said, “no way I am going to put you live on CNN, so smile and make your mother proud.” They didn’t’ care and they kept looking for opportunities to steal.
The firefighter did what they could, but without water pressure they could only do so much. They contained the fire and let it burn it out. It was ironic that in a flooded city they had a problem getting water. After awhile one of the chiefs came up to me and asked if I was CNN. I said yes. He told me within a minute of them getting the alarm he got a call on his phone from Texas saying CNN is broadcasting a fire from Canal street, get down there fast. He said we were almost as fast as 911.
I got down from the van around 8 pm and the sun was starting to go down. We still had no vehicle and no place to stay. I made my way back to the new head quarters at the phone booth. While I had been shooting the fire the rest of the team had been taking care of business. Kim had found a used car dealer, and she bought a truck off him sight unseen for the bargain basement price of $4000.00. Kim wrote a personal check for $3000.00 and Ben one for $1000.00 A few hours latter we had title, tags, registration, and even insurance. That is Kim for ya. Here we are hanging out in the lawless town, and she sits on the pay phone for 15 minutes to make sure we had insurance on this beat up old Chevy truck. The biggest surprise to me was to see reporter Chris Lawrence standing there. The day before Chris had flown to Houston rented a SUV and bought a small boat. It was the most beautiful sight. We had transportation. Now we needed accommodations.
Some people believe in guardian angels. In New Orleans we found our guardian Boy Scout and his name was Coy Rose. Earlier in the day when Kim was waiting for us to get a vehicle Coy rode up to her on a mountain bike and asked to take her picture. When Coy found out we were homeless he offered us a place to stay. There was an empty apartment next to where he was staying. He knew the landlord and said it was cool for us to bunk there. It was a kind offer and Coy quickly became a member of our team. He was a deep-water diver, EMT, ex Army Ranger and one of the most resourceful guys I have ever met. Over the next 48 hours he was our go to guy.
Chris had one last live shot for the Paula Zahn show. We all agreed it would be smart to get inside. It wasn’t safe to be out at night and we wanted to get off the street. Chris had talked to some people, and they had told him that the Convention Center was full of people. Chris and Jim had gone down there earlier and not only were there many people just living on the streets, there was a dead body in the median. Up to that point most of the focus was on the masses at the Superdome. This was our first chance to see what was to be one of the major stories of the storm. As we headed back to where we were going to sleep we drove by the Convention Center. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were multitudes of people just sleeping on the sidewalks. Elderly, babies, everyone just lying out in the open. I remember thinking what would I do if I was out there with my wife and two small children. These weren’t images I was used to seeing on the streets of America It left an empty feeing in my stomach. As we drove away I felt horrible that there was nothing I could do to help those people.
It was a short five-minute drive to where we were staying that night. I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to get some sleep. It was a small efficiency apartment with only a futon in it. The bathroom ceiling had fallen in but other than that it was perfect. Coy had a generator set up in the apartment next door. He cranked it up, and we had light and cold beer. Coy told us that there was a swimming pool, and we were welcome to take a dip. I hadn’t had a shower since Sunday and a swim sounded like a great idea. Jumping in that water was great. The pool was full of leaves and branches but I didn’t care I wasn’t sweating for the first time in two days. The whole thing seemed very surreal. Over the years of traveling for CNN I had stayed at some really great hotels. , Yet, we never got a chance to take a swim in their pools. Now here in this storm ravaged neighborhood while I was staying in a vacant apartment I finally got a chance to take a swim. I found a great deal of irony in that. After our swim we all grabbed our space on the floor and grabbed a few hours of sleep.
The alarm sounded early that Thursday morning. We all got up slowly and started to get ready. I loaded up the truck, and was struck by how dark it was. New Orleans was totally blacked out and an eerie silence filled the air. It was just plain spooky. I ran back into the apartment to give it a last once over. I hadn’t realized how bad we smelled till I went back up there alone.
I jumped in the bed of our newly purchased Chevy truck and we headed back to Canal Street. As we turned the corner to the Convention Center our headlights pierced the darkness revealing masses of bodies sleeping anywhere they could. I motioned to the others that this was where we had to be. This is where the story was. We continued on to the pay phones and set up for early morning shows. We all agreed that once the sun rose we should head back to the Convention Center. Chris went on the air and reported on what we had witnessed at the Convention Center. Once there was daylight Ben and Jim headed with a camera to see what was happening. They came back about an hour later. Coy drove the truck while Jim shot tape of the thousands of people who had found themselves stuck there. A family begged them for a ride to the Superdome. As they drove the family there they pleaded for help; their desperation was echoed by the multitudes of people trapped in the city. It was obvious that we needed to get that raw footage on the air. Using our DNG equipment it takes around forty-five minutes to get just two minutes of tape to air. That wasn’t good enough. We needed a Satellite truck bad. Ben went down to where the other media had trucks and attempted to get someone to share with us. It didn’t’ take him long before he cut a deal with the ABC truck. They could have access to our pictures if we could transmit our video. Now for the first time in days we were going to be able to get our video to the viewer, it was a major break.
As we neared the end of the American Morning show we got the word. Our main priority was to get to the Superdome and do a package for the Prime Time shows. Our collective jaws dropped. We knew the story had shifted to the Convention Center and that is the story we had to do. Kim got on the phone and made our case on a conference call with a multitude of people weighing in. Kim isn’t just a television producer she also has her law degree, so hearing her make her argument let me know that if I ever needed someone to make a case for me, she would be at the top of my list. As she hung up the phone she said, “lets go to Convention Center.”
Chris, Kim and me jumped in the truck and Coy drove us there. Coy had been there earlier with Jim and Ben and told us that we needed to be careful. People were getting desperate and we could be a target for a car jacking. We decided to drive in from a few blocks away, and Coy would circle often and check on our status.
As we approached the crowds right away from people who wanted our help. A grandmother told us of how her family, which included five children, had survived the storm, and flood only to find they were living a nightmare at the Convention Center. There had been several people who had died and their bodies laid in the streets for all to see. They had no food, no water, no sanitation, and they were scared. Gangs of young men had looted liquor stores and were drunk and harassing people. They spoke of gunfire and rumors of murder and rape were everywhere. At one point that night someone went inside a crowded Convention Center and announced that the levees had more breaks and the waters were rising. People panicked and there were stories of injuries in the stampeded that was said to have followed.
We approached to a man had gone into convulsions right there in front of us. His eyes rolled back in his head and he seemed in real bad shape. The only thing anyone could do is put some ice on his neck and yell to him to fight for his life. We walked from there towards the Convention Center through a parking lot full of human waste, to get to where two dead bodies were laying next to an exit door at the Convention Center. One body was covered with a sheet with flies swarming on it. The second was an elderly woman who had died in her wheelchair. A blanket was put over her face. As I took pictures of the dead, an armored personnel carrier drove by with New Orleans police officer wearing bulletproof vests and toting machine guns. The people pleaded for them to get them water, to get them food, to get them out of there. The officers just drove by. We walked some more. There was a mother holding a very young baby. The baby was covered in sweat in the hot humid sun. She had no milk, no shade, no diapers; all she could do was fan his head. A woman looked at me and said, “theses babies are going to die, they are too young to go with out food and water, and we have to get help.” I had no words for her, I felt helpless, and I felt ashamed.
Some tried to organize the people. There was a group of men and women who were well into there 80’s stuck out in the blazing heat. A woman announced to them the procedure they would need to follow when the buses came, yet there were no buses coming. I shot a close up of an elderly gentleman. There was fear in his face, and tears in his eyes. I could only turn and walk away. As we approached the front of the Convention Center the crowd became more congested. As I began to take video of them they started to chant, “we need help, we need help.”
I remember a small boy. His lip quivered as the tears rolled down his face. In the median a baby sleeping in his car seat surrounded by trash and filth. There was a man in a wheel chair that showed me his swollen veins. He hadn’t had dialysis in six days, and he didn’t think he would make it another day. I could only say, don't give up. A woman came up to me and grabbed my arm very tightly. She begged me for help, and she was scared, hungry and thirsty. She asked me when the buses were coming. I told her I didn’t know, but she had to hold on. They would come. As we walked back to the truck I was so angry, and disgusted. I couldn’t believe this was happening in America.
When we got back to Canal I told Ben whatever he did he had to get every second of video I shot on air. He grabbed my tape, and fed it in. As the tape fed into Atlanta CNN took it all to air live and uncut. As our pictures played out on television sets around the world people were able to seen what was happening on the streets of New Orleans. I couldn’t give those people water, food or shelter, but I could tell their story. I will never think that was enough, but in the situation I did my best. For the most part as a journalist I don’t ever want to become too involved in the actual story, but in the aftermath of Katrina I think we all wanted to help in anyway we could.
By the afternoon we had continued to report the conditions in the city and from the feedback we were getting it was changing perceptions about what was going on in New Orleans. I went back one more time to the Convention Center, but after a couple of groups of young men approach our truck in a threatening way we decided to head back to Canal Street. As we planned the rest of the evening we were noticed heavily armed police officers around us. There faces were tense and they looked ready for battle. They asked us where we were staying and when we told them they told us they had reports of gangs going door to door murdering and raping in that area. With that information it looked as if we were homeless again. We asked them if we could stay with them, and they agreed to take us back to their chief to see if it was ok, In the meantime told us they were going to need our truck. We could continue to drive it, but their precinct was low on supplies. It seems when the city government left the city they gave there stations a few cases of water and wished them luck. They weren’t in much better shape then the rest of New Orleans citizens. They loaded our truck with whatever water, food and medicine they could find. I asked if that was looting? I was told when you were with the police it wasn’t looting it was procuring, and it was very legal. So after they procured their supplies we all headed to the first precinct.
On the exterior of the police precinct there was a banner that read “Ft. Apache” this was officially the wild wild west. After talking to the Chief he was happy to have us. We headed to the roof of their building and set up to some broadcasting. An officer came up the truck as we were unloading and told me to take everything out of the truck. I asked him why. He said he needed to take or vehicle. They had been taking gunfire all-day and needed to take our vehicle to find more guns and ammo. As the police drove off with the Chevy to get more guns I knew it was going to another interesting night.
As the sun set the sky was filled with helicopters. At any give time there were half a dozen in the air at all times. You would hear the sporadic gunfire and a large fire burned in the distance. The police told us the city could burn to the ground tonight. In the darkness the snipers took the positions on the roof as we watched and waited. Thought our night they exchanged gunfire and defended their Fort. Jim wanted to stay up all night to see what video he could shoot, so the rest of us grabbed a couple hours of sleep. I sleep part of the night on the roof of Chris’s Expedition. It wasn’t comfortable but it was my best option.
As we got up in the early a.m. I tried to talk Kim into just a little more sleep. She told me to get up. As I picked up my camera to make the trek up the to roof I heard a massive explosion, and saw the sky light up. This was the one time I actually got nervous. I didn’t know what had blown up but it was big. Was it a plane, a helicopter or was the town really going to burn down like the police said? I ran to the roof to find Jim shooting. I got set up to go live and Chris went on air. As he Chris reported smoke streamed across the city and ash fell on us.
The police pulled everyone off the roof. No one knew what was burning and if it was chemical or toxic. We decided to keep broadcasting. We felt like it was a risk we could take. Coy gathered us together so he could explain what symptoms we could expect if the fire was chemical or toxic. He said you would experience burning in the eyes, tightness in the chest, and headaches. I told Coy I’ve felt like that for two days. In the end it turned out not to be chemical or toxic, but for a time there it was an uneasy feeing of not knowing if we were being exposed to something that could be very harmful.
At this point we were all tired, we couldn’t move freely on the streets to report and we felt like maybe it was time to go. The military was set to arrive at anytime, CNN had people all around the area waiting to get in, and the police said they would give us an escort out of town. We finished up the morning show and packed up. We left Chris’s brand new boat with the Chief. They were grateful to have it. One officer said that the boat would save lives, and that he considered it a gift from God.
Ben took the wheel of our vehicle, as we got ready to leave. I hoped he would get better luck than we had with the mini-van two days earlier An officer informed us not to stop for anyone and if someone got in front of our truck we should be prepared to run them over. As we made our way to the highway there were more buildings burning and still thousands of people on the streets by the Convention Center and stuck on the sides of the highways. In only minutes, and with just a few miles between us and all New Orleans anarchy faded away as fast as it had came on.
As we drove to Baton Rouge I felt proud of the job our team had done. Kim Segal, Ben Blake, Jim Spellman, Chris Lawrence and Coy Rose were now not just five people that I worked with, but people who had been in the trenches with me and emerged with my deepest respect and my life long friendship. I pondered if I shouldn’t have left, while those people still there was this incredible story to be told. I felt a sense of guilt that I didn’t do more. In my mind the faces of the children, the mothers, and the elderly played over and over. I had covered stories of great human tragedy before, but for some reason this time if affected me. Forty-eight hours on the streets of New Orleans, forty-eight hours I will never forger.