Katrina: a TV cameraman's diary, part two.

Part two of a diary written by a friend who's a television news cameraman working in New Orleans.

New Orleans – September 9th

I've been here in New Orleans a week and on a daily basis I'm witnessing the staggering expanse of Katrina's destruction. I've driven over a thousand miles around the city and the individual tragedies stretch from block to block. Whether traveling by air boat (remember the tv show "Flipper"?) or Humvee or by foot, every single street contains the remnants of someone's life. Endless debris fields – entire life savings. The wreckage crosses all economic lines.

A particularly tragic moment was walking through personal items left behind at the Louisiana Superdome. Most of the people who were evacuated there are dirt poor. They live on the street or in shacks or tenements in this city that has more than it's share of poverty. Their lives could easily be stored in a shopping cart or suitcase. As the Bush administration was shamed into action, this sad cargo was loaded onto buses – but told to leave behind anything that couldn't fit on their laps. They were not even allowed to take their pets, which is one of the many reasons people have stayed behind in their homes. Cats and particularly dogs were roaming through the empty parking lot of the Superdome looking for their owners. National Guardsmen took some as pets and mascots on their "deuce and a half" cargo trucks.

There are still thousands of residents who remain in their homes. Some are doing ok, they have water and food, and are willing to do what it takes to stick it out. It seems as though they will eventually have to leave. The cops and army troops are now well deployed and some are handing out water and small amounts of food, mostly MRE's. They don't want anyone to become too comfortable, and it seems as though they will soon start to remove people.

I witnessed an emotional scene yesterday as a Louisiana state senator traveled through his district talking to firemen and cops. He spoke to some of his constituents as they alighted from boats that had just plucked them from their flooded homes in St. Bernard Parish. As the senator was introducing himself to a woman holding a small dog, the tension was immediate. "Why do we have to leave? This is all we have. I don't want to go, this is my home. My sister is dead, and now you want to send me somewhere but you don't know where, why are you doing this to me?" The desperation and fear is so personal, I feel unworthy even witnessing such deep heartfelt pain. But it is everywhere and it is the same scene over and over – and there is nothing that anyone can say or do that will make it any better. Everyone here is suffering the loss of a relative or friend or home or a job. And it goes on for miles and miles and miles.

What is striking is the incredible toll Katrina has taken emotionally. We often tend to focus on the dollar amount, the material costs and time. It's as though all of the emotion and suffering is compounded by the shear enormity of the disaster. It's hard to put into words just how much pain is concentrated in this region. So many people have lost their homes, their possessions, and loved ones.

I keep returning to the scene last Thursday at an overpass on I-10 in Metarie, just outside New Orleans. Every minute or so, a helicopter would land with flood survivors stunned and confused, many in tears having been plucked from their roof after days without food or water. Some were angry, not knowing where their loved ones were, or whether they were even alive. Many would just suffer in silence sitting under the hot sun. If you were lucky – you had an umbrella or a piece of cardboard for shade. These are poor people and for some of them this disaster is another chapter in a life of poverty that they have come to accept….quietly.

For others, suffering quietly was not their choice, and they were drawn to me as if carrying a tv camera meant that I had the answers. Where are we going? What are we going to do? Where is my baby? Why are the cops aiming their guns at us? So much emotion packed into such a small area, it was as if the world was literally coming to an end in one spot. You can't imagine what it was like to see so much tragedy unfold in one small place. By 3pm there were close to 3,000 people, the lucky ones seeking shelter in the shade under an overpass. Elderly people, newborn babies, diabetics, amputees, heatstroke victims, and no more than 8 or 10 paramedics overwhelmed by hundreds victims, some of whom looked as though they were dying. It's an eerie feeling driving or boating through the empty city knowing that these are the souls that once inhabited these empty homes and streets. And so many that didn't make it out are left behind – some of them rotting on the sidewalk even today.

The lack of a plan is still the big story. Who is in charge? What is going to be done first? What are the goals? Evacuation? No evacuation? The New Orleans Police Department is trying to rebuild itself, and the National Guard seems to be the most organized. But there are way too many cops from as far away as Reno driving around with shotguns and M-16's.

This is like a giant summer camp for law enforcement. There are hundreds of black and whites, armored cars, assault vehicles, and lawmen carrying every type of firearm ever made. It's as though every police chief in the country put 20 officers in 5 cars and sent them to New Orleans – on overtime.

Of course, many are helping, but some have no orders or task to complete. So they drive around all day taking pictures, and then they go and sleep in their cars with the engine running and the air conditioning on. They are sightseers with guns taking "happy snaps" to show to all the folks at home. Complete with long tales of how they saved New Orleans.


A cameraman's journal in NOLA

Image: New Orleans, shot September 11 by Joel Johnson.