Two Years Since Katrina

It’s been two years since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast flattening parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and causing the Levees around New Orleans to break completely obliterating the city. And despite what you’ll see on Yahoo! News with all the propaganda about how rad New Orleans is doing these days, the city is not rebuilt. The residents have not returned. And the combined forces of Hurricane Katrina, and the much under reported, and under exaggerated Hurricane Rita, wreaked a havoc on the Gulf Coast that remains today as if the flood waters just subsided. My home state of Louisiana is a mess, and the people of the Gulf Coast who lost their homes, their cities, and their families still need all of our help.

When Katrina blew in from the gulf I was glued to an iMac at Current TV cutting raw feeds for Google Current and pretty much freaking out about what I was watching unfold over the Reuters and Associated Press wires. I was so worried about my friends and family in the area that it was almost impossible for me to be a very productive employee. I felt like I was in the Clockwork Orange being conditioned to hate violence and I did hate the violence brought by the storm and the complete neglect of the federal government. Four days before the administration could scramble itself to help people on the ground there were Cajuns in boats on their way from Lafayette and Lake Charles to rescue people in the water. And that made me proud of my home state and my heritage and of all those fishing trips I took with my Dad and Grandpa in boats just like those when I was a kid.

I couldn’t deal with watching the feeds anymore so I told my boss that I was going back to Louisiana to help in any way that I could. He talked me into taking a camera for Current TV and shooting stories on the ground. I had never shot documentary style television before… Laura Ling who runs the Vanguard Journalism department at Current TV was kind enough to give me an eleventh hour tutorial on how to shoot pods the night that I left for a flight that she financed out of her production budget. So Current TV paid for me to fly back home with the hope that I would come back with something, although I don’t think they believed I would. For my own self I figured that putting another camera on what was going on down there was probably the most meaningful way I could help, especially since I had access to a national cable network.

I never got to New Orleans I spent most of my time at an evacuee camp in Sam Houston State Park just north of my hometown of Lake Charles. There where a few hundred people who had fled Orleans and St Bernard Parishes and they were camped on the banks of a bayou with their backs to a mosquito infested swamp. My friend Dan Robertson, who is now a producer for KPLC NBC in Lake Charles, spent several days there talking to the evacuees… And I was truly inspired. I expected to find a group of people devastated and in shock… and they were, they were, but they were hopeful, caring, and thankful to be alive. Their stories were heartbreaking, and everyday when we left the camp, Dan and I would drive back to Lake Charles in silence unable to fully grasp the magnitude of what was going on. The truly inspiring thing about the Sam Houston Camp was the local community in the Moss Bluff area who had come to the aid of the people in the park. There was no Red Cross and no FEMA. There was no large body helping the people at all. But when the locals found out people were camped at Sam Houston they were on it. Cajuns, Bikers, Church Groups, poor people, wonderful people from miles around mobilized everything they could and came to the aid of those in need. It was truly beautiful. There was live bands, huge cookouts everyday, the smell of gumbo and bbq was so thick that when we walked into the camp our mouths watered. There was a huge blow up bouncing castles for the kids and a large tent set up with electricity to power a television and Playstation… and there was more food and supplies than anybody there could use. The scene made me hopeful for the future of our civilization.

There was an elderly couple that Dan and I befriended that had lost everything in Chalmette. We spent most of our time with them recording their story and I am truly sorry that it never went to air. It was the first news doc I had ever attempted to shoot and I was learning how to do it while we were shooting. But I have the footage and actually plan to finish it soon. Current didn’t finish it because I came back with another piece and for some reason they weren’t willing to use both. I think that they didn’t expect me to come back with anything so they hadn’t allotted any edit time for me. When I came back with two, they scrambled and made a window for one, they chose the other.

This is that story:

My Mom is in the pod and for all intents and purposes this was her pod. She’s a vegetarian and very much into animal rights. She belongs to a group in Lake Charles called La Paw and they rescue animals. People weren’t the only creatures displaced by the storm and there was an incredible amount of Katrina pets in Lake Charles. My mom was even fostering a bouncy little puppy. But she wanted to go to the heart of it all to see if she could help. So we drove two hours east of Lake Charles, but west of New Orleans, to Gonzales, Louisiana and the Lamar Dixon Expo Center which was the cross roads for all the animals coming out of the neighborhoods and the water. The hope was that they could remain there and be reunited with their owners but there were simply too many. The Expo Center was bursting with thousands of dogs, cats, and livestock. There were rescued animals being bused in, brought in on trailers, and even flown in on helicopters. Most of them were dogs. For reasons that I can’t explain, the scene in Gonzales hit me much harder than the camp in Sam Houston. The people in the camp were hopeful and ready to get their lives started again… But the animals were scared, helpless, and headed for very uncertain futures as many of them waited to be trucked towards destinations unknown where they had little to no hope of ever being reunited with the families who took care of them, and in all likelihood would probably be euthanized after miraculously surviving the storm that killed so many and destroyed so much. Thankfully there were organizations helping people reunite with their pets and helping pets find new homes all across the country, but the scene there on the ground was overwhelming. I often refer to it as dog hell. And the one thought that I can’t ever get out of my head after seeing what I saw that day is… where were all those people who belonged to those animals? Like thousands of people from all over the country that had descended on Gonzales, my mom volunteered her time that day and helped walk dogs.

I couldn’t find many people willing to talk on camera, because they were so busy saving animals, so I turned the camera on myself and narrated the scene. I came back to San Francisco, turned in my tapes, and a week later Pet Rescue was on the air and Sam Houston Katrina Camp went into the tape Library. I will never forget my experiences during those two weeks.

I returned to New Orleans over the Christmas holidays with my friends Ben Moore and Dave Mitchael. We went there to see what was left of our cultural capital, our New Orleans. Very few people were back in the city at that time and it was still totally devastated. Here is where the story takes an unexpected twist, and one would really have to understand the character of Ben Moore, his genius, and his ability to see things that others can not, and make light of horrible
situations… but when Ben was on his way back to Baton Rouge from San Francisco for the holidays he took a detour through Mississippi and drove through New Orleans with some friends. Instead of being horrified by what he saw he choose to look at in a way that only Ben could and he saw skate spots, D.I.Y. build your obstacle out of junk, skate spots. He decided right then that he would shoot a photo essay about New Orleans skateboarders after Katrina. He wanted me to come with him and write and article about it so that he could pitch it to Thrasher Magazine. Instead of that I decided to check out a Sony Z1 from Current and film the whole experience. However, I only committed one day to the project and on that day we had no guide from the New Orleans skate scene so we bumbled around until we found ourselves in Lakeview and then in the 9th Ward, and the St. Bernard Parish, wreckage, debris, mind numbing devastation. We were shocked to see the holes in peoples roofs where they had to hack their way out or drown, the waterlines near the tops of the few homes still standing, the piles of rubble. We found no skate spots only complete disbelief at the magnitude of the destruction. My heart sank thinking of all the people who belonged to those places and I wondered where they were. I did shoot this silly video of Dave and Ben trying hard to make the best of a bad situation:

That boat was one of several boats beached in the casino parking lot… the only skatable one. But that’s the only thing tangible that I took out of that experience. There was nothing inspiring about that trip to the Big Easy, nothing at all. Only questions in my heart about why months after Katrina, New Orleans still lay in ruins and why from the I-10 I could see parking lots full of FEMA trailers that had nobody living in them.

Ben however shot a series of amazing photos that later (June 2006) supplemented an article in Thrasher about skaters in New Orleans post Katrina.

Long before Thrasher published that story I returned to New Orleans in March to shoot the story I missed, about how street skating had adapted to the destruction of Katrina. I returned with my friends the VC Mafia: Keith Gluck and Angelo Hjelm. With the help of the amazing Todd Taylor who is a New Orleans institution in and of him self, and also with the help of Justin Vial, and Eric from Humidity Skate shop, we produced Skating the Aftermath, the pod that cemented my desire to shoot documentaries:

To reiterate and give credit where credit is due, Ben Moore was responsible for this pod. It was his idea. He inspired me, and later Thrasher Magazine to cover the aftermath, I’m just psyched that Thrasher used his photos.

By the time I went to New Orleans to shoot Aftermath, I thought that I would be use to seeing the shocking destruction, but I wasn’t. I was still shocked and mournful to see such destruction overwhelming the city. However, unlike my trip over Christmas, in March I did find inspiration. We tracked down and shot a story with a large group of college students who had decided to spend their spring break gutting houses. We spent a full day with them on the job and at their camp near Chalmette. The reason that pod was never aired is because when I came back from Louisiana in March Current was only interested in my pods if I cut them myself, but not while I was on the clock. So I spent a weekend cutting Skating the Aftermath, then showed it to Laura Ling who was very excited about it and once again helped me by putting her weight behind it to get it to air. I will be forever thankful to her for that. But nobody was willing to help me out with the rebuilding pod because the company wasn’t that interested in Katrina stories at that point. If I had those tapes, I’d cut that story too. Overall, in March the city was bad, but people were returning and we spent many fun nights in the Quarter and the Marigny drinking with friends who were back in the city and just enjoying the carefree life that endeared New Orleans to the world. …I must confess that I felt a little guilty enjoying myself knowing that so many people’s lives were shattered… But I guess in the words of D-Mitch, we were just trying to bring a little life back into the city… somebody had to.

Two years later many parts of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast are still in ruins. And we as a nation are not paying attention. New Orleans is not better. It is not fine. We all have a responsibility to our fellow Americans who lost everything there. We must rebuild the city with all of its neighborhoods intact. And we must build the levees strong like a fortress not just to pre-Katrina levels, cause uh, that didn’t work too well last time, did it fellas? We must rebuild what was lost. We cannot let this happen again.

One Response to “Two Years Since Katrina”

  1. conor says:

    great post, and a weird trip down memory lane. i guess i forgot that there was a time when you WEREN’T a pro shooter/storyteller, and instead were logo-boxing it up all day long. If only poor New Orleans had come as far as you have in the couple of years.

    Anyway, good luck to both of you on the trip. I’ll be looking forward to the updates.

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