By Amy Wold
Two days after Hurricane Katrina, my editor called me over to his desk and pointed to a place on the map below New Orleans. He said, "Try to get somewhere in this area."
At the time there were four adults, two dogs and two children (some of whom were New Orleans evacuees) staying in my onebedroom home so getting "somewhere in this area" sounded like a really good idea.
A photographer and I bought food, found gasoline and were ready by that afternoon having no idea what we'd find or how far we'd get before dark. We got turned around by police officers on the main road, but a back way wasn't blocked. We made it to the Plaquemines Parish line by 6 p.m. where law enforcement had shut down the road to traffic.
A quick call to the sheriff and the deputies had someone escort us in.
It was all so easy.
To say we were surprised at what we found – well that's an understatement.
The Plaquemines Parish emergency operation center had generators providing air conditioning and lights, the bathrooms worked and a kitchen over at the high school was providing hot meals three times a day. Although some shelters, even in Baton Rouge, were operating without power or air conditioning, we walked into the Plaquemines Parish shelter to cool air and the sounds of people watching the latest new broadcasts.
Parish officials were running out of gasoline, had "liberated" a lot of food from local grocery stores and were trying to get news about what was happening in other areas. Otherwise, they seemed to be self-sufficient right down to some innovations with duct tape, cardboard and string they used to secure a leaking fuel tank.
We'd driven down trying to prepare ourselves to rough it, to sleep in a mosquito-infested, hot swamp while trying to connect with rescuers pulling people out of the flooded towns south of us.
Instead, we slept on a cot, in an air-conditioned room and found out the next morning that most of the people in the flooded areas weren't all that interested in leaving. In fact, one man brought back to the dry land confided that he planned to just grab a sandwich and walk back down the many miles to his boat. As far as we know, that's just what he did.
Fishing boats in south Louisiana are outfitted for long stays in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the boats in the destroyed marina at Empire were still floating and stocked with beer, food, water and had generators that would keep everything cold for a month.
Sometimes people weren't all that happy to be leaving and weren't planning on staying in a shelter long.
Three days after Hurricane Katrina, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff deputies brought in a group of people who rode out the storm on their boats and were still in the flooded areas of the parish. One of those people was a slight, older man with graying stubble who showed up the next day to pilot a tug boat in the hard hit area of Empire.
When we mentioned that "isn't that the guy you guys rescued yesterday," the sheriff's deputy said, "Yeah, he may not have three teeth in his head, but he's a good boat captain."
That's the kind of place Plaquemines Parish is.
This long narrow parish that follows the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico did what it could to keep going in the week following the hurricane. Most of the parish was flooded as the storm surge pushed water over the levees – in those areas that even had levees – and remained that way for weeks. Yet the people in the parish worked out solutions, "liberated" food and sup- plies when necessary and were already cleaning streets of debris before the first FEMA or Red Cross truck was seen.
Try to explain that to an editor who has spent three days watching the human suffering in New Orleans that … well…. things were bad but no one was still clinging to roofs.
I lucked out and had an editor who trusted his reporters and still saw that this was a story worth covering so we stayed for three days.
The most harrowing adventure was when the sheriff instructed a young man to take myself and the photographer down the flooded parish. It was a very large airboat and a very new driver. More than a couple times, he decided to hop a levee or road and almost sent both of his passengers sailing.
The next day the captain was a little more experienced as we rode down to a town called Empire.
I've never seen anything like it. The historic church still stood – although it had been pushed off its foundation and moved about 30 feet. But the rest of the town was gone. Houses were matchsticks, the concrete post office was rubble and in the background was the high pitched whistling of a broken gas line.
In all this, the place wasn't deserted. Several fishermen who either rode out the storm on their boat or returned to retrieve it from the marina struggled to untangle themselves from trucks, cars, boats and other material that found its way into the water.
Two days later I went to New Orleans and the story wasn't all that different. The drama of the Superdome had passed and those left in the city were the ones who loved it too much to leave, or just hadn't gotten the chance yet.
There were reminders of what had gone on in the area everywhere. Tons of trash, chairs, blankets, half-eaten MREs and empty water bottles were everywhere. And shoes. There were shoes all over the place. I never figured out why.
New Orleans was strange in other ways. The sight of law enforcement and military carrying guns, being stopped and having the car searched for signs of looting were all nerve-wracking experiences just a week before. Now, they were just routine.
A week later, a photographer and I went back to Plaquemines Parish to see how they were faring. Residents of the most northern city in the parish were being allowed back to their homes to see what was left. Some found good news – some shingles gone, debris in the yard. Others found their house completely destroyed.
Farther south, houses were just gone. Not simply destroyed, but moved a quarter of a mile down the road.
No matter how many pictures people see or how many times people hear officials say "there's nothing left of X town," it's not until someone walks up their driveway that it really hits them. What they had is gone.
Seeing that moment is something you can't get used to.
Amy Wold reports for The Advocate in Baton Rouge.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue