There are certain assignments in a photojournalist’s life that leave lasting memories. Hurricane Katrina was one of those assignments. It was two days into the devastation of one of America’s great cities when I was asked by People to jump on a flight and head to New Orleans. The magazine was putting ten writer/photographer teams together to help chronicle the worst natural disaster to strike the United States.
All Photographs © Todd Bigelow/2005. For Licensing, Click on The Image or Email legal[at]toddbigelowphotography[dot]com
When working in rapidly changing environments for a national magazine, assignment specifics fly in only to be altered within hours. That’s normal as stories of heroism and tragedy begin to surface. And Hurricane Katrina had countless stories of tragedy and heroism as New Orleans was inundated by floodwaters and the entire population ordered to evacuate. Landing in Shreveport, the reporter and I made our way to evacuation shelters to begin working, but were soon rerouted to find a doctor in Mississippi who was apparently treating evacuees in a Jackson hotel after his own home was destroyed. Off we went.
Shortly thereafter, we were rerouted and told to try to make it into New Orleans, which by now was nearly sealed off by National Guard and other law enforcement. Our new assignment was to find a family that was waiting to be rescued from the flood waters and accompany them as they were evacuated from the city. Wherever they went, we were to go as well. We managed to talk our way through roadblocks and onto a rescue boat. The boat weaved through endless debris, dead bodies and street signs as firefighters searched for anyone remaining in the submerged city. Once back on land, we headed to the airport where helicopters were landing and trucks unloaded evacuees. Luggage carts were put into action and filled with human cargo destined for the terminal. I saw a woman clutching a Martin Luther King, Jr fan and began making photos of her and her family. Her name was Julia Chaney and she’d lost nearly everything but that fan and a few photos. She had such a peace about her, that presence that reassures us in unspoken words that all will eventually be okay.
Once inside the airport, the Chaney family agreed to let us accompany them on their journey to a unknown city. With only the clothes on their back and a few possessions, we boarded a flight. No one had a clue where the plane was heading. Once the doors were sealed, the flight crew had some reassuring words before announcing that everyone was heading to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I had my camera bag, my computer and the clothes I was wearing. Everything else remained behind in a rental car at the airport.
The final destination in the middle of the night was a thoroughbred facility in tony Palm Beach, about as far from reality as one could imagine having left a city of death and destruction only hours before. The upscale racehorse complex had been converted to a shelter for the evacuees. After a short few hours of sleep, I began sending images to New York showing the Chaney family’s evacuation from New Orleans, but by then the story had changed.
The new focus was to be on how Katrina had affected kids. I went out and began photographing the children who were quickly filling the upscale shelter in an attempt to capture their emotions.
By now it was the end of the week and People was putting together their Katrina issue for the newsstands. I transmitted my photos, went to a nearby Target to buy a shirt, shorts and essentials and had one last night in Palm Beach before flying back to Los Angeles. A few days later, Time magazine asked that I photograph the evacuees at a Los Angeles shelter that had also filled with evacuees, the same sad and shocked faces that I had just left the day before, just in a different city.