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|| News Item: Posted 2005-10-03

Katrina's Aftermath: 'I saw things that I never imagined I would see in the United States.'
By Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Photo by Doug Mills / The New York Times

Photo by Doug Mills / The New York Times

Justin Sullivan covering the aftermath of Katrina.
As a California native, I am not too familiar with hurricanes, but over the past few years I have covered a few. Each time I am amazed at how powerful these storms are. They rip through cities and towns leaving an unimaginable path of destruction, something us Californians are not too accustomed to.

The media really likes to play up these storms as they approach with overdramatic shots of meteorologists in rain slickers yelling into microphones as they battle high winds. Immediately following the initial excitement of wind and rain, images of wrecked homes and downed trees flood the airwaves and adorn the covers of newspapers.

After a few days, the coverage seems to disappear. Since I was on vacation as Hurricane Katrina was forming out at sea, I assumed that by time I got back, the story would be over and it would be unlikely that I would have to cover it. I was dead wrong.

Midway through my vacation, I got a call from my boss wanting to know when I was coming back from my trip. He told me that things had unexpectedly gone terribly wrong in New Orleans and what had started out as typical hurricane had turned into total chaos and devastation.

We were staying in a cabin that had no TV and hadn't seen the paper in a few days so I was unaware of all that was going on. My boss told me that I shouldn't be surprised if I was on a plane to the Gulf Coast when my vacation was over.

When I returned to San Francisco, I spent a day and a half gathering supplies, shipping gas cans and getting immunizations. After being home for two days I was headed south.

I touched down in Jackson, Mississippi nine days after the storm hit. From Jackson, I drove straight into New Orleans, making a quick stop in Baton Rouge to photograph Michael Brown, the now departed FEMA Director, who was being relieved of his duties overseeing the aftermath of Katrina.

New Orleans was a complete ghost town when I arrived. The Big Easy no longer had its party atmosphere or the great food, it was now eerily silent. The only people in town were heavily armed police and military, firefighters and hordes of media. The streets were for the most part vacant and 70 percent of the city and surrounding areas were still under water.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Two dogs runs past a house marked for a dead body September 11, 2005 in the Ninth Ward district of New Orleans, Louisiana. Rescue efforts and clean up continue in the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina fourteen days after the deadly storm hit.
Traffic laws were not being enforced as people were driving anywhere they pleased, up the off ramps, eastbound in the westbound lanes. There were no more lines at the Superdome, no more violence or looting. All the people who were stranded on roofs and freeway overpasses had been rescued. But the words "help us" remained scrawled in spray paint across traffic lanes--a reminder of their desperation. Garbage, chairs, ice chests, clothing, barbecues and abandoned cars were scattered along the highways, evidence that people had been living out in the open, waiting to be saved. It was very surreal.

My first evening in town I toured the devastation with Reuters photographer Brian Snyder. It didn't take long before we spotted the body of a man half wrapped in a hefty bag in the emergency lane of eastbound Interstate 10. The body was lying in plain view for everyone driving down the freeway to see. It took six days before the body was removed from the road.

The first few days out in the streets were unreal. It was difficult to get to many places since the water levels were still high in most areas. If there wasn't water there was the mud, which was thick, slippery and often very deep. The smell was awful, sometimes unbearable. Driving through the flooded areas usually intensified the odor as the tires churned the brackish waters. Just being near the toxic sludge was frightening, especially after hearing stories about people who waded through the water or touched the mud and got chemical burns, infections and in one case, a flesh eating parasite.

Over the two and a half weeks that I spent in New Orleans, I saw things that I never imagined I would see in the United States. In every direction I went, there was destruction and more often than not, death.

A day didn't go by when I didn't see a corpse of a human or animal, half decomposed on the street, hanging on a fence or tied to a tree floating face down in the water. It was hard to see so many dead people out in the open.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Judy Sluigen carries a dog that was found wandering the streets in New Orleans, Louisiana. Volunteers have found thousands of pets ranging from dogs and cats to pigs and goats and have taken them to a temporary shelter near New Orleans.
I can't even fathom having a loved one of mine sit in open sun for over three weeks before someone came out to get them and give them "the dignity and respect that they deserve." It was appalling to me that local and federal officials were so adamant about protecting the dead, but seemed to be doing very little at first to actually go out and remove these bodies from public view.

Humans weren't the only ones that suffered. Dogs were everywhere, most of them starving to death in the streets, some sick from wading through and drinking the toxic water. Others could be heard whimpering as they were trapped inside flooded homes without food or water.

I looked on helplessly as a dog was shot four times by a DEA agent during door-to-door searches of homes. The dog was deemed a threat simply because it was a pit bull. Several dogs were dispatched in similar fashion.

If the death didn't seem overwhelming enough, the physical destruction of homes was endless. I never made it to Mississippi, but I did travel throughout affected areas from Slidell to Shell Beach, Louisiana and just when I had thought I had seen the worst of the worse, I was always blown away by something ten times worse than I had seen the day before. Many homes were just gone, nothing but a concrete slab.

Others looked fine from the outside, but once inside it was like a washing machine spin cycle had occurred with water up the ceiling. It is likely that over half the homes in parishes around New Orleans will have to be bulldozed, especially those that were filled with water for weeks and now have mold growing inside. Some of the mold that I saw was like a two-inch thick shag carpet on the walls.

This assignment was both physically and mentally challenging and it wasn't until I got home that I really began to feel the exhaustion from working 12-14 hour days for nearly three weeks. I felt numb. I looked back at photos I had taken and had forgotten about many of the things I had seen.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A doll head is seen in the dry mud September 11, 2005 in the Ninth Ward district of New Orleans, Louisiana. Rescue efforts and clean up continue in the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina fourteen days after the deadly storm hit.
There was so much to take in and process, it was hard to remember it all. I've spoken with colleagues who also experienced illness and extreme exhaustion when they returned. Some had nightmares, others fell into depression. It was a tough story that really touched a lot of people, including seasoned journalists who have seen a lot over their careers.

It was unbelievable to witness this disaster first hand. I'm not sure I would have believed the scale of it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. I'm glad that I could be there to do my part, albeit a small one, to help those who I came in contact with while trying to do my job.

Whether it was feeding dogs, giving people food, water and gasoline or just taking the time to listen to people and give them a hug as they came home to a shattered life. I was humbled to have met people who have lost everything but who could still smile and welcome you into their lives offering you their last bottle of water or some of their food as they figure out how to move forward.

Thanks to these people, I was able to keep my sanity and believe that in the middle of this mess, things were looking up.

(Justin Sullivan is a staff photographer with Getty Images based in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

Related Links:
Sullivan's member page

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