Every day we think about Hurricane Katrina. We think about the waterlines as we drive through our neighborhood. We look at the house down the street that still isn’t finished. We remember what we were doing during Katrina when we drive by a house where we’d photographed people swimming out of it or we’d taken a picture of a dead body in the front yard. All that just on the way to the office, every day.
I’ve been here from the beginning, when I rode on one of the first two boats launched in the Lower Ninth Ward on Katrina Monday — New Orleans slang for Monday, August 29, 2005. The memory of that day burns as fresh in my mind as the smell of a gutted house. And if you haven’t gutted a house for a friend, consider it a chance missed to really get down and dirty and get Katrina under your fingernails.
For me, Katrina is personal. I saw people I know stranded at the Morial Convention Center. I pulled people out of the water and into boats. And I saw a person shot on the interstate by cops who were trying to get their city back.
One of the challenges I confront in making visual the story of post-Katrina New Orleans is in figuring out how I can force those who don’t live here to realize that this city and the Gulf Coast are at the beginning of a very long recovery process. Unlike the early days of Katrina when powerful images were everywhere, now it is harder to make a photo that has enough impact to draw an editor’s attention. I have to dig deeper into the human condition to show how people’s lives are still in turmoil — that putting their lives back together involves more than new sheetrock in their homes.
I have done parachute journalism into disaster zones, but somehow the pictures I take matter more when the place I am working is home. What I’ve experienced here gives me a deeper understanding of how Iraqi journalists feel each day they head out to tell a story that to them is much more than a daily assignment. I ask myself whether it is important for me to leave my feelings at the door along with my smelly Katrina boots. It might be a good thing to do, but I can’t. Instead, I use my emotions — such as the joy I feel when I see small signs of recovery and the anger that boils up inside of me by the slowness of it all — to motivate me to do justice to the story of those who are engaged in the struggle of a lifetime.
The region’s struggles are as varied as the heights of the rebuilt homes. Some of those are being rebuilt on stilts, while others are the way they were — a slab on the grade of the land. Now about those levees — are they ready? As I write this, we are just about to enter the heart of hurricane season, and prayer abounds down here in the hope that they won’t be tested. If they’re not ready, I just don’t want to know.
Alex Brandon is an Associated Press photographer who has worked in and around New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.