By: Nekoro Gomes
The stark and harrowing images of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita captured by The Dallas Morning News’ award-winning photojournalists have now been collected in a book of photography and essays called “Eyes of the Storm” (Taylor Trade Publishing). The book chronicles the reflections of more than 20 Dallas Morning News photojournalists and reporters who worked around the clock to tell the stories of thousands of ordinary people forced to deal with the catastrophe.
Dallas Morning News senior staff photographer Irwin Thompson, who has several photos from Hurricane Katrina published in the book, said what is now recognized as one of the worst natural disasters in American history at first seemed just like a typical storm story, if more severe than most.
“Normally you go in, you cover a hurricane for three days, getting people reacting to the damage, and then you move on,” he said. But in New Orleans, Thompson said the coverage was far more surreal. “[I was] floating in a boat and I can vividly recall rowing on top of houses,” Thompson said. “I’m on a boat and I’m lifting up power lines.”
For Thompson, a Louisiana native who had worked as a staff photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune before joining the Dallas Morning News in 1990, preparing to cover a hurricane usually means bringing extra water, mosquito repellent, and a pillow to sleep on. In this case, he spent his first days on the scene in Louisiana with the Kenner, La., police department and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fishery.
After meeting fellow Dallas Morning staffers Michael Ainsworth and Lee Hancock on Interstate 10 in New Orleans, Thompson captured many images that focused not on the big picture, but Katrina?s human toll: ordinary people forced to make do with just a few necessary goods.
“Just roaming around, it was overwhelming at times,” Thompson said. “My pictures can’t even tell it. The camera can show you a lot … but when you go to someone’s house, you see for yourself that they have nothing left. All of their personal belongings have been erased.”
Thompson took many pictures of hurricane survivors wading through flooded intersections, being evacuated from rooftops, and standing uneasily on line for ready-made meals. Thompson’s favorite picture, however, is the simple but poignant image of the feet of 21-year old Jeremiah Ward, who made makeshift sandals out of rubber bands and empty cigar boxes: “That picture just spoke volumes on the situation of the evacuees and what they did to improvise.”
Thompson says that many of the residents stranded at the Superdome in the days after the hurricane hit thanked the few reporters and photographers they encountered. And Thompson, whose previous experience covering hurricanes led him to bring extra water, food, and gas, often found himself distributing ice and water to the people in his pictures.
Soon after, when Hurricane Rita made landfall in Thompson’s birthplace of Lake Charles, La., Thompson found himself performing the same informal relief efforts for family members.
Many of the logistical problems that came with trying to cover a hurricane were compounded for photojournalists in the field, Thompson says: the difficulty of taking pictures during 100 mph winds; driving for miles to get a reliable satellite signal to communicate with the photo desk, and turning a fire station into an impromptu editing room were only some of the issues he navigated.
And while photographers in the field were forced to improvise on the fly, the newspaper’s photo editors worked frantically at the photo desk in Dallas to get pictures of the hurricane’s damage to print. For Thompson, however, coming back to Dallas to edit the photos he had taken in New Orleans posed another problem: having to face images of human suffering and death captured on film.
“I shot a floater [a drowned corpse],” he recalled. “I saw it. I knew I had to shoot it. I closed my eyes. I shot it. But I forgot I had to edit it. So I’m in the editor?s room at the Dallas Morning News and you can’t help but think: ‘Is this someone?s son, or someone?s father?'”
Thompson, however, believes the photographic stories of those people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that didn’t make it to print and were collected in “Eyes of the Storm” are important not just for Dallas Morning News readers, but for evacuees as well who still face an uncertain future.
“We put a collection of pictures together that in 15, 20 years are going to serve as a good history book,” he said.