Reuters Photojournalist Recounts Disaster in New Orleans

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By: Jay DeFoore

Reuters photojournalist Rick Wilking has covered nearly every major storm in the U.S. since the late ’80s, but he’s never seen anything quite as bad as Hurricane Katrina.

That’s why Wilking, who left New Orleans Thursday after spending the last week documenting the storm and its aftermath, helped evacuate several people he had come to know during his stay.

Driving in a two-car caravan, Wilking and Getty Images photographer Mark Wilson helped evacuate five people in all, including their pets. The group included two elderly couples and the manager of a bar in the French Quarter which Wilking had used to transmit photos throughout the week. The bar, miraculously, maintained one of the few working phone lines in the city.

? REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A man puts his baby on top of his car as he and a woman look to flee the rising waters.

Wilking, a former Reuters staffer in Europe who became a freelancer after moving to Denver, said one of the men he evacuated was a war veteran with Parkinson’s disease who ?couldn?t move unaided at all.?

Speaking to E&P shortly after arriving at the Denver airport Friday afternoon, Wilking described New Orleans as one of the most horrific scenes he?s witnessed in his two-decade career.

?Anybody and everybody who saw that you had a set of wheels asked you to give them a lift out of town,? Wilking said. ?Floods really limited your mobility. You?re always watching your back and worried about losing your [equipment]. ? [It?s] the kind of stuff I?ve run into in Haiti, where there?s civil unrest, but never while covering a storm.?

At the convention center Thursday, a full milk bottle thrown from a crowd narrowly missed Wilking, who had been photographing dead bodies in the street at the time. Wilking said Eastern New Orleans was ?a whole different world,? where thousands of people were left at the mercy of painstakingly slow boat rescues. Wilking photographed hospital patients with catheters and IVs still attached roaming the streets in wheelchairs.

? REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Texas game wardens force people who used a mail truck to escape the flooded areas of East New Orleans to lie on the highway Aug. 31, 2005. The people were freed but forced to continue on foot.

Half the people he met were embarrassed and didn?t want their picture taken. The other half cried out for someone to tell the story of their plight.

Wilking said he decided to leave New Orleans only after his laptop and two cameras were stolen from his car that was parked near the convention center Thursday. Gary Hershorn, Reuters? North American photo editor, had a different view: ?It?s time to get him out,? Hershorn said Friday. ?He?s been there long enough. ? I don?t want to leave people there longer than a week. It?s just too hard. People are working 24-hour days and not getting any sleep.?

New York-based photojournalist Shannon Stapleton, who arrived in Baton Rouge on Friday, will take Wilking?s spot in the rotation. Reuters also has photojournalist Jason Reed in New Orleans.

Wilking plans to return to the story once he recharges and replaces his stolen equipment. ?This story ain?t going away,? Wilking said. ?It was a storm story before, but now it?s a human tragedy.?

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