By: Daryl Lang
(PDN) The Tuesday after the hurricane, photographer Alex Brandon put a life vest around his neck, clenched a Ziploc bag containing a CompactFlash card in his teeth, and swam through the flood to deliver his images to The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune building.
On his swim, he passed fellow Times-Picayune shooter Ted Jackson, who was paddling a rowboat with a broken broom.
“We kind of shook hands and said, ‘Be safe,’ and took off,” recalls Jackson.
It was just one of countless bizarre moments in the early hours of the flooding of New Orleans. For the staff of The Times-Picayune, Hurricane Katrina was more than just a huge story, it was a test of survival that turned their city upside down.
In the three weeks since the storm, they have continued to produce a newspaper even as they cope with personal disruptions to their own lives. All but three of the paper’s 18 staff photographers continue to work, says photo editor Doug Parker.
“People are working, working, working, and trying to figure out how to get their lives back together,” Parker says.
The Times-Picayune — which is now operating out of a technology center in Baton Rouge — has relied on hard work and the kindness of others to keep publishing. The paper has come out every day, though three editions in the immediate aftermath of the storm were published only on its web site.
Until it can move back to its New Orleans headquarters, The Times-Picayune is being printed on the presses of The Mobile Register in Alabama, which is also part of the Newhouse chain owned by Advance Publications.
The paper’s information technology staff threw together a makeshift newsroom in Baton Rouge in about five hours on Aug. 30, the day the paper abandoned its building and the staff fled town in the backs of newspaper delivery trucks.
The newspaper company is paying its staff through October whether they work or not, Parker says. They’ve handed out money to cover clothes and other expenses, offered counseling and made a medical clinic available for staffers to get vaccinated against diseases that might be carried in the polluted floodwaters.
Boxes of donated goods have arrived for the Times-Picayune staff. A Nikon tech team came out to help clean and repair damaged photo equipment.
What no one has an answer for is how long it will be before things are back to normal — or whether maybe this is normal now.
In phone interviews, some photographers and staff sound subdued and melancholic when they talk about the hurricane. Others sound energized, almost breathless as they tell their stories.
Parker is among the reflective. He and his wife, photographer Kathy Anderson, stayed in Louisiana to cover the story while their daughters, ages 8 and 10, went to live with Anderson’s sister in Wisconsin where they can attend school.
Parker says he felt helpless in the newsroom in Baton Rouge in the first days of the storm, and wishes he could have done more to help his photographers in New Orleans. For a while, he was only able to communicate with his staff through cell phone text messages.
Parker recently cooked dinner for a Baton Rouge Advocate photographer who is letting him stay at his home.
“I was starting to get really kind of depressed, and I started cooking and I felt better,” he says.
He adds, “There’s still a hundred things I could tell you that I can’t think about right now.”
Photographer Brandon, the one who swam to the newspaper office, speaks quickly and with awe about all that has happened in the past three weeks.
“I always wanted to do combat photography, I just didn’t want to do it in my own town,” he says.
Brandon has worked at The Times-Picayune for 12 years except for a 6-month period he took off. His wife, Susan Roesgen, is a New Orleans television anchor who had to relocate to Baton Rouge, where she has been sleeping on the floor of a TV station. Their dog, Pixel, was evacuated safely in the care of a friend.
Brandon, meanwhile, has been in New Orleans almost every day since the storm. He’s seen a police SWAT team shoot a man, he’s been with the police as they rescued people from rooftops, and he’s even helped save some people himself.
At one point in an interview, he hands his cell phone to Melissa Phillip, a photographer from the Houston Chronicle who is on her second tour of duty in New Orleans. They are both waiting for a press conference with the mayor to start, and Phillip sounds caught up in the moment.
“This guy’s my hero, man,” she says, referring to Brandon, and then tells a story of how he set down his cameras to help police make a dramatic roof rescue in which a woman was carried to safety on an ironing board.
“I’m going to keep going as long as the paper needs me to keep going,” Brandon says. “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
Jackson, a 21-year veteran of The Times-Picayune, speaks with a quiet reverence about the storm. He has returned to his home in Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
“My home was fine. I feel extremely guilty about that,” he says.
Like others on the newspaper staff, Jackson spent the night after the hurricane sleeping on the floor of The Times-Picayune library. Another photographer woke him with the news that the levees had broken. No further explanation was necessary — everyone knew this meant New Orleans would fill with water.
Jackson spent the first hours of the flood in the rowboat with the broken broom, not wanting to evacuate the city in the back of a newspaper truck with the other employees. He’s still not sure where the boat came from, or why exactly he decided to get in it.
“Frankly, my words were, ‘God has sent me a boat, I have to take it,'” he says. With his camera equipment and some supplies, he paddled for four hours to dry land. A short time later, he met an Army helicopter pilot and asked for a ride, and soon was up shooting aerials. One ran on the next day’s front page.
It took Jackson a day before he was able to contact his wife, and two days before he was able to reach one of his sons, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot. He was only able to reach his other son in Chicago by using a cell phone to post a comment on his son’s blog.
A friend who had evacuated to Philadelphia offered Jackson and several other photographers the use of his home, which hadn’t been flooded. The only problem was, they had to break in through a window.
When a neighbor saw what was happening, he ran out and confronted the photographers with a shotgun.
“Luckily, he listened to my story before he pulled the trigger,” Jackson says.
For a time, every day in New Orleans felt like a week, he says. “You realize how many things you’d seen in one day. … You felt like after three or four days you just had to get out and just find some kinds of normalcy.”
But over time, the chaos feels less stressful, and life is becoming more predictable, he says.
“The more it goes on — my wife and I talked about this last night — the more it’s starting to feel like this is your life and this is what you do,” he says.
Jackson also says photographers have a purpose in the storm, beyond just making good pictures or building their reputations.
“Everyone has something they can give to this effort,” he says. “We as photographers, that’s what we do. We shoot pictures of the tragedy and try to do it in a way that’s going to help people, to show the world what’s going on here.”
One bright moment came when an edition of the Times-Picayune was finally delivered to their home, the first to arrive after the hurricane. “My wife almost cried,” Jackson says.