By Marko Georgiev
I went to shoot a storm, found myself in civil warfare, and ended up in a refugee crisis.
What happened to the storm? I kept asking myself this a few days into the assignment, which was given to me by the national desk at The New York Times, as I stand in front of these hungry and angry mobs full of people pushing and screaming, or see them begging and banging on the windows of my truck, wanting a ride out of town. “I’ll give you three bucks if you take me out of here!” I hear someone screaming as I drive away. “Please, that’s all I have …,” his voice fading behind.
Sincerely, I was trying to help! I was trying to help as much as possible. Since day one, when I ended up at the flooded Ninth Ward, just across the St. Cloud’s bridge. Water was up to the roof tops. Voices screaming “HELP!” and “OVER HERE!” in the distance, and only three flat boats with SWAT members bringing people “ashore.” I got on one boat, thinking, "Boy, this is going to be a great photo op!" Me, on the rescue boat, imagining all the shots that I’ll take.
But it wasn’t like that. I keep snapping until we reach the first survivor, an old man, hanging off the roof of his porch, screaming for help. Snapped a few shots and then helped the SWAT officer Cris Mandry get this man onto the boat. Didn’t ask for his name. The SWAT guys received a tip from some people stranded on the second floor of their house, so we went searching for an old woman, apparently alone in her house. We bang on the roof, officers yell her name, no answer. Grim silence for a second, and we move on to other houses.
People on their roofs, plastic bags with belongings in their hands. Stranded dogs on the roof of a shack, wet and sad looking. We found a man just holding onto the metal window bars. He was just standing there with water up to his chest. The police officers had to peel him off the bars. The man was in shock, no words, no sound, just an empty look in his eyes. We move onto the next house pulling people out from their windows, roofs, water everywhere. I tried to help and when I wasn’t needed I took pictures. Times-Picayune photographer Alex Brandon, who was already on the boat, was helping and photographing at the same time too. When came back to shore I wanted to drop my cameras and continue helping but there were only three boats, and I was the extra seat on the boat so much needed for those people trapped in their homes. I went to my car and filed what I'd shot.
We moved on. It's dark as we crossed back onto the bridge. There were still about 200 rescued people on the other side, but all the other streets were flooded. People were banging on the window of my truck, asking for water, a ride, crying, while others just sat silent. We stopped to talk to people. An officer came over and asked for my spare tire. He told me not to pull over here, but down the road a bit further. So I did. He said he told me that to get me out of the crowd because, “It is not safe to stop.” Later on we heard that these same 200 people, rescued but stranded on this dry median, were rioting - angry at spending the night on the street with no one to bring them to a shelter.
When we got up and started rolling the next morning, Poydras Street seemed kind of flooded. I was just there yesterday! There was no water then! But now the levies had been breeched, and the water was rising. I walked through the water to the Superdome and took a few pictures of people trying to get there, walking in water as I was. In some spots the water was chest deep. We drove to the Garden District where there are some people at a K-Mart pushing shopping carts loaded with stuff! “Let's get some water!” I said to my colleagues, New York Times reporter Joe Treaster and Times-Picayune reporter Gordon Russell (whose house I had spent the night at). We get out from the car and realize that the store was not open, but hundreds of people had stormed inside, looting. I went inside and started shooting, afraid that someone might attack me for being a witness to this event. No one seemed to care. They were busy taking items from the shelves. Clothes, alcohol, computers, televisions; some even carrying food. I saw a uniformed security person carrying some items too. He didn’t even stop to answer my questions. A man riding a bike with a rifle in his hand passed me – it was time to leave.
I went back to St. Cloud bridge where a few hundred people were standing on any dry spot they could find. Apparently they had been there since yesterday or from the moment they got rescued from their flooded homes. They were waiting for the single military truck that was taking people out of there to the Superdome. A few people already started to collapse, and soldiers were trying to pick up the old and sick first.
Next we walked through the murky water to the Superdome again. Word of an evacuation spread around. We arranged to separate and meet one hour later at the same spot for a briefing. One hour later we meet and all at once said to each other – this is the story! The Superdome had turned into Super Doom. Fights, muggings; reports of dead babies, rapes, murders. We are stunned, but we go back again. It is dark, smelly, hot, and crowded. The scenes we encountered are beyond description. A handful of military soldiers tried to deal with angry crowds. It was near-riot situation. We walked out and went to file. Later on the same day they started to evacuate people from that miserable place to what became another miserable place – the Convention Center.
In the next few days it all went down. I tried to stay unbiased and to shoot and cover the story the best way possible. I also tried to help as many people as I could. I met a woman, barefoot, on the street at 6 a.m., needing a ride to her nephew’s house. So I picked her up, realizing that the place she wanted to go to is flooded. I asked a policeman on the street what to do and told me to take her to the Convention Center. What luck. She might have been better off on the street. I snapped a few frames while she was walking away to the Center.
One of my fellow photojournalists asked me to check on his wife and daughter, stuck in a hotel on Canal Street. I didn’t know them but had their names. I got there late and they had already started kicking people out of all the hotels. They had left 15 minutes earlier. Fearing for their safety at that damned Convention Center, I went driving down the street in a scene that looked like pictures of the evacuation of Saigon, yelling their names in vain to every person I saw. No answer, but empty looks from faces who wished that it was their names I was calling out. I felt like shit.
I stopped to shoot an unattended fire raging in a building off Canal Street. Along came a group of three old people pushing some sort of makeshift stroller. One of the old ladies must have been around 90, half lying on the stroller, half dragging her feet, supported by an old man, William P. Davis. She was too weak to speak, urinating on herself. She was about to die. I could see it in her eyes. This lady walked the earth for nearly a century and she was going to die like a stray dog in her own excrement. I begged the cop who was standing there monitoring the fire to take her somewhere safe. After much pleading he finally got a car and took her to Jefferson Parish hospital.
We drove by the Convention Center where there were no cops, no military, and no promised evacuation buses. Only thousands of people. Hungry, tired people. Looting cars, rioting, running from one place to another. No place for my big truck to be with enough gas for a 100 mile trip. Not if we wanted to stay and tell the world what is happening down here.
On the way back to Gordon’s house we saw cop cars and officers with raised guns and a body that was covered in blood. I raised my camera, shot a few frames, and the next thing I knew I found myself thrown down and slammed onto the car, hands up in the air and a gun pointed in the back of my head. Camera ripped off my hand, while the car is franticly searched for weapons. They let us go and I realized too late that one of my CF cards is missing.
Later that day I went back to the Center, trying to shoot more bodies. I found one in the storage area by the kitchen. A small group of refugees and I were trying to find a body of a dead baby stomped to death, and a teenage girl raped and throat slashed, apparently stashed in one of the kitchen fridges. We searched fridge by fridge. We hear voices of some thugs screaming and threatening us, coming our way. It was time to go.
The days went by, the same images everyday. One big blur of desperate faces. I kept pinching myself to make sure that I was actually in America and not in Darfur, Mogadishu, or Kosovo. I kept shooting and trying to help. When the last person from the Center got evacuated, I left too. I left for my dry and air conditioned apartment while other colleagues and reporters are still there. We came to take our trophies and left. They have to stay. No place to go. This story will become their lives. Or is it the other way around?
Marko Georgiev is a freelance photojournalist from New Jersey who frequently shoots for The New York Times.