(A gracious interview. Casey, Emeril and me)
Having lived on the Gulf Coast for four years before moving to Portland, I was used to covering hurricanes and the damage left behind. I had spent countless weekends in New Orleans, eating beignets at Cafe du Monde and shopping on Magazine Street in the French Quarter. In a time when so many cities are becoming homogenous, New Orleans is inimitable.
So when Northwest Medical Teams invited me to go to New Orleans with them last December, I was thrilled when my news director gave me the green light.
But I wasn't prepared for the destruction we found.
Photographer Casey Nolen went with me. He also lived on the Gulf Coast and was familiar with New Orleans.
Our first day--a travel day--we flew across country and scored an interview with Mayor Ray Nagin and Emeril Lagasse before the sun set on Jackson Square.
(These are the volunteers from Northwest Medical Teams in front of a barge that destroyed a home)
The next day we began shooting our story with Northwest Medical Teams.
The volunteers were there to strip houses. One group included a family who wanted to spend their Christmas vacation giving back. The wife is a CEO, the husband a doctor. Like all of the volunteers, they stayed in the gymnasium of a local church, sleeping on bunk beds.
The volunteers began working on house owned by a New Orleans police officer. He had been working long days and didn't have the time to do the work himself.
Everything the water touched was contaminated. It all had to be thrown away.
About half way through the day, the officer came home. He had tears in his eyes when he talked about how these strangers from so far away took time to help him.
Northwest Medical Teams also helped victims by providing medicine. They helped distribute over the counter items like asprin and band-aids at a tent city in Metarie, a community just outside of New Orleans. It was in that tent city where victims could go for a hot meal, groceries, clothes, or to do laundry all free of charge.
(Marenthia and Casey where her house once stood)
After shooting stories for three days, we were supposed to take the last day off and fly back to Portland. But we both felt there was something missing. Our station sent us and we really wanted to deliver. We drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, a working class community, and found a still photographer from Seattle. He told us to go see the barge. You've got to see the barge! Many of the roads were closed so we didn't know if we could get there. But we eventually found our way, past dozens of demolished homes, debris strewn across yards, cars upside down. There we saw the barge. It sailed off the levy and beached itself on someone's house. That someone happened to be waiting for an insurance adjuster.
Casey and I approached the woman and her sister and told them we were from the NBC station in Portland. Portland? Their sister lived in Portland. They explained that she was their only hope for replacing old photographs.
Marenthia LaGard, her sisters and brothers grew up in the house. Marenthia stayed behind to look after her aging parents. They had died before the storm.
All of the family heirlooms were destroyed by Katrina. Most were stuck in the mud. An iron bedframe was peaking out from under the barge. Marenthia and her sister, Delores, had retired from the local school system. But here they were having to start over. They were all staying at Marenthia's son's house until they could find more housing.
We interviewed Marenthia's sister here in Portland when we got back. We showed her the video of where her childhood home stood. She was too stressed to go to New Orleans to see it for herself. She offered to fly her family here to get away but they didn't want to leave what they call home.
Today I spoke to Marenthia and her sister in Portland. They tell me little has changed since Casey and I were there last December. She and her sister still live in her son's house. They didn't have insurance, so they haven't been able to replace what they lost. Their sister in Portland is hoping to visit them next week, pending Hurricane Ernesto's behavior.
It will be years before New Orleans heals. My heart aches for the people who are displaced, who lost everything. Having survived an earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994 and having lost many of my belongings, I know things can eventually be replaced, but lives can not.