Following my rant about blogging and storytelling, Rick Portier graciously sent me a story he "penned" about his experience in a Baton Rouge shelter post-Katrina:
It's amazing what people will tell you when you wink at them through a long piece of glass. As the quiet half of a television news team, I've had the honor and privilege to be privy to the best and worst moments of peoples' lives. Even today, more than a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Louisiana coast, those stories have the power to haunt and heal.
I was one of the lucky news crews, or so I thought. I wouldn't be heading into the teeth of Katrina. My bosses needed me to document events here in Baton Rouge. After a week in evacuation an evacuation shelter, I was wishing I was in New Orleans.
The one place news coverage fell short was telling evacuees stories. Those days in the shelters were truly the most emotionally draining days I have ever experienced -- even more tragic than 9/11.
A never-ending line of people stretched half way around the Baton Rouge River Center. To a person, they were tired, frustrated and lost. Some had bed head. Others wore bed clothes. Some carried small bags. Others had only the clothes on their backs. Each face held a story of fear, fear of the storm they had fled, fear of what they fled to, and fear of an uncertain future.
The line continued inside through a maze of armed police and National Guardsmen. Evacuees murmured questions about procedures and loved ones as they began the paper trail that would help them re-connect with missing family members...if they were still alive.
In the main arena, 5000 people who had just lost everything they had ever known; homes, possessions, family paced the floors with expressionless faces. Imagine fitting all you own between two cots on an eight-by-eight slice of linoleum. All had harrowing stories.
My reporter and I set-up shop. We rolled tape on anyone who wanted to talk. Surprisingly, there were many who wanted to unburden their souls.
One of the first to step up was a hulking black man with hands the size of bear paws. The expression on his face was incongruous with his size. What could such an imposing man have to fear. His massive shoulders hung with the weight of his new world. His family was safe with him. He was worried about his neighbor. As the waters rose in his neighborhood he heard cries from across the street. His bed-ridden neighbor had not heeded early warnings. Now the nearly 300 pound man was trapped in his home. The water in the street was waist deep. The sobbing man in front of my lens waded across the street and carried his neighbor to his own home. He pushed the man through a window as the water rose near his chest. Inside the house furniture floated across the living room. It was clear they didn't have much longer. He loaded his neighbor onto his back and climbed to the second floor, then the attic. Like so many others, he searched the house for anything that he might use to break through the roof. He somehow managed to remove a roof vent. He showed us the cuts on his enormous hands. With his bare hands, he punched, and clawed, and broke, and tore a hole big enough to lift his neighbor through. They waited for two days to be rescued.
Another man was attracted by our television lights. He had been luckier. His home had not been flooded, an island in an ocean of human misery. He watched out of his kitchen window as looters beat his neighbor to death.
Around 11 that morning, Arch-bishop Alfred Hughes from New Orleans and Bishop Robert Meunch from Baton Rouge came to pray for the souls of those who didn't make it through the storm and ask for God's grace on those who did. It was the first time in a 17-year career shooting news that I ever turned my camera off in the middle of a story. I couldn't shoot. My reporter couldn't write. We could only cry with them.
I turned my camera off many more times in the week I spent at the shelter. As much as the people parading in front of my lens needed to tell their stories, they needed someone to listen even more. They needed a hug. They needed a human response, not the bureaucratic answers from emergency workers.
Just outside the range of our microphone, a tall, slender grandfather was preparing a baby's bottle. The grandfather's afro was mashed in on the right side of his head. It spread out wide on the left like it was reaching for something. His pants were baggy, and he needed a shave. He never ventured to tell us his story, but my reporter and I watched him feed, change and care for his grandchild. He wouldn't offer any details as to how they ended up here. He didn't know where the child's parents were. They were separated during the evacuation. There was nothing he wanted, nothing he needed -- Maybe a phone call. We both offered our cell phones, but it was pretty useless. Communications were down through most of south Louisiana. The lines that worked were jammed. By the end of the week, we had adopted them.
We were constantly asked for news. The truth was we didn't know much more than what was unfolding in front of our lens. We witnessed a few reunions, but many more tears. Of all the images from that week, the roof-top rescues, third world conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center, the citizens flotilla, nothing haunts me more than the glazed-over eyes, tear streaked cheeks and expressionless faces I go to know inside the Baton Rouge River Center.
Rick Portier is a television news photographer in Baton Rouge. For more of his stories and rants see his personal blog at http://turdpolisher.blogspot.com/