Thursday, August 29th, 2013, marks eight years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as much of Alabama and Louisiana.
I was in Pine, LA, when the storm hit on Monday, August 29th, 2005. Despite being a good distance from the Coast, this area took a major hit, too, sustaining major damage to homes and businesses. There were tens of thousands of trees down. I spent Monday afternoon helping place tarps on roofs and helping locals remove trees from roadways so that emergency vehicles could find safe passage.
Considering the amount of trees down and a lack of telephone service, I knew it would be a struggle to get back to the Coast. I knew the best thing I could do would be to get to an airport and hitch a ride over the Coast. Everyone I shared the idea with thought I was asking for the impossible. The closest airport was 20 miles away in Bogalusa and reports were that it had been destroyed. I prayed for a miracle. I knew I was meant to find a plane.
Determined, I made my way through backroads into town and to the police department Tuesday morning. When I inquired about the airport, I got the same response, that I was wasting my time. Reluctantly, an officer led me to the airport.
Sure as they'd all said, the airport was flattened. Planes were strewn across the property, laying upside-down and in pieces. The hanger doors had blown off and crushed the planes inside. The airport office now had an excellent, completely unobstructed view of the runway as the walls and windows had been blown out.
The airport looked like a war scene, as did the entire City of Bogalusa. The only person at the airport was the pilot of a small Cessna that had landed just five minutes prior to my arrival. He was on top of his plane, refueling with the filled jugs of fuel he had brought with him. He had flown from Alexandria and hoped to find fuel at the airport, but no one was there to help him. My prayers had been answered. I had found my plane.
I introduced myself and asked the pilot where he was headed. He said he was headed south of New Orleans and to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to check on multiple family properties and one of a friend. I asked if he had room for a photojournalist. He paused and flatly told me that he didn't know if he'd be able to find more fuel because he'd gotten no word than any airports were open. He was concerned that he might have to ditch the plane in the Gulf or try to land on a roadway if he couldn't find fuel. I was all in.
Five minutes later, we were strapped in, and saying a prayer for safe travels and that we'd find the fuel we needed to return safely. We were on our way.
As a working, career photojournalist, I had experienced a lot of hurricanes, tornadoes, major accidents and trauma. Nothing had prepared me for what I was about to encounter.
Due to our limited fuel supply, my pilot agreed to fly to Ocean Springs and make one pass along the beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He was taking a risk. We were taking a risk. None of the pilots he'd spoken with were aware of any open airports.
If you witnessed Katrina or the aftermath first hand, imagine one 30 minute pass over the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast, taking in all of the storm's destruction at once. I was in shock, but I knew I had a job to do.
Our path to Ocean Springs allowed me to see my house below. I lived in a flood zone and could only imagine the worst. From about 900 feet, I could see the lumber for my renovation project strewn across the back yard, several trees snapped and down, flood waters from the Biloxi River were at the edge of my property, and vehicles and lawn mowers in my yard that shouldn't have been there. From what I could see, I was almost certain the flood waters had reached my house.
We turned westward just east of St. Andrews and began our one pass along the coastline a little after noon. Entire houses and neighborhoods were wiped off the face of the Earth. Major bridges were gone. Casino barges were laying in the middle of Hwy. 90, one even sitting on a hotel. Sections of Hwy. 90 were gone and other sections still flooded. People were standing along the roadway. Churches, businesses and apartment complexes were reduced to slabs. The trees were bare of leaves. Semi trailers were in the Mississippi Sound and boats sunk.
My community was devastated. My friends' homes and businesses were destroyed. My church was gone, as were many others. All I could think about were the lives I was certain had been lost and what my friends were dealing with. I knew many had evacuated and still had no idea of what they would return home to. Despite great risk to himself and his plane, the pilot had afforded me an opportunity to document Hurricane Katrina's devastation from a bird's eye view. I had to capture images quickly and as many as possible.
From Waveland, we turned south to the parishes below New Orleans and witnessed Coast Guard rescue efforts in action. Entire towns were flooded. We had been able to assess all five of the properties the pilot wanted to check on. All were gone, even his friend's "hurricane-proof" octagon house.
By the grace of God, we began to hear radio traffic of an airport with fuel. Of all the places it could be, it was at the southern tip of Louisiana along the Mississippi River in the town of Empire. When we landed, it was like the airport hadn't been touched. The hanger was fully intact. Small planes and helicopters were lined up for refueling. They even accepted my credit card for payment of the fuel. We had been blessed and were thankful. Our prayers were answered.
Once I was able to make it back to the Coast later that week, I discovered my yard had indeed flooded, right up to the foundation of my home. Water had not entered the house. With that came a lot of survivor's guilt. Perhaps that's a topic for another day.
It would be five weeks before the electricity was restored to my house. A church group removed the trees and helped me clean up the yard. A missions group from First Baptist Church of Pulaski, TN, provided the labor to replace the roof.
In my coverage of the storm's aftermath in the months that would follow, I lost the pilot's name and his number. If you know a man who owned a Cessna in Alexandria with property on the Coast at the time of Katrina, let me know. I'd love to get in touch with him.
The links to the aerial photo galleries from the morning of Tuesday, August 30th, 2005:
Gallery #1: http://www.sunherald.com/2010/10/26/2428971/looking-back-aerial-views-from.html
Gallery #2: http://www.sunherald.com/2010/10/26/2428994/looking-back-aerial-views-from.html
Gallery #3: http://www.sunherald.com/2010/10/26/2429037/looking-back-aerial-views-from.html
James Edward Bates is a photojournalist who has been covering editorial content for newspapers and magazines for over 20 years. He also specializes in weddings, portraits and documentary projects. He can be reached by email: [email protected].