|Destruction and devastation along Texas’ Highway 87.|
If I stumbled or got tangled in anything dead or alive hiding in the water I would go down hard with cameras and without cameras, be out of a job. Wiping away another handful of mosquitoes from the back of my neck, my mind started wandering back to the events that brought me to walking along a flooded road in this South Texas town only hours after Hurricane Ike slammed ashore a few miles away.
Like other Coast Guard Auxiliarists, I joined FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. I’ve worked for FEMA ever since. I am now an officially sanctioned disaster photo-documentarian and videographer. That’s a couple of fancy words to say I take pictures and video of the aftermath of presidentially-declared disasters and the people who respond to those in need during and after a disaster.
It’s a cool job to be one on one with the many selfless people who risk their lives or spend extended time in arduous conditions away from friends and family for the benefit others. It’s a pleasure to immortalize them with my lenses.
September 13th, 2008 and I was imbedded with the USCG Lower Mississippi River detachment and the Texas Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces 1and 2. The Texas Task Forces and Coast Guard were deployed to Orange, Texas which was flooded after a tidal surge pushed the Sabine over its banks and filled the town with water. Rescue teams were going house-to-house looking for survivors and people trapped by floodwaters. Their primary mission was to locate and bring to land people with medical emergencies; my mission was to tell their story.
I was wearing knee high boots and keeping to the center of the flooded streets. As I waded out from where the street disappeared into the flood to meet my boat and two-man Coast Guard crew, a steady stream of survivors flied past me. Some were leaning on a rescuer’s shoulder, others were carried cradled between two strong guys; all of them shuffling past me with shock etched on their face.
Most folks were doing OK as we searched our assigned blocks. At each house with people inside, a short interview was conducted to make sure the people there had essential supplies. We also made sure that they used flashlights instead of candles for light. At every contact, the people seemed grateful that we had come to check on them.
One fellow was not doing OK and the heat and stress caused him to have a possible heart attack. Watching and filming the action turning from routine to emergency evacuation was inspiring.
It was now ten days of chasing storms; first Hanna, now Ike. Although not as powerful or as damaging as Ike, I was able to film the personnel of the Coast Guard station in Wilmington, North Carolina. They were moving assets to safe harbor and battening down the hatches getting ready for the predicted direct hit of Hanna.
I asked the skipper of a “roll-over” 47 footer if I could ride along while his crew went on ATON checks in the Atlantic the morning after Hanna. He asked me, “Does 20 foot seas sound like fun?” I decided I’d look for local Auxiliary flotillas doing aids to navigation checks in the harbor instead.
Two weeks later, I was on my way to the beach area of Gilchrist, Texas to send back a situational report. Other than by helicopter, I was one of the first groups of people to see the devastation. As I focused on a stretch of Highway 87, even being hardened by previous experiences, couldn’t keep me from whispering WOW out loud.
In front of me was nothing. Absolutely nothing, no houses, no cars, no foundations; as far as I could see there was nothing where there had been beachfront habitation only a few days ago. The only thing left in Gilchrist was land scrubbed clean by the force of Hurricane Ike.
Close by in High Island, Texas, I ran across a group of Coast Guard doing Marine Safety work. We were looking at the sheen of oil draining from ruptured oil storage units into the wetlands of the Bolivar Peninsula. They were deciding how to contain the oil when a white egret covered in black oil walked by.
It’s been more than a month since Hanna, several weeks since Ike. Sitting at home writing this, I look at the photos and can’t help but get swelled up with pride to have met the Texas and Coast Guard responders, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the countless other people who are called to action in the times of greatest need.
As long as I have the strength and the will, it is my extreme honor to photograph every person in the field of a disaster; it is in my humble opinion a true portrait of America at its best.