Looking Back: Katrina through the photographer's lens


by Brian Lukas / WWL-TV Photographer


Posted on August 29, 2013 at 11:11 AM

Updated Thursday, Aug 29 at 11:14 AM

Long after the telling sentence or the cleverly constructed paragraph has been consigned to memory's trash heap, the images are what we remember about an event.  That may be because they stimulate our senses, they let us look at others to recognize ourselves. Pictures trigger emotions quickly and directly and leave behind an image poignant and powerful. They are pictures worth a thousand words, images that telescope down to a crystal clear and sometimes defining moment of time and history.

"Before you write about a battle you have to visit the site where the battle happened, otherwise how can a writer understand what took place there. You must go there."

In one of his last interviews noted historian Stephen Ambrose made those comments during an interview in a loft above his garage at his home on West Beach Road in Bay St. Louis, Miss.  I had a historical common bond with Ambrose; he was my history professor at the University in New Orleans in the 1970's.  I also had the opportunity to cover all of the events during the opening of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, where he was a dominating figure in its creation.

(Click image to see photos)

To those of us at WWL-TV who covered both Hurricane Katrina and Rita it was and still is a battle. As I, and many of my colleagues, documented the impact of Hurricane Katrina that early morning on August 29, 2005, we realized that this hurricane felt different from all others. I have covered many hurricanes and tropical storms throughout my career but the winds of Katrina were much stronger, more intense.  As reporter Mike Hoss and I struggled to film the images of the roof being ripped off the Superdome, the rising waters on Canal Street and the destruction of New Orleans and surrounding areas we realized it was more than a battle, it became a war.
"You Never Expect To See Armageddon Come To Your Town," said Jeffrey Rouse, a psychiatrist with the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office

The images of the storm and the events occurring while we tried to cope with the effects of Hurricane Katrina are all imprinted on the memory of those who lived through it. Some of the images are physically gone from the landscape. It is said that history does not linger long and memories will fade with time. As such, I have been documenting many of the images that illustrate Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast. To accomplish this task I photographed the images in black and white infrared, then, hand tinting one element of the photograph to draw the viewer’s attention to one section of the image that may create some sense of proportion, a singularity, if you will, to document for history one of the most tragic and confusion events in American History.

In the process of editing the various images I randomly placed these photographs on a viewing table and I was struck by the destruction that they illustrated. In my career I have covered the carnage in war-torn Beirut, the aftermath of the drug cartels bombing in Medellin, Colombia and natural disasters in El Salvador and other parts of the world. Little did I realize that one of the worst disasters I would ever cover and document for history would be here in my own city and along the Gulf Coast. We all became victims.

Just about a year after Katrina impacted the Gulf Coast region I received a call into the newsroom. It was from a university history professor from another state. He wanted to interview me about my experiences covering Hurricane Katrina, specifically he wanted to record my observation on one area of impact where he was concentrating his "historical" research.

I attempted to educate him to the fact that Hurricane Katrina devastated the entire region of the Gulf Coast. Its waters wiped out lower Plaquemines Parish, pushed a flooding tidal surge into St. Bernard and St.Tammany Parish. It wreaked havoc and destruction on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Its winds sheared timbers in Bogalusa, and in Mandeville and surrounding parishes. It broke levees and flooded in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. This was a regional disaster on a cataclysmic scale. It was a nightmare.

After I related my feeling on why his focus on just one area was an inaccurate portrayal of the massive devastation he then told me of his experience during the storm. Even though he lived in the middle the country, he decided to evacuate to New York to escape any impact of Hurricane Katrina.  His "history" of Katrina would be tape-recorded conservations filtered through his sphere of random acquaintance. He did not feel the hurricane, look into the eyes of its victims, listened to the sounds of crying, the feeling of despair of having those whose entire life was ripped apart, of the displaced families, and sadly, personally witnessing those would did not live through the storm -- as I, and of my colleagues at WWL-TV did. The professor eventually decided that my broad focused on the hurricane did not fit the context of his narrative and asked me if I knew others he could interview. Thus, and if for no other reason, I hope the images I captured throughout the region in my photo essay will convey the democracy suffering this area went through during Hurricane Katrina.   

My efforts to cover the destruction of Hurricane Katrina would eventually lead me back to Bay St. Louis just days after the storm. Here I would find that the home of Stephen Ambrose was destroyed by the 30-foot tidal surge of the storm. However, the upstairs loft where Ambrose sought inspiration was still intact. While taking a break from his research, before his passing Ambrose told us, he stared through the window over the Bay watching the glow of the morning sun glistening over the waters. That pause gave him inspiration to write his historical biographies. The loft was still intact surviving the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina. Ever so defiantly!

Never forget…and, never give up.

Brian Lukas