I began the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall at Warren Easton High School, the oldest public high school in Louisiana, at the dedication of a medical and dental clinic funded by Sandra Bullock, the Kellogg Foundation and the San Francisco Forty-Niners. As expected, the media presence was intense. Photographers were restricted to the left side of the auditorium, fifty or sixty feet from the stage, which was bad news for me as I hadn’t brought a proper lens for shooting people standing at a podium that distance away. Nevertheless, I diligently shot with my Canon G11 at its full 105mm focal length as a series of dignitaries, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, his sister, Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator David Vitter, in addition to Sandra Bullock, spoke. When they finished, somewhat sooner than originally planned due to the threat of rain, we all rushed out around back for the ribbon cutting ceremony.
Being somewhat out of practice at this sort of thing, I was a little late arriving and found two rows of cameras, one television and one still, already in place. Realizing that shooting from the back was likely a hopeless situation, I followed the example of Skip Bolen, a local Getty Images photographer I’d met inside, and moved directly to the front, kneeling down so as to be out of the way. A woman photographer encased in lenses and equipment like body armor standing just behind me said: “You’d better not stand up. I started out with AP in New York.” I took this admonition to heart.
Fortunately, there wasn’t any need to stand up. From my vantage point slightly right of the center of the four or five steps leading up to the point of the ribbon cutting I had an unobstructed view. Within a couple of minutes, Sandra arrived, Warren Easton Charter Foundation President Billy Hatchett passed the giant pair of scissors to her and school nurse Cassandra Ferrand and, amid a barrage of flashes, mine included, they cut the ribbon. I believe that’s the first actual ribbon-cutting I’ve ever photographed. Sandra withdrew to parts unknown shortly thereafter and the assembled press began to disperse.
However, I had heard another photographer mention a Second Line parade in the Lower Ninth Ward and doing a little follow up, I determined that it was happening at one o’clock. As I’d been wanting to photograph a Second Line for a while and had nothing else scheduled, somehow having been left off the list of photographers invited to cover President Obama’s speech at Xavier University, I decided to attend.
Crossing into the Lower Ninth on the North Claiborne Avenue bridge, it was obvious something was up. People were parked on the side of the road and were walking through the Katrina Memorial Park on the median into the neighborhood on my left down Tennessee Street. I drove to the first gap in the median, made a u-turn, went back to Tennessee, took a right and the next right and parked. There was a satellite truck at the end of the block, making it obvious that this, too, was a major event.
A couple of blocks in, amid the new, and to my eye, strangely futuristic looking houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation, was a memorial trailer containing photos and stories of Lower Ninth Ward residents who perished in the storm. Outside the trailer was a tombstone like white marker in memoriam to Robert Green, Sr.’s mother and granddaughter, both of whom drowned when the levee broke. People were milling around, many of them photographers, waiting for the Second Line to form up. There were rain clouds back towards downtown and it looked doubtful whether the Second Line would arrive before they did.
The appearance of two Mardi Gras Indians, a father and son looking like tropical birds in their elaborately feathered blue and orange costumes, indicated the parade was about to start. I made my way to the front and set up before the Original Big Nine Club banner. Shortly thereafter the brass band struck up and the parade began. It was largely symbolic, only a couple of hundred people at the most, which made the media crush especially intense. I backed away, ducking in from time to time for a shot, but it was extremely difficult to get a picture that didn’t contain several other photographers or cameramen in addition to the marchers. After only a couple of blocks, we came to a five foot wide ancient oak tree with a ladder leaning against it. A moment later, Robert Green, Sr. arrived with a wreath.
This was the tree where his mother and granddaughter finally sought refuge, ultimately to no avail. Mr. Green climbed ten feet or so up the ladder to the first major fork in the tree and attached the wreath, which featured at its center a painting of a man waving an American flag on a roof surrounded by floodwater. He then placed one pink rose within the wreath in front of the painting and made a short speech mourning the loss of his mother and granddaughter, but also expressing his, and the other residents of the Lower Ninth’s, determination to maintain their neighborhood. Then he climbed down and the Second Line shifted into reverse and, fittingly, picked up steam.
By the last block it was going strong, people dancing with abandon, and I found myself able to work. For whatever reason, the media crush had thinned out. Maybe some people got caught on the wrong end of the parade when it started back and couldn’t get to the front, or maybe they felt they had gotten what they needed already, but in any event I was now able to get some relatively clean pictures without a bunch of other cameras in them. I stuck with it all the way to the starting point where it came to a climactic end and then made it back to my car just as the rain began in earnest.