NEW ORLEANS – With Hurricane Katrina headed for the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, The Associated Press deployed dozens of staffers to support its New Orleans and Mississippi bureaus.
Here, three of the photographers who covered the story talk about their experiences and some of the photos that were the most meaningful to them.
Bill Haber and another AP photographer, the late Dave Martin, had been shooting around the city during the storm when they noticed water bubbling up from the sewers — an ominous sign of the flooding to come.
Driving out toward eastern New Orleans where they'd heard the inundation was intense, they stopped on an overpass from which they could see Canal Street. The broad avenue that helps frame the French Quarter was flooded, its distinctive palm trees flattened.
"That's when we really realized how bad it was, and we had no idea how bad it would get," he said.
Haber had a generator and a working telephone landline, so his house became a de-facto AP bureau, but it had no running water or electricity.
"The city was such a mess, we tried to get in before dark," he said.
Haber, who retired four years after the storm, is particularly proud of one photograph he took of a woman walking through chest-deep water covered in a toxic sheen — an important point to make about the dangerously poor water quality.
But Katrina wasn't just a story. For Haber, a native New Orleanian, it was personal. Many of Haber's family members lost their homes. During breaks from work he dealt with insurance companies, found a new place to live and checked on family.
The first time he left the city, he thought to himself that he wouldn't go back: "But after you get out you think about it a little bit and you realize that all your friends and co-workers are still down there slugging it out and they're sticking it out so you want to go back for them."
A decade later, he's happy with the progress the city has made and aware of the importance of the photos he and others took. At a time of so much confusion and doubt about the seriousness of the situation, the horror of the photos could not be denied.
But looking back, he said what he's most proud of are the people he worked with, colleagues who "waded through the water together."
Atlanta-based photographer John Bazemore had experienced quite a few disasters but none as haunting as Katrina.
Bazemore covered the Mississippi coast, where the heart of the storm came ashore and scraped miles of homes off the map. "You could see where the water came up and pushed them off their foundations," he said.
Bazemore arrived in Gulfport before the storm and stayed for a couple of weeks, spending much of that time alongside Jackson-based reporter Holbrook Mohr, known as Bert.
"We were living in a hotel with no running water or electricity for a while," Bazemore said. "Most of the time, we slept in our clothes in the car in the parking lot."
He went to visit the Biloxi neighborhood where his step-grandfather used to live. "It was completely gone. There were Popsicle sticks, sticking up into the air everywhere. Nothing that resembled homes, just the frames."
Bazemore recalled a ditch full of slot machines from a casino.
"When we came back later, all the machines were gone. We assume everyone in Mississippi's got one in their basement now," he said, laughing.
One day, "I had gone out earlier and shot a picture of a guy wading through the sometime chest-deep water with a dog. Both were soaked. Both looked miserable," Bazemore recalled. "He told us he lived back where it was all flooded and there was one rowboat to get 'all those ladies and children' out."
So Bazemore and Mohr waded in.
"We were in really nasty water," he said. "There was an oily film on it and you knew there was sewage and everything in the world in there."
"When we saw those women getting into that beat up old boat and the expressions on their faces, it was a situation we kind of lucked up on, but we worked hard to get into. We walked about a mile. At one point I stepped off a curb or into a hole and Bert grabbed me to keep me from going under. One of my cameras got dunked."
Bazemore said he's covered other hurricanes since Katrina and was able to experience a bird's-eye view of one forming through a flight in a Hurricane Hunter airplane.
"Katrina was the biggest story in the world," he said. "I knew New Orleans was getting the lion's share of the coverage, so I looked at it as we had to be the ones to tell it from here, from Mississippi."
MISERY, WRAPPED IN THE FLAG
Eric Gay, a photographer with the AP since 1986, and reporter Allen Breed got reports of flooding toward eastern New Orleans. Gay said they decided to drive over and see what the storm and subsequent flooding had done.
"We began to see houses with water at window levels and in some cases, 6 to 8 feet high," Gay said.
"There were sheriff's deputies passing us with a boat and they just started helping some of those people get out. Some of the first pictures I made were of his boat pulling up to a house and the people were stepping into the boat."
Gay remembers coming across people who just wanted help. "We could have taken a carload at a time, but we told them the best way to help them was to tell their story, share their story and fill that void."
Gay also spent significant time at the city's convention center, which was another unofficial shelter. It was there that he took a picture of an elderly woman wrapped in a towel or blanket emblazoned with the American flag. "I'm always a sucker for flags," he said. "But it wasn't only that. It was the pathos in their faces. They looked so despondent."
The woman in that picture, 89-year-old Milvirtha Knight-Hendricks, died in 2009 in Houston, where she landed following Katrina.
Gay said another photo he remembered shooting was of another older woman, Nita LaGarde, and a little girl who were being rescued. "They were holding hands," he recalled. "It was a sweet moment. Kind of uplifting despite the whole ordeal."
Gay said he was privileged to be able to tell the story of people who survived Katrina.
"It's my job to reflect what's there. Katrina was a once in a lifetime event. I've been back to do other hurricanes and just this spring I covered major flooding in South Texas. That was just horrific stuff, but it wasn't as widespread as Katrina.
"Katrina is a story that sticks with you."