The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
Photographer Ross Taylor recalls the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, 16 years on
When I arrived in New Orleans in August 2005, I was struck by how eerily quiet it was. It was the day after the hurricane had died down, and I was there as part of Getty Images’ coverage. At this time we didn’t know what the exact human toll would be, but it later emerged that over 1,800 people had been killed and thousands left homeless.
I don’t think I understood the gravity of what I was going to see until we arrived. It was only then that it became clear just how awful the hurricane’s impact was. It was difficult for my mind to process what it was seeing – everything seemed splintered, and completely out of shape.
The scope of the damage was terrible, beyond what one can imagine. There were buildings that had been ripped apart completely, and the devastation seemed to keep getting worse. I saw scores of enormous shipping containers that had been ripped off barges, stacked like matches on top of homes and buildings hundreds of yards inland.
I remember feeling the warmth of the late-summer
Gulf wind as I made my way along the coastline. Occasionally you could hear the sound of someone going through the remains of their home, but apart from that it was silent – you could feel the shock in the atmosphere, it was palpable. The premier dangers of the hurricane had passed, but the weight of the future hadn’t set in yet.
Every now and then I heard quiet conversations taking place in the space of what used to be people’s homes. When I spoke to firefighters and first responders, you could see that they were wondering how long it would take them to rebuild these lives. They felt overwhelmed at the amount of work that lay ahead of them.
People were in a state of disbelief, trying to process their new normal. When I’m taking pictures, I’m always looking to connect with people and understand the human condition. Of the survivors I met, one who sticks in my mind is a man sitting motionless at the base of an old motel that had been completely destroyed. He was sitting in a chair, and he was talking like someone who had experienced substantial trauma – when I spoke to him, he wasn’t making any sense. It was apparent that he was struggling deeply. I remember walking away from him and feeling my heart break.
I photographed a woman who was sitting on the disjointed steps of her former home, her head in her hands. The home was now rubble [left]. And I remember asking one man about his job – he owned a trucking business – and when he thought he would be able to go back to work. He said, ‘Work? There is no work. I’ve lost everything.’ It was really sobering.
I’ve since photographed other situations that are difficult to see – I’ve worked as a war photographer in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – and this was just as taxing to witness. Of course, photographing the impact of Hurricane Katrina was different from a war zone, as I wasn’t as worried about my own personal safety. But it was similar in that you could see the human condition being ripped apart, and the daily aspects of life shattered. This was in some ways similar to the physical devastation that comes from war.
I was in the area for the better part of a week, sleeping wherever I could. There was no power; we camped out one night and stayed on the floor of a local newsroom for a few nights. When I returned home to North Carolina, the contrast was stark. It’s always difficult to reconcile the juxtaposition, and how things can be so horrific yet completely normal 20 miles away. Most people lost everything, and that’s so hard to process.