Thursday, November 20, 2008


I hit 150,000 miles today, driving south down I-5 to Everett from lunch with Annie in Marysville. The flag belongs to the boat-lot on the west side of the highway. I squeezed the photo off after snapping the numbers on the dash.

I got this car in November 2005 with about 75,000 miles on it. Since then, it's driven all over the country, spending a year in Texas, then Virginia, back to Texas, and now in Washington State.

As I watched the numbers roll over today, what really seemed significant were the events that actually put me in this car in the first place. It was the fall of 2005, and after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Rita gathered steam off shore. It was supposed to be another big one.

Sloan and I headed towards Beaumont to ride out the storm, staying that night in a movie theater turned impromptu shelter for residents who failed to heed evacuation orders. The manager and his friend who opened the doors were not prepared to shelter 50 people that night, and they did not decide to voluntarily; police heard about the movie theater and decided to bring unprepared, un-evacuated residents there instead of taking them to the hospital where they and other emergency personal were staying (with medical supplies, food, and a generator).

The manager protested to police that the theater could in no way take responsibility for sheltering people - they had no supplies, training or even assurances that the building could hold up to the expected Category 4 or 5 winds. Their pleas were not heeded, word spread of the theaters existence, and police continued to drop scared residents they picked up off of the street at the movie theater.

As the sun set and the wind picked up, police and emergency personal disappeared from the streets, ordered by their commanders to abandon the streets till morning and shelter themselves at the hospital. The theater and its occupants were left alone in their arc.

The atmosphere was light at first, the manager put on two movies, folks watched or milled about in the theater's atrium. As evening turned to night, most watched as lightning tore through dark clouds, reflecting off the glass windows that stretched floor to ceiling across the theater's entrance. Fear crept into the air as radios crackled news that Rita would make landfall at the Texas, Louisiana border, putting Beaumont directly in its path.

The storm hit in the dead of night, long after power disappeared, as people grew hungry, as fear took hold, as the few families hunkered together off to the side, away from where the homeless and junkies police had knowingly dropped off paced back and forth. Early on people had watched from the atrium until the manager's friend ordered everyone out, away from the windows and into the interior halls. Many were slow to comply, some had to be physically moved against their will.

Not 10 minutes later an immense crash shook the entire building as the hurricane outside poured through the glass, shattering the front of the building, the change in pressure blowing open doors and lifting out ceiling tiles. Shards of glass and pieces of insulation blew around the interior corners, flashlights flickering to them, confirming what we had heard and felt and now could see. Thank God no one had still been in that room.

It all blurs together after that really. In the utter darkness my camera was next to useless. Sloan and I wandered with a video camera, recording audio of the scene surrounding us as everyone crowded into one interior hallway, away from battered exterior walls and theater ceilings turning black with water, threatening to crumble.

The sounds were what became surreal. And not just the sounds of rain and wreckage and wind picking up the ceiling tiles and biting at the walls. But the sound of the screaming woman, hysterical, wanting to run out of the building, saying it would collapse at any moment, having to be held there inside the building. Sounds like that, all in almost-darkness, interrupted only by the occasional candle holding out against the winds whipping through the building or a flashlight turned on to comfort a child, to show them that mom and dad were still there.

At one point in the night, as we guessed the eye was passing over, a few of us ran out into the night to park our cars on the other side of the building to shelter them from the changing direction of the wind. I remember running out into the wind, expecting some shard of debris to come flying out and end me like in a movie, where I'd see it coming and everything would slow down for a second as I watched it flying towards me, then time would catch up again, fast-forwarding the event to its obvious conclusion.

It never came. Morning did instead.

Now, creeping up the trail of glass, light flowed into the hallway accompanying a different wind, still whipping, no longer hissing. The radio said to stay put, there was still danger, let emergency personnel arrive first. The group was hurt. Where had they been last night? Why hadn't they taken them with them? Why wait for them now?

As many fell asleep with the calm morning had finally brought, a few crept towards the atrium. Heads poking fully into morning, wanting to see the damage, to see what could have been. Debris covered the lobby. The theater's marquee had been lifted off in the night, thousands of pounds of steel twisted and thrown 100 yards to a parking lot across the street.

The decision was made to wait for emergency personnel inside. The winds still howled outside. I had to get out though. One, I couldn't stand being inside anymore. Two, I wanted to get down to Port Arthur and find the flooding, find the pictures of the storm I thought I needed to take.

I remember calling my father, trying to act like I could hold it together. I felt emotion crack my seams, the exhaustion creeping up, the night of not being afraid but watching and listening other people's fear consume them as I observed.

Through the door, out to my car. No damage. I'd go alone. I'd be back as soon as I could. I just had to take a look. Setting off down the freeway I saw nothing but the tops of the trees swaying back and forth through weird light and gray sky. The freeway was empty. I cruised at maybe 50 mph, anxious to get down to Port Arthur but trying to stay smart and be safe.

BLAM!!! Something hit my windshield. Stopped my car dead. Screeching to a halt. Something invisible. Did it only hit my car? Is there glass on me? What's happening? My mind raced, I sat still for a second, things slowed down. The windshield was still intact but cracked. I was not injured, just shaken. What hit me? what had I hit?

I stared through my rearview mirror at the road behind me. Nothing. Nothing. Just empty. Wait, there it is, a flash. A strand hanging across the road. A powerline. A downed powerline hanging 5 feet off the ground across the road, almost invisible in the gray above the horizon. I could see it because two news trucks came into view approaching it.

I jumped out of my car, running back towards it, waving my hands, yelling to stop, hoping the same would not happen to them. They stopped. Got out. Asked me what was going on. They hadn't even seen it. I left them there, setting up some cones, trying to get the word out, and drove on down to Port Arthur, slowly.

I found some flooding, empty streets. I realized this wasn't my story. My story was back in Beaumont at the theater. I turned around. Headed back, carefully.

Soon after returning, emergency personnel showed up. They looked more like a SWAT team. The lessons learned by law enforcement in Katrina were definitely mixed.

Sloan and I left that afternoon, big plans in hand to report this story to the world. We'd use video, photos, writing, it would be amazing, it was a story that needed to be told. We could do it.

And this is where, in retrospect, on this day three years and 75,000 miles later, this story begets telling.

We never really told that story. I was completely green, out of my element. We didn't have the tools, the know-how, the experience to put it all together. Yes, it ran as a page in the Texan, the basics were covered, it was news, but we failed to tell the story that was truly there. The one we felt was important and had set out to tell, the story of this night in the movie theater and the lives of the people in it. And not just what that night was like, but how and why they were there. What happened.

That month of Hurricanes on the Gulf Coast was a real turning point for me. It has everything to do with where I am in my life right this moment, for I realized that month, that I truly knew nothing. My goal with photography was to take pictures that made others feel the way so many great pictures made me feel. To make pictures that were impossible to turn away from, that spurred action, that lent emotion and spurred empathy.

I realized that month that I had so much more learning to do. That if I was going to do this, if I was going to let people open their lives to me, I had to stand up and accept that responsibility for what it truly is.

I'm reminded of that every thousand miles or so. I have to stop, re-access, and realize that I must be like a child, open to everything, always learning, always refocusing my efforts to become a better photographer and storyteller. The responsibility is forever growing. In a wonderful way.

So what does that 150,000 mean? Well, I drove away from Rita with a broken windshield and a lot on my mind. My little two-door ford explorer was suffering internally, and now ad to that the windshield and then, a couple weeks later, a shattering back windshield, and, well, that was the end of Dora (as my sister named her sometime in the mid to late 90s). She was donated to charity.

That's when my current car entered my life, passed down from my generous mother. So, with 75,000 or so miles, I set off into a new post-hurricane chapter of life, and looking back at it now, although it has in no way been a completely smooth trip, I've yet to run into a single powerline.

photo above by Sloan of me driving the car back from Beaumont through H-town.