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One of the first big decisions I had to make upon returning home from 18 days in Beijing – was wether or not to pack right back up and go cover Hurricane Gustav. A major news magazine was asking me to go – and they gave me overnight to make a decision. While the newsman in me definitely wanted to go, I knew that A. I just didn’t have the mental energy to live through another Katrina after an Olympics and B. it just wouldn’t be fair to my wife who had just spent 18 days alone taking care of our son.
So I passed on the assignment – which is never an easy thing to do for any photographer – but I’m now confident that it was the right move (I’ve been catching up on a LOT of sleep these past few days – your body and mind know when to decompress and let go…)
So I thought I’d throw a few last minute thoughts together for those to covering the storm:
I. Even though the current headlines are stating that the storm will miss New Orleans or move to the West – never write off a storm. Similar things were being said about Katrina – and some people put their guard down. The levees, not the storm, are the story for New Orleans.
II. Make sure you have plenty of: Fuel, water, snacks, baby wipes, maps, quarters (for payphones if they work) a fair amount of cash, extra batteries and a power converter for your car to charge laptops, cameras etc – and have a second power adapter for your laptop as it can fry easily when plugged into power converters. Buying a few extra car fuses for the fuse box is not a bad idea either – as those blow rather easily when you plug too much into the car’s AC port(s). Boots, bug spray, sunblock, first aid kit, and one of those cans to re-inflate your tires.
III. Remember that having all of this makes you a huge target – always watch your back. Always have an exit strategy. Your first consideration whenever you drive into anywhere is: can I get out of here 15 minutes from now or a few hours from now. Always think things through before you take any action – or it can literally be your last… don’t depend on anyone else to come rescue you – try to be entirely self-reliant at all times. Never walk too far away from your car: it’s your only way of getting out -and there are too many valuable things in it – to let it sit unattended. Remember – there are no tow trucks, no police cars coming, no ambulance on their way – and likely no one manning the 911 switchboard.
IV. If you have any cell provider other than Verizon – you might want to consider picking up a disposable Verizon phone – they have the contract with the federal government and agencies – and will be the first to put emergency towers up should cell coverage become a victim to the storm or it’s aftermath.
V. Travel light – at least in terms of camera gear. Having a backup camera and lens in a Pelican case is a good idea in case your main camera gets dunked in the water.
VI. Don’t lose perspective: the big story here in my opinion – is not necessarily the storm. We’ve already seen that in Katrina… the story here is: how much better prepared are we as a nation and how will our government deal with the aftermath this time… has any real progress been made since the horror of Katrina?
VII. If you want to get into a helicopter – make sure you’re working with experienced people… most of the “good” pilots and helicopters were booked days – if not weeks – ago – by the oil companies to get their crew off of the oil rigs in the Gulf (and they are holding the helicopter – paying them to stay safely on the ground at the ready – to go back and put those men back on the rigs ASAP – for repairs and to resume work.) So getting one now is close to impossible. But keep trying. I left my name at a local airport at their front desk – and pilots ended up finding me in the end… you never know. And sharing a helicopter with someone else is always a good option in these situations.
VIII. Obey law enforcement – and especially the National Guard – in times like these. This is not the time to argue. If the storm does happen – they will be stressed out, and mentally and emotionally exhausted. Not the time to argue with people on edge who have guns at their disposal. In fact – it’s safe to assume most people out there have guns – so be careful. You will be entering the Wild West. I made friends with the national guard last time because I had extra (empty) fuel tanks – which they needed.
I’m hoping this storm fizzles out – for the people in New Orleans and the Gulf area. No one deserves to go through this again. To all of the photographers, journalists and other rescue workers out there (not to mention the citizens of course!) - Good Luck!
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