Gearing up for a grim adventure

Viewfinder

October 02, 2005

The call came as I was catching up on my sleep on a hazy Sunday afternoon.

"Catch the next flight to cover Hurricane Katrina," the photo editor said.

I had been immersed in a project, and the storm hadn't even been on my radar. Suddenly, I was faced with planning to travel to the heart of a disaster that had sent millions fleeing.

I packed light but made certain to include the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation unit and all the chargers for cameras, laptop and transmitting equipment, assuming that there would be no power for months, based on initial reports.

Packed in one wheel-on bag were two camera bodies (Nikon D2H), plus a fanny pack filled with a 17-35 mm wide-angle zoom lens, an 80-200 telephoto zoom, 14 mm, one electronic flash, a cell phone and spare battery, and personal sizes of baby wipes and bug repellent. Two pairs of zip-down cargo pants and four short-sleeve shirts, plus other pieces of clothing made with wicking fabric, filled the bag.

The "personal carry on" held the Mac laptop, all chargers and cables. One other case carried a satellite telephone I would use to transmit images when there was no cellular service in the area.

I reserved a rental vehicle - a Ford Expedition - that I could live in and work from for an extended period of time, one that could drive through a decent amount of flooding or over debris.

I landed in Houston, picked up my SUV, hooked up my GPS, which recognized my new location in minutes, and located a local Wal-Mart to purchase necessary supplies.

Over $200 was spent on foodstuffs - plenty of varieties of canned soups, fruits and beef jerky, cookies and pudding, plus bottles and jugs of water. I added items essential for travel in a region with no power or amenities - cans of Fix-a-Flat, a tire repair kit, air compressor, rechargeable spotlight, power inverter, power strip, first aid kit, water repellent boots, an inflatable mattress and pillow, a sheet set and a 10-by-16-foot tarp with a set of tie-down straps used to cover the vehicle and add a level of privacy for sleep and rest.

A stop at a camping store unearthed an inflatable kayak to provide a means of travel through the widespread flooding in New Orleans.

Gutted grocery stores, lifeless homes and businesses and streets littered with abandoned cars, felled trees and power lines and shattered glass gave the sense of being in a war zone. A nonstop emergency radio broadcast was the only sign that organized life still existed outside my SUV.

Mile after mile of driving through the devastated landscape made me feel like an explorer, trying to send out reports of how survival was for the tens of thousands stranded where communication was nonexistent.

Every few hours, after capturing images of displaced people and animals, unfolding dramas and rescue efforts, it would be time to park somewhere, download the images from my camera, edit, caption and transmit back to Baltimore. Finding a location where I could use a cell phone would sometimes require driving as much as 70 miles. Occasionally, the satellite phone had to be unpacked and assembled, with a tri-fold antenna propped on the side of the highway to lock in on a stationary satellite many miles above my head.

After several days I returned to Baltimore, with a sprained wrist and foot received while covering the flooding on the Lower Ninth Ward to mark my struggle. My mind is full of memories of people and a city fighting to survive.

A portfolio of Gulf Coast photos by Karl Merton Ferron can be seen on www.baltimoresun.com by clicking on Hurricane Katrina under special reports.

karl.ferron@baltsun.com

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