As journalists, those were our darkest days. There were no lights, no phones, no power—anarchy ruled the streets. Flames floated on water from broken submerged natural gas lines. Tall, black columns of smoke rose from burning, flooded buildings. Citizens roamed the elevated highways pushing shopping carts of children and possessions. It was eerie, dystopian. But our job was news coverage, and for three weeks, we worked the Katrina story in a cyclone of activity.
My wife, a magazine photographer on contract, hopscotched New Orleans and coastal Louisiana chasing stories for national publication. My photo assignments were specific to the flooded New Orleans area and a regional audience. Each day, we were challenged finding a way into and out of a highly restricted city and its environs. I recall navigating debris in the lawless landscape, mindful of flashpoints for possible trouble. How could a city be so empty and quiet yet feel so ominous? With despair and destruction documented, we returned to a temporary home base in Baton Rouge to report. Each night, we would sit in driveways with fellow journalists to communal dinners fixed by kind neighbors, hungry for news. Eat, work, talk, sleep, get up and repeat. All the while, we hustled to secure our home and pets and find contractors to repair the damage. We were emotionally, mentally and physically drained.
And just 24 days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the winds of another storm grew into the most powerful Cat 5 hurricane in the history of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Rita’s winds revved to 180 miles per hour, pushing 14 feet of surge as it ballooned in size and rumbled north toward the Sabine Pass. Having been fed a steady diet of Katrina catastrophe coverage, anxious residents in coastal western Louisiana and eastern Texas evacuated into a stalled northbound nightmare of traffic and gas shortages. Evacuation routes were jammed, tensions rose. The story built as exponentially as the storm itself.
Rita loomed. News crew logistics were reevaluated. My wife and I, again working for different agencies, were reassigned to imbed with first responders. We drove to Fort Polk the day before landfall to ride out the storm in Quonset huts with the National Guard.
By midnight, the eye of the storm had passed. At dawn, it was safe to board a Blackhawk helicopter and head south to the coast. The crew latched the doors open to make it easier to get unobstructed camera views. We were accustomed to flying in much smaller, slower helicopters for aerial photos, but this flight was a challenge. The pilot was in a hurry. I was seated next to an open door, and a constant blast of 170 mph wind made it almost impossible to lift my camera. We slowed as we flew over Cameron and a sad scene of complete ruin.
As we flew off to another location, my mind wandered to an imagined view. I suddenly remembered hastily cancelled reservations to Italy and a thought came to mind. I leaned forward, looked up at my wife seated facing me, reached for her hand and wished her a happy anniversary. Later that morning, we landed on the tarmac at the airport in Lafayette where we shared a MRE and a long embrace.
My recipe for Spicy Citrus Crab Salad with Avocado that follows is as far from an MRE meal as I could possibly imagine.