Photographer: Spectre of wreckage hard to describe
Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Court Leve intended to follow the Nevada National Guard for a day-in-the-life feature. Hurricane Katrina changed all that. Instead, Leve flew with Reno’s Air Guard to New Orleans last week to cover the relief efforts there. He was interviewed by Tahoe Daily Tribune city editor Jeff Munson.
Q: What was the first thing you saw as you flew into Louisiana?
A: In C130s there’s not really a window seat, but there were windows. What I saw was that all of the trees were flattened by the hurricane. From above, it looked liked someone had stomped on them.
Q: What about when you were on the ground?
A: We landed on a Guard base about an hour away. We drove a van into the city. There wasn’t a lot to see on the drive there. A lot of military personnel with their lights and sirens going. It was eerie because no one was around.
And then we got to the convention center. There were tents all around it on the outside where a lot of the military guys and rescue workers were. The inside of the center was used, the first few days after it, as a triage. I didn’t go in but I was told it was really bad inside.
Q: What do you mean by bad?
A: Like a lot of human waste, sewer. There were so many people in the convention center and there was no power for the toilets, so all the sick and injured people brought in would just soil themselves.
Q: So what did you see once you got mobilized with the guard unit?
A: Debris everywhere. Not like just a couple of blocks. We’re talking as far as the eyes could see. I boarded a Blackhawk helicopter and got the view from the air. It became apparent to me being up there that the water wouldn’t be drained anytime soon. There’s no way that the homes would be habitable. Not after what I saw.
Q: Did you see a lot of animals and pets?
A: I saw some around the convention center. From the air we saw a couple dogs. I met a gentlemen who was a vet and a medical doctor. He was getting a real workout handling both. I think I saw a dog on a rooftop. We saw a lot of stuff on the rooftops.
Q: What kind of stuff on rooftops did you see?
A: There were a lot of roofs with a lot of holes where people cut perfect squares to get on top. On the roofs we saw bags of stuff, I think I even saw a mattress and a propane tank that caught on fire.
Q: Did you see rescues?
A: Yeah. Where I was staying they were bringing in about 10 new people about every half hour. The rescues were done mostly by boat. I didn’t see any helicopter rescues but I know the helicopters would spot people, call it in and then boats would be brought in for the rescue. You knew which houses were the ones with corpses. They were spray-painted orange.
Q: How was the rescue operation? You know, everyone keeps criticizing the way the military has handled it but from what I saw it looked like there were enough people there to do the job. Maybe even too many.
Q: I don’t think anyone is blaming the military personnel. People are angry and upset that they weren’t activated fast enough. They’re angry and upset that the president took two days before publicly acknowledging the levee break situation and calling in the national troops.
A: Then let the people know that it was a political decision and not the troops’ fault. Everyone should know that the people on the ground are doing everything they can. If there is blame, it should shouldn’t go on the troops.
Q: What did you see on the faces of the medical personnel and the people who lost their homes?
A: Well, the troops all knew what they were doing. They’d been to Iraq and Afghanistan so for them this wasn’t as bad.
Q: I see the point about the troops. They are the heroes in all this. No one denies that. What about the others?
A: A lot of people looked worn-out. The look ran the gamut. I saw baggage handlers at the airport in great spirits who were glad to be alive. There were people who looked stressed. People who looked angry. There were people wandering around with guitars on their backs who looked totally lost and didn’t know what to do with themselves.
Q: What did you see at the airport?
A: A lot of people, but it wasn’t the way Oprah made it out to be. A lot of the troops were frustrated that Oprah said something about how people were dying in the airport without anyone helping them.
Q: They were. It was reported in The New York Times on Sept. 3. The paper ran a picture on the front page. A disturbing photograph of elderly people, a string of them lined up on a baggage carousel in the airport that they were using as a hospital triage.
A: I didn’t see any of that when I was there. But I know that the troops were upset with what Oprah said.
Q: Being back now for a week, how has it affected you?
A: I would say on different levels. Personally I’ve been pro-military and supportive of our troops all my life, so to see firsthand what they were trained to do was awesome. They are very well organized and there are a lot of personnel. People should know that.
Q: I don’t think the American people doubt what our American military is doing. How else has it affected you?
A: It is hard to see pictures in the paper, on television. It is hard to fathom how widespread the damage is. A major metropolitan city is underwater.
Q: You said it has affected you on different levels. What’s another level?
A: People who know me have asked me about it. I tell them honesty it was so surreal that it is hard to put it in perspective. I’ve witnessed and seen hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed. It’s like visualizing a million pennies. The human mind is just not capable of visualizing a million pennies.
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