Tragedy and Triumph: Cover Story
Three ex-Shorthorn photographers share the stories behind their Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina
Wading through waist-deep putrid water, his camera continually recording an unbelievable scene, Dallas Morning News photographer Michael Ainsworth headed to the Louisiana Superdome.
“I had taken pictures of people sitting on the parking lot that was the interstate and of people fighting to get away from the Superdome,” he said. “I was shooting photos of people getting on buses to leave the city. It was so chaotic, I didn’t really know what kind of images I had, didn’t know what other journalists were doing. I just sent them in.”
The next day, one of Ainsworth’s photographs ran in more than 200 newspapers worldwide, instantly an iconic image of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Little more than six months later, Ainsworth (’91 BA) and fellow UT Arlington alumni Tom Fox (’91 BFA) and Brad Loper (’93 BA), were part of an eight-member Morning News team standing on a Columbia University stage in New York City accepting the Pulitzer Prize for their images of Katrina.
Part of the first wave of photographers to head for Louisiana, Ainsworth rented maybe the last SUV in the state and rode out Katrina in a New Orleans hotel.
“Before it all hit, I was in Dallas watching the Weather Channel and wondering why I hadn’t gotten a call,” he said. Already known as “Hurricane Boy,” he had covered both Dennis and Emily earlier that year.
“The problem with flying in to cover a hurricane is that you don’t have any supplies,” he said. “And you know you can’t get anything there. I forgot two really important things—my satellite phone and hip waders.”
After eight days mired in the muck, a foot infection forced Ainsworth to higher ground.
He’s still haunted by the people of New Orleans.
“I tried to keep track of some of the people I took pictures of. I actually caught up with one woman later; she’s in Rhode Island now. A reader tracked me down, wanting to adopt the people in one of my photos, but I wasn’t able to find them again.
“You couldn’t be detached in all of this. People would see that I had a cellphone and ask me to call their families. I spent many an hour calling to pass along messages, just trying to get through.
You did what you could to help.”
One week after Katrina made landfall, Fox entered New Orleans with a Morning News reporter and video photographer. By then, the news team had established a base, camping out behind a fire station.
“The firefighters had power and water,” Fox explained, “and they were armed.”
He rode into the city with members of the Texas National Guard, transported in massive military trucks with a 6-foot ground clearance that kept the engines out of the water.
“Some of the areas we saw were terrible,” he said. “It’s the only time I’ve ever had to wear a flak jacket in this country.”
A few days later, Fox joined a news group traveling to St. Bernard Parish, another hard-hit area just outside the city. While exploring the flooded region, the reporters and photographers stumbled upon an enormous oil spill. A tank in the area had ruptured, coating an already inundated neighborhood with oil.
“We came back the next day and there were two guys with one truck trying to siphon oil off the streets,” Fox said.
The project appeared hopeless. The area was covered in oil, including a little dog that accompanied the men. Never anticipating the impact of such an image, Fox took a photo of the men and the dog.
“I didn’t think much about it, just transmitted the image,” he said.
Overnight, the oil-covered-dog shot made its way around the world. It appeared on the National Geographic Web site. It was broadcast on South African television. And when viewers discovered that Fox had left the area without rescuing the dog, they were outraged.
“I started getting hate mail from all over the world,” he said.
“There were so many responses that they overwhelmed the newsroom. At first I tried to explain that we were focused on saving people, not animals, but that didn’t change anything. We even went back to try to find the dog.”
A dog was located in the area, but Fox was never certain it was the same one.
“The newsroom staff didn’t even pass along the worst letters to me. And this went on for about a month after the hurricane.”
Loper got a different look at the rescue operation. He went into New Orleans by helicopter, landing at the Memorial Medical Center.
“It seemed like the whole city was under water as we flew over,” he said. “You could see people wading through chest-high water with bags of their belongings.”
When they landed, Loper entered a scene of “organized chaos.” It was there that he recorded an image that would become part of the Pulitzer-winning entry.
“The helipad was on top of the parking garage about 10 stories up,” he said. “They had patients lined up in a covered walkway as helicopters landed to load up. It was unbelievably hot.
“Nurse Mary Jo D’Amico was there, standing over the patients with a piece of cardboard as she tried to help keep them cool. I would not realize until later how incredible that situation was. It was truly amazing to see people like D’Amico still doing their jobs, taking care of patients under such awful conditions.”
All three men confess to a certain regret when remembering their Katrina experiences.
“Each of us has a picture from Katrina that haunts us in some way, and I feel some guilt over the award,” Fox said. “I hate to win for something so tragic. On the other hand, this story needed to be remembered. You look back at the other photos that have won this award, images like the soldiers on Iwo Jima.”
“Yes,” Ainsworth added, “it’s an honor to be with them.”
— Sherry W. Neaves