Tuesday, May 24, 2011

By Sunday, I was doing my job.

Seeing Anderson Cooper in Joplin, Mo. after the tornado I can't help but think of tornadoes here in Huntsville.

I was in Florida when they hit and I called to check in with the newsroom. It was chaos. The breaking news chaos that exists in a newsroom after a huge story like this. There was no power and little communication. No one was sure what was going on and they weren't even sure they could print a paper the next day.  "It's like the f*cking Lord of the Flies Up here!", said one reporter.

So, that was how it was going.  Well, I knew it was bad.

I've been through my share of tornadoes and hurricanes.  I know what to expect.  When I saw the photos and the video, it was the picture my mind had painted. The chaos, the devastation, the rescuers, the heroes, the victims - it was all there. It is sadly predictable story. 

And I wasn't there. I was on the beach, literally.  I was in Florida waiting to shoot the Endeavour launch enjoying some down time at the beach.  I kept checking in.  At first the phones worked. Then they didn't. Cell phones worked. Then they didn't. texting worked. Mostly. Each time I managed to talk L., it was clear to me things were getting worse. I called into the newsroom again. "It's a clusterf*ck."

So, that's how it was going.  But, still, no orders to come back.

The photojournalist in me desperately wanted to go back.  Here was the biggest news story in years and I was on the beach taking pictures of jellyfish in the sunlight. At home, there was real journalism happening.  At home, my coworkers were doing something that really matters. At home, my fellow photographers were shooting images of the best and the worst of the human experience. The Times staff had worked a miracle in getting a newspaper delivered every day after the tornadoes which knocked out power throughout the area.  Me? I was drawing a smiley face in the sand. I knew I was in the wrong place.

I must confess, I sort of liked this wrong place.  I had seen the tears, the crying, the funerals plenty of times.  Maybe I'm older?  Maybe I'm a little tired? Maybe I've seen it enough times?  Whatever the reason, a little part of me didn't mind being hundreds of miles away.  There would be plenty of terrible stories, funerals, and heroic stories waiting for me when I got back. What's another day on the beach?

I watched the astronauts turn the wrong way, Shuttle Endeavour's launch had been scrubbed. I called L., I heard it in her voice. She wanted me to come home. It was clear after talking to my boss, it was taking a toll on the staff after only a little over a day. It was time to go home.

After buying generators, food, and batteries I looked like Mad Max heading north on I-95.  I headed to Chattanooga where I thought I could get a hotel. I was afraid of heading into town after curfew with gasoline and generators.  All the hotels were full. I slept in my car at a rest stop overlooking the Tennessee River. At first light, I topped off with gas, got ice, put my gun within reach, and headed into my hometown. It's a bit unnerving checking your gun before heading home.

By Sunday, I was doing my job.  By Sunday, I was following the path of the storm. By Sunday, I was with rescuers, survivors, heroes, and looters. By Sunday, I was witnessing the unbelievable. By Sunday, I smelled death. By Sunday, I was where I was supposed to be. By Sunday, a little part of me was thinking about the beach.

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