Disaster response runs thick through my veins. I grew up in a house where no scenario was unspeakable. When Stephen King’s “The Stand” miniseries first aired, I asked my father if it was possible that a super virus could kill off most of humanity. Do you know what he told his 10-year-old daughter? That it was a matter of “when”, not “if.” After my father retired from the military, he signed up as an on-call disaster logistics specialist for FEMA. He worked a few hurricanes, and eventually found himself on one of the first planes to NYC right after September 11 as part of the response team. Now he works in Homeland Security where he gets paid to come up with nightmare terrorism scenarios before actual terrorists can think of and execute them. My brother worked for the Red Cross for 10 years, and being a handsome and articulate gentleman, he was frequently the face of the organization at disasters like Hurricane Katrina. My mother works in hospitals and likes to watch surgery shows on tv.
I was strongly influenced by all of them. I learned early on that disaster is a human constant, that viscera is nothing to be squeamish about, and that being able to deal directly with people caught up in the middle of catastrophe- to tell their stories and comfort and help them when you can- these are some of my great life-lessons. Of all the facets of news photography, I have always been drawn to disaster the most. It’s one of the few areas where journalists are able to have an immediate positive impact almost every time. You can’t generally prevent disaster, but you can sometimes help mitigate the impact via strict building codes or warning systems. You can take the kinds of pictures that make people in far away places open their wallets and give to organizations that help the victims and rebuild lives. Most fascinating to me, you see the full spectrum of human behavior on display in hyperdrive. Disaster zones immediately turn into alternative universes populated by more heroes and villains than you’ll see anywhere else.
This was the case in Moore, Oklahoma. When news reached me that a monster tornado had gouged the landscape, tearing up neighborhoods and shops and schools, I booked the first flight I could get to Oklahoma City. It had been five years since I’d covered disaster. It was a long time to be out of commission for intense large-scale news. I was worried that five years of shooting portraits and features and personal projects had made me soft.
I was on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, and while some of these images ran in the paper, I’ve sat on most of them until today. I was definitely shaking the rust off and I wasn’t sure how to feel about my time in Moore or the pictures I had made. I was torn between my obligations to my publication and my instinct to shoot pictorially and also concern for propriety. I wanted more than anything to respect the people and the community. To that end, I found myself doing something I never would have done five years ago. I spent more time talking than shooting. I watched with great discomfort as residents, picking through the remains of their homes, were approached by perfectly-coiffed, camera-ready television personalities who were politely turned away. Meanwhile, I forgot to pack a hairbrush. I certainly didn’t pack any makeup, and I had already sweat through my clothes, which were also covered in dirt from climbing over downed trees and splashing through muddy puddles. I approached with my cameras down, and genuinely curious, asked “how’re y’all holding up?”
I met Joann at the Moore Community Center after a reporter finished interviewing her and asked me to get a portrait. She didn’t want to take off her hoodie or sunglasses, and I wasn’t about to force the matter. This is where I first saw the telltale pattern of mud and detritus that covered every surface for miles.
A few minutes later, I found Michelle and her daughter Destiny. It had started to rain, so we waited in her car while she made some phone calls. They didn’t know what had become of their home at this point. It was near the primary school that had been leveled, so they expected the worst. Destiny needed her epilepsy medication, but they couldn’t get insurance to refill it since they had just picked it up the other day. They were hoping to get back to their home to see if they could find the medication in the wreckage, but the neighborhood was blocked off by law enforcement and they were only letting a handful of people in with police escorts. I suggested we make our way over to see if we could all get in and sure enough, we snagged the last escort of the morning. The house was damaged, but still standing and the medication was on the counter where they left it.
This very nice FBI agent was our escort. I’d covered my cameras in a big black plastic garbage bag because of the rain and rode in with Michelle and Destiny. Nobody asked me anything. Later on, when I asked the agent for her information for captionpurposes, she was PISSED.
It’s fascinating to me how quickly the tv news folks can come into a place where the buildings have been flattened and build structures of their own.
Some residents were happy to provide interviews.
Others needed some alone time, but were unlucky to live on the one residential street that was open to the national news crews for the first 24 hours or so.
I met John through his wife Timi. She was sitting in front of their completely flattened home, guarding the valuables they had managed to pull from the rubble while John went through with gloves trying to salvage what he could. He found his grandfather’s flag and let me make a portrait of him with it.
You may recall seeing the aerial footage of Moore right after the tornado hit. There was one house that not only took a direct hit, but also caught fire. It was the Sloan family’s house. Their worldly possessions were in moving boxes at the time, as they were set to move to a new town later in the week. In the above photo, Christian and Caleb survey their neighborhood for the first time since the tornado.
We took a long and arduous hike through their neighborhood, which was still closed to media and residents at the time. We crossed a gorge by crawling along a fallen tree, carefully picked our way through backyards and tried to stay hidden from the cops, but after an hour of this, in the searing Oklahoma heat and a mere 20 yards from their home, we got snagged. The police were less concerned with the Sloans than they were with a photographer who had managed to infiltrate their special no-press zone. The cop said he’d have to drive us all out of the neighborhood, and while my entire objective had been to show the Sloan kids at the site of their home, I told the policeman that I would be ok sitting in the back of his car if Christian and Caleb could at least see their home and maybe grab anything that remained. He not only allowed that, he also gave me a few minutes to get the pictures. As we got our free ride out of the neighborhood and Christian sat with a salvaged casserole dish in her lap, I suggested that she was going to have to come up with a special recipe and call it Tornado Casserole, which could only be cooked in this one dish and it would passed down in their family for generations. She seemed to really like the idea.
I met James, Austin, Mason and Jake toward the end of my last evening in Moore. I wanted to end this post on a positive note, because despite the devastation and tragedy, so many of the Moore residents I met were incredibly forward-looking and resilient. We started off with some serious portraits, but the boys asked if they could do a few fun ones and I was happy to oblige. This photo stands very much apart from the rest of my coverage in Moore, but it captures this very American (and particularly Oklahoman) spirit of hoisting the flag, picking up the pieces, and moving on with life even though your town seems to be a tornado magnet. I asked everyone I met if they planned on moving away after this one, and was consistently answered with “Never! We love Moore!”