Former Broadside Photographer Captures Katrina Devastation

Posted: September 27, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Carrie Lake

Matt Rourke
Matt Rourke

As Hurricane Katrina was slowly gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Matt Rourke, BA Government and Politics ’99, loaded his overnight bag, camera and laptop into a rented SUV and began an eight-hour trip from Texas to New Orleans.

At the time, he had no idea he was going to be an eyewitness to one of the world’s most devastating natural disasters. Rourke, a newspaper photographer, was headed to the Crescent City on assignment for the Austin American-Statesman.

Rourke’s compelling photos taken in Katrina’s aftermath have since been distributed by the Associated Press and have appeared in Time Magazine, USA Today, and other newspapers across the country. National Geographic used his photo of a mother carrying her one-year-old daughter away from an evacuation helicopter on the cover of its special edition on Katrina.

This was not Rourke’s first trip to New Orleans, although he’s never been for Mardi Gras or a jazz festival.

“I’ve never been to New Orleans when there wasn’t a hurricane,” he says. In 2004, he was there for Hurricane Ivan.

On this particular assignment, Rourke slept on the floor of a local newspaper office the first night. The second night—when he thought the worst of the storm was over—he scoped out what he thought was high ground and got comfortable in his four-wheel accommodations. By morning, the SUV was sitting in six inches of steadily rising water.

After abandoning the SUV, he took to the streets, wading through waist-high water. He took photos of people removing goods from a store along Canal Street. He took photos of a police officer searching for fuel to siphon to run generators for children on life support.

He found and photographed a high-rise hotel with all its windows broken, pets left to fend for themselves, residents wading through high water searching for assistance, scores of people at a triage center for evacuees and crowds of people on Interstate 10 waiting for evacuation by bus.

While viewing these sights through the lens of his camera, Rourke was not thinking about the impact Katrina had on the city and the people who lived there. And he didn’t have time to be scared.

“When I was right in the middle of it all, I didn’t think much of anything other than how to keep my camera and laptop dry,” he says.

Two weeks after Katrina hit, Rourke said he still hasn’t had time to emotionally sort what he saw in New Orleans.

“People just don’t understand what has happened here. They see the pictures in the news, but there is a great disconnect between what I have seen and felt and what people who are watching the news can really understand.”

One photo Rourke snapped after the hurricane has been used on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and in commercials for the American Red Cross.

“I am proud that my photos can help tell this story and that I was able to contribute to something that has affected so many people,” he says.

While at Mason, Rourke worked as a photographer for Broadside. These days, assignments at the Austin American-Statesman are usually less dangerous than hurricane coverage—food festivals and University of Texas football games are typical.

“I love that every day is different,” he says. “I don’t think any other job could give me such variety.”

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