A Horrible Blessing | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

A Horrible Blessing

"How am I going to save my grandbabies?" she asked after the hurricane struck, two years ago this month

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Hurricane Katrina had already driven Cynthia Scott from her home in the Algiers section of New Orleans, but her lowest moment was still to come. Stranded on a highway overpass, she was caring for six children and their mother, who had given birth to twins just two weeks before. After three days they had little water; their food supply consisted of two Rice Krispie Treats.

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"I was thinking, how am I going to save my grandbabies?" Scott recalls. They included her biological grandchild, Dwayne, 8, a living link to a son of hers who had been slain in 1997, and five others—Rod'keesa, 5; Alaysa, 3; Yasmine, 1; and the newborn twins, Eric and Erin—belonging to Dwayne's mother, Erica Alphonse, 21.

During their second night on the overpass, they heard gunshots, and a seemingly demented old man stumbled into their midst, crying that they were all going to die. "No sir, we're not going to die," Scott said, trying to calm him. "Not tonight and not at this time."

The next morning, she saw the old man's body splayed at the bottom of a staircase leading off the overpass. "This man is dead," she recalls telling a National Guardsman. "And the Guard said, 'OK.' As if that was OK."

That was the moment she could no longer contain her rage and frustration. Scott noticed a man with an expensive camera: clearly, a member of the news media. She walked up to Michael Ainsworth of the Dallas Morning News and unloaded. "We've got thirsty, starving babies up here and no help coming," she fumed. "Where's the help?"

Ainsworth had just photographed the body at the bottom of the steps. "I was kind of emotional from seeing the old man dead," he recalls. "And she's emotional from the same thing. We were both of the same mind about this old man: that his death was senseless." He didn't mind being the target of her fury, he says, "because really, there wasn't much more I could do." Scott sat down between Dwayne and the twins. Ainsworth took the photograph on p. 17, an unflinching look at the suffering Katrina wreaked two years ago this month.

Ainsworth and his colleagues learned in April 2006 that the Morning News had won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography for its Katrina coverage; those images, and others including the one of Scott, were collected into a book, Eyes of the Storm.

On August 29, 2006, a year after the hurricane hit, Ainsworth received an e-mail from a woman in Houston named Rhonda Tavey. She was writing to say that Cynthia Scott and her family had been evacuated to Houston the day he photographed them. Tavey had helped Scott and Alphonse find jobs and homes, and the five youngest children were living with Tavey and her two teenage daughters in their three-bedroom house. In fact, Tavey had enrolled Alphonse's older children in elementary school and preschool and was taking care of the twins herself. Tavey, a single mother, was also recovering from a mastectomy. "I was all wound up in my own recovery, and maybe God thought I should focus on something else," she says.

Scott returned to New Orleans with Dwayne in June 2006. She now works there as a Wal-Mart cashier; he just finished second grade. Her house has a new roof, she says, but instead of repairing her walls, windows and floors, a contractor cheated her.

In November 2006, Alphonse returned to New Orleans. She landed a job in a concession at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and found an apartment. Her children joined her in June, but how long they would stay was uncertain. Alphonse was planning for the girls, and possibly the twin boys, to go back to Tavey at summer's end. In Houston, she says, the children have opportunities they don't have in New Orleans. "This whole ordeal from the hurricane until now, I don't want to say it was an adventure, I don't want to say vacation; it's been a balance of bad and good," she says. "It was horrible. But it was a blessing too."

Tavey has registered the children for school this fall. She calls daily to assure them that she and everything else they have come to know in Houston—choir, swimming, track, basketball and volleyball—is still there. "My door," she says, "is open."

Maryalice Yakutchik is a freelance journalist based in Maryland.

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