Reporting on a natural disaster is a different challenge when your own home and community are under threat. For photojournalist Marie D. De Jesús and her colleagues at the Houston Chronicle, Hurricane Harvey has meant balancing work and home life.
PDN spoke with De Jesús via phone and email on Tuesday to learn how she and the Chronicle photo staff are working to cover the crisis. She told us about conditions on the ground, what she’s seen that’s made an impression on her, and how the experience of veteran photojournalists and communication among the Chronicle photographers and editors have been key to telling the story of their city.
PDN: First of all, are you safe? Has your home been affected by the disaster?
Marie D. De Jesús: Nothing serious, some water came up through the shower drain. Some of the water from the backyard came into the living room. I have a housemate, he owns two dogs and they went missing in the middle of the chaos and one of them died. So this has been a really hard week.
PDN: Has it been challenging balancing work and home life when your home has been in jeopardy?
MDJ: Balancing work and home life has been a big challenge. Our lives are here, we are not returning to a hotel at the end of the night. We are returning to take care of our homes and loved ones. I have to make sure that under these harsh conditions I will be able to get back to a safe place.
I have been focusing on following evacuees to their shelters and the recovery efforts now that the waters are starting to subside in the center of the city of Houston. Houston is 36 percent Latino, so my Spanish has been useful to be able to learn about their struggles and document them.
PDN: How did the Chronicle photo staff prepare to cover the hurricane and flood?
MDJ: We have several senior shooters that have already been through this process a number of times. Number one, with Katrina , then Hurricane Ike , [Tropical Storm] Allison . Then we had the Memorial Day Flood  that was also devastating for the city. We have people that have done this many times. They’re very well-prepared, we have our kits prepared and our tools ready.
I’m from Puerto Rico, I’m an island girl. Hurricanes are part of our life, part of our culture, so you learn to get prepared. [The staff photographers are] constantly group chatting using GroupMe app. Every single move, we know where everybody is at, we’re giving updates and the editors are sending us instructions: “This levee is about to give in, this amount of houses have been destroyed, an officer with HPD might have drowned.” So we are mobilizing constantly through that app. We’re reacting as we need, but this is not our first rodeo, this is not our first hurricane or storm. This city floods. This is what happens, it’s The Bayou City, so there’s always water coming up and rising really high. We have been arriving home after a long day of shooting to start planning for the next day. This is a lot of planning. That’s the only way this has been a successful mission.
PDN: Has it been helpful to you as a photographer who is seeing something of this magnitude for the first time to have colleagues who’ve covered larger natural disasters?
MDJ: Yes. We start talking about [hurricane season] early in the summer. One of the senior photographers, Melissa Phillips, she sends us prepping emails with a list of tools, maps and things that can be useful for us to try and navigate [the situation]. On the first day [of Harvey], on Sunday, all of us had to stay and report from our own neighborhoods because we could not get out. We’re all from different parts of the city, so we were all sending photos from those areas and they’re all catastrophic scenery. It was horrible from all the corners we were sending photos from. They are very supportive. We are a pretty tight-knit staff.
PDN: What have you seen that has been the most striking to you?
MDJ: It never gets repetitive seeing people having to decide what to take with them. Water is reaching to their chest and they’re [wondering] what do I take? How do I keep a kid calm when we have to go to a shelter? It still surprises me when I hear someone say, “We have been in our car for four days, waiting to be able to get to a shelter.” Can you imagine, with two kids, and a two-year-old, inside a car since Saturday and finally being able to find a shelter? Cooped up inside her car, trapped because she can’t really move, waiting for someone to rescue them?
Seeing people [airlifted to safety]. And then seeing people reunite at the shelter because some of them haven’t seen each other for days—that’s something that you carry with you forever. Or people arriving to shelters and immediately being given oxygen, things like that. I just came from a shelter and one of the dogs [that was rescued] started pulling on its leash wanting to jump into the lap of its owner who is in a wheelchair. That’s the type of thing that we’re seeing.
And also the volunteers, it’s just amazing. Last week we were hearing about a nation divided over a dark history, and then all of a sudden all of that is not important anymore.
PDN: Have you been in dangerous situations?
MDJ: Walking in water that was up to my chest. And then I saw a snake pass by me. It was a small snake but still, when you have water up to [your chest] and you see a snake pass by, it’s little things like that. You’re running on adrenaline constantly. And I can’t imagine for the shooters that have been really being involved in even heavier stuff.
PDN: Have all of your colleagues been safe?
MDJ: Yes, everybody is in good shape. Under these conditions every solid photo is a miracle. Making really good photos is hard, it takes a lot.
PDN: Have you been focusing on stills or video footage?
MDJ: It is important for the Houston Chronicle that we shoot video, but we have all focused mostly on stills. We have a videographer, he’s supposed to be doing mostly video but the conditions have been difficult for video. So I know he has also been shooting mostly stills.
PDN: I would imagine it has been incredibly difficult to move around. How have you done that?
MDJ: I am using a company car, a four-by-four. But you know you keep turning around. I have been driving against traffic on a major highway because you have to turn around, you can’t cross those waters. And then I get on the medians; I use the truck in ways I could never imagine was possible. Things that would be so not OK with law enforcement, but under these circumstances you climb anywhere that you can to be able to pass that body of water, that pool of water, that puddle. Whatever you need to do to make it happen. We all constantly have to turn around. We let each other know: “Hey, I-45 is still a lake by main street. Don’t even try.” That has delayed the process.
PDN: What do you see unfolding for you over the next couple of days?
MDJ: I think we’re going to have to start to focus a lot on where are these people staying—all the evacuees, all the victims, we’ll have to start focusing a lot more on their life conditions. Also the water will come down eventually and we’ll start seeing the damage, and that might mean a lot of bodies. So that’s what we need to keep our eyes and ears open [for]. How are people still being affected? What’s under those waters? Was there real damage? And then the cleaning process. We’ve got to rebuild.
For more on Hurricane Harvey from the photo staff of the Houston Chronicle, go here.
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