Finding Faith After Hurricane Katrina

Finding Faith After Hurricane Katrina

This is the latest in our One Photo series, where photographers share their most meaningful photo and the story behind it.  

We asked photojournalist Charlie Varley to share the story behind this image of a girl during Hurricane Katrina. Here’s what he said. 

The winds from Hurricane Katrina had eased their pounding of New Orleans by late afternoon. By that time, we as reporters were beginning to get a better idea of the terrible devastation wrought upon the city, which at the time was my home.

I was covering scenes of devastation from the elevated section of the I-10 roadway, which overlooked the still-rising flood waters. I watched as rescue workers in boats came and went from the ramps cars would ordinarily use to enter and exit the freeway.

29th August, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, Louisiana. The lower 9th ward disappears under water. Photo by Charlie Varley

I descended a ramp to get closer to where police, EMS and volunteers were unloading people rescued from their flooded homes . They asked if I wanted to join them as they set out on their missions of mercy but I declined. I believed they needed all the space they had for the people they were rescuing, not for members of the press.

It was amidst this chaos that  I caught a glimpse of this little girl. It was just a fleeting moment, and our eyes locked. I raised the camera and fired a few frames, only one of which was good. Then she was gone, and I moved on and kept shooting. I did not have time to get her name.

29th August, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, Louisiana. Rescuers collect Faith Figueroa (1yrs), saved by local police and firefighters from her family’s flooded home in the lower 9th ward. Photo by Charlie Varley

A few days later my agents called to say the photo editor of Newsweek wanted to speak to me about the photo. The magazine was considering using it on their cover worldwide, but they needed the girl’s  name, which I did not have. I was determined to find it.

Later that day I spoke to Ryan Parry, the reporter I was working with when I had seen the little girl. He poured through his notes for me. The true professional that he is, he had managed to speak with the little girl’s mother and had the girl’s name and age but no contact information for her mother. Who knows if that would have helped, though. All communications were down in New Orleans following the storm.

Newsweek’s photo editor was delighted to learn that I had found the little girl’s name. It was Faith Figueroa and she was one at the time. They published the photo the week after the storm hit. Their front-page headline perfectly summed up my thoughts on what this image represented” “Poverty, Race and Katrina. Lessons of A National Shame.”

Sept 19th, 2005 edition of Newsweek, Front Page, National and International cover. My photograph of 1 year old Faith Figueroa, rescued from the flooded lower 9th ward of New Orleans the day after hurricane Katrina.

As the weeks and months passed, I could not help but wonder what had happened to Faith. I wanted to reach out, to help in some way. Finding her became my obsession. I made copies of the Newsweek cover, and as people slowly began to trickle back into the devastated Ninth Ward, I went to every home and business where there were signs of people who had returned. I knocked on countless doors and approached dozens and dozens of people — all to no avail.

One day, I stopped to investigate an area closer to where the photograph had been taken. An angry man approached me, pointed to the gun at his side and said he would shoot me if I did not leave immediately. I was able to calm him by showing him the photograph and explaining my quest. He apologized, having assumed I was a looter stripping the neighborhood of its copper pipes, air conditioner cores and anything else of value.

He looked intently at the photograph. He thought he knew the little girl and where the family lived. It was July 2006, almost a year since the storm smashed New Orleans.

He took me to an apartment, and I banged on the door, but there was no answer. I couldn’t believe I was so close but still so far from being reunited with the little girl whose image had haunted me for months. I returned later that day and knocked once more. I heard movement inside and a security latch being fastened. At last, someone was home. But was it the right home? Had my quest come to an end? Butterflies leaped in my stomach.

A young girl opened the door a crack. I explained myself and showed her the copy of the photo through the crack. She called for her mother. As her mother unfastened the security latch to see the image, a beaming toddler walked out to greet me and hugged my leg. It was Faith. We did not know each other but for that fleeting moment in the chaos of the storm. I had to restrain my emotions as her mother, Miriam, invited me inside. She was shocked to learn her daughter had made the front page of Newsweek. She had no idea.

The family offered me food and a seat at the table, and they told me of their terrible ordeal. How they had cowered in their second-story apartment as the storm swirled around tearing everything up, never imagining things could be so bad. They had weathered storms before, but nothing like Katrina. As daylight arrived, they discovered they were surrounded by water, their car incapacitated by the floods. The family could not get out of their house and had to hope they would be safe on the second floor as the waters continued to rise.

That afternoon things became desperate. Just when they thought the water would inundate them, they heard the boats circling the neighborhood. Miriam shouted for help and a boat pulled up. The only way in for the rescuers was to smash a large window. The family moved back as glass shattered on the floor around them. Miriam’s three daughters were in hysterics, screaming and crying in fear as the rescuers lifted them through the window into the boat. They did not remember being photographed when they landed under the I-10 overpass.

30th August, 2005. Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, Louisiana. national guardsmen encounter hundreds of refugees from the lower 9th ward awaiting transportation to the refugee camp that is the Superdome. The thousands of people gathered on the only high ground they could find at the St Claud avenue bridge. Photo by Charlie Varley

From there, they were taken to the Superdome, which they escaped a few days later, making their way north to connect with relatives who would send them on to New York. There, they would reunite with Miriam’s husband, who had rushed back from a container ship halfway around the world when the storm hit. The family spent many months living in Miriam’s in-laws’ cramped New York apartment. It had been a very difficult time for them, and they craved to return home to New Orleans.

As soon as they learned that others had moved back into their neighborhood, Miriam decided to return. When she did, she discovered the devastation and wept. Fortunately for them, their home was mostly intact, the floodwaters having peaked at the ceiling of the apartments below. The neighborhood was without electricity, but only running water had been re-established. Security was non-existent, there were no schools for the children, mountains of rat-infested rotting trash was piled in the streets, looters and thieves abounded, and they relied on their large dogs for protection.

1st Sept, 2005. Mass evacuation of New Orleans begins. Thousands of desperate people mass outside the Superdome hoping for a seat on a bus to take them out of New Orleans. A desperate parent holds his child above his head in an attempt to get the attention of the Louisiana National troopers. Photo by Charlie Varley

In the months and years that have followed, I have become good friends with the family. I have and continue to donate 50% of any sales of Faith’s images to them, although as the years have passed, the sales have mostly dried up.

I have since left the United States and now live back in Europe. I’m happy to report that the family is doing well. Incredibly enough, Faith is now a teenager! Sadly though for the United States and cities like New Orleans, the poverty exposed to the world during Hurricane Katrina has not improved.

29 August 2006 – New Orleans – Louisiana. Lower 9th ward. On the one year anniversary of hurricane Katrina, and most of the area remains derelict and abandoned. Ribbons, inscribed with ‘In loving memory of family,’ flutters in a slight breeze. The styrofoam cross hangs beside front steps, all that remains of a house washed away in the flood waters that rushed through the area one year ago. Photo by Charlie Varley

If anything, things only continue to get worse as the divide between those who have and have not continues to widen. And for New Orleans, as global warming continues to negatively impact the planet, it is not a matter of if, but when the next monster storm will lay waste to the Big Easy.

But as with everything in life, one can only hope that things can get better. And as I have learned through my search for one little girl who touched my heart: You gotta have ‘Faith!’


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