Aspen resident keeping busy documenting natural disasters | AspenTimes.com

Aspen resident keeping busy documenting natural disasters

Naomi Havlen

Andrea Booher, staff photographer for FEMA, packs gear at her Aspen home as she prepares to return to the Gulf Coast to photograph the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Andrea Booher arrived at the Houston Astrodome when buses of evacuees were rolling in to deposit loads of hungry, tired New Orleans residents to their new, cavernous shelter.”It was just unbelievable, the state people were arriving in – without shoes, having been in the convention center and Superdome in New Orleans without food and water,” she said recently. “You could see the waterlines on their T-shirts, where they have been plucked out of the water. They were in a pitiful state.”Booher is an Aspen resident who has been a photographer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the past 14 years. When natural (and sometimes human-caused) disasters happen, Booher boards planes with her photo equipment and heads into the thick of things.She spent most of 2003 in Florida, covering hurricanes Charlie, Francis, Ivan and Jean for FEMA and working on a documentary on the destruction. Four years ago she was one of two photographers allowed to photograph the recovery operation at the World Trade Center in New York City, her images becoming ubiquitous symbols of the aftermath of Sept. 11.But she has no comparison for what she saw in the last three weeks in the South.

“Louisiana is horrific, and Mississippi is equally so – it’s miles after miles after miles of complete devastation,” she said. “And this impacted such a cross-section of people, from shrimpers to the wealthy and the poor. It was across all socioeconomic levels.”Booher was on the fourth day of a vacation to Spain when she heard the news about Hurricane Katrina. She jokes that this will teach her never to try to take a vacation during the middle of hurricane season, but when she left for her trip, Katrina was just a tropical storm heading for Florida.She caught a plane out of Madrid and was sent immediately to the Astrodome in Houston, where within two days 27,100 evacuees had arrived to sleep on cots and receive food and water. “A little world evolved there – it was fascinating to see all of the transitions,” Booher said. “A beauty school came in and set up in a corner to do women’s hair. People had such interesting, horrific, sensitive stories.”Booher met a man who called himself one of the “renegade bus drivers.” He was on a bus that was leaving a suburb of New Orleans when the bus driver abandoned the bus in his own hometown, leaving the riders alone. This man had decided it was up to him to drive to the Houston Astrodome, a challenge he and a few other men readily accepted.

A friend of Booher’s who works for Frontier Airlines asked her to help distribute 100 one-way tickets to Denver to help give people a fresh start, and she gave several to the renegade bus driver for his friends and family.”Here they were, staying on cots with everything they now owned in a teeny Kroger bag, and a fresh start in Denver sounded wonderful to them,” she said. “He told me he had his captain’s license and I told him there’s not much water in Denver. He said, ‘That’s all right, I’ve got other skills. I’ve seen way too much water – I was pulling people out left and right. It’s OK if I don’t’ see any water for the rest of my life.'”After two weeks, Booher left the Astrodome to photograph the recovery effort in New Orleans. She followed around firefighters and U.S. marshals putting out blazes, took photos of an animal rescue center being set up, and documented shrimp fishermen whose boats and, therefore, livelihood, had been destroyed.To take a short breather and re-pack, Booher flew back to Colorado on Thursday and is in Aspen this weekend trying to pack essentials she didn’t have with her when she arrived in the South from Spain, like her waders.As a FEMA employee, she heard some of the criticism of the slow response to the hurricane, but she said she and her co-workers stayed focused on the tasks at hand.

“The people on the ground are working 16, 18 hours a day, and a lot of people didn’t sleep for days and days while working on the response,” she said. “There’s not a lot of time to think about the political side of it, nor do we really want to. The agency has always been made up of people who feel like they’re working for the disaster victims.”Even still, she hopes the government “puts a lot of thought into how to structure the agency.” In the meantime, she’ll continue responding to the country’s worst disasters.”When something like this happens, everyone feels strongly that they should be doing something, and for me, I have to get on a plane. It’s just in my nature,” she said. “And I’m going back for the next one.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com