EDITOR'S NOTE : Amy Upshaw was among the half dozen reporters sent by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to report on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Three months later, she returned to assess the city's progress. Here are some of her personal observations from her visit.
Sometimes, I think about the brief time I spent in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Usually, my thoughts linger on the worn faces that crowded the airport when photographer Stephen Thornton and I showed up there the Friday after the storm.
The terminal - packed with thousands of beaten-down people, many so ill they were dying - smelled of filth and desperation. Never had I seen anything like that.
I wonder what happened to the folks who I met there that night - the two ladies who were sitting in the doorway clutching a small dog and so many bottles of water that they sweetly offered some to us, the frail woman who sat in her wheelchair looking lost and begging for someone to find her daughter, the elderly Alzheimer's patient who stood on the sidewalk smiling, seemingly unaware of the hell around her.
In a way, those ladies haunt me.
So when my editors suggested that I visit the airport upon my return to New Orleans the week of Nov. 27 with Stephen and fellow reporter Cathy Frye, I thought it might be a good way to put those ghosts to rest.
The three of us drove to the airport that Monday morning in a 2006 Dodge Charger that Stephen had rented (he and I had hitched a ride with paramedics the first time, arriving at the airport in the back of an ambulance, in which we had just finished eating MREs).
Inside the airport, cheerful employees in crisp uniforms worked the ticket counters that had been the backdrop for the triage area emergency officials set up after the storm. The pools of blood and urine were gone, replaced with bright, shiny tile floors.
I'm sure Stephen and I drove Cathy crazy, darting about with wide eyes, saying, "Wow, I can't believe it looks like this." When I left the first time, I thought, this place will never reopen. But it had. And to Cathy, it looked, well, like any other airport.
But I remembered that there were cots -- with arms and legs of very sick people dangling off the sides -- where passengers for JetBlue and Delta now waited. One man dozed peacefully, his feet propped on a suitcase. I doubt he had any idea what had been in his place just a few months before.
In another section of the terminal, pristine floors and counters with tourism brochures had replaced the thousands of evacuees that had packed into those awful zig-zag lines in hopes of catching one of the transport planes.
They were crammed together so tight in that hot, smelly place. It looked miserable -- they looked miserable. Stephen and I got back in the ambulance after our first visit to the airport and talked about how guilty we felt about having a way out and a place to call home.
Those people had neither.
Many of them were elderly. They had looked so delicate, helpless - like those ladies I sometimes think about. Maybe it is their age - the brown spots on their faces, the frizzy gray hair, their grandmotherly look - that keeps them on my mind three months later.
Whatever the reason, they linger. And after my second trip to the airport, the need to know what happened to them is even stronger. Did they weather Katrina's aftermath as well as that airport building?
I doubt I'll ever know.
So, I guess the trip didn't help me forget what I saw, but I realized that I never really want to.