Before And After: A Cameraman's Impressions Of New Orleans As It Recovers And Prepares

John Cooper is a freelance cameraman who has been working as one of the "roving cameramen" for Newspath, CBS's news service that provides material for the network's affiliates across the country. He has been in New Orleans for two weeks, traveling around the city with a producer and a correspondent, seeking stories and filing daily for CBS affiliates.

Cooper has been with CBS News for about 10 years and has been in the news business for 20, covering many hurricanes throughout that time. He has traveled the world working on various documentaries, and most recently, he traveled with CBS News to Iraq to cover the war and to the Georgian Republic to cover President Bush's visit to the region.

As Hurricane Rita approaches the Gulf Coast, Cooper remains in the area and isn't yet sure when he'll return home. On Wednesday, as the city continued to recover and prepared for Rita, he shared his impressions of New Orleans in recent days — from a brutally honest and unique perspective:

(CBS)
It's been a crazy week, with spotty phone service, and shaky internet … I'm heading into another week here in New Orleans, nervously watching Hurricane Rita winding up to hit something hard.

It's hot down here, and pretty stinky. All the worst smells are around town: all kinds of rot — vomit, waste, mold, pollution, death — it's all here. Turn a corner, and if your windows are down, or the vents for your air conditioning are open, there's a new, nasty surprise. The combination of hot and stinky is rough at first, but you get used to it. Pretty soon, it doesn't bother you, until you turn a corner, go into a house, or enter an area where the waters have just receded. Then there's a new smell.

We're very comfortable down here, and our conditions are much better than the evacuees, soldiers, cops and firefighters who are down here - much, much better than the folks who are trying to tough it out until it's all over. The CBS Newspath compound is five RVs and a satellite truck, located between the levee and Jackson Square. We have a generator, a grill, two Cajun couriers who are mean cooks, and even a nurse to look after us. I have RV number five to myself right now — I was offered a hotel room in a place that just cleaned up, but I'm used to the RV by now.

The French Quarter is a beer bottle throw away, and it's never been cleaner. It's teeming with National Guard from all over, feds from agencies you know and have never heard of (like the Dept. of Agriculture's Forest Police), Navy, Coast Guard, and the 82nd Airborne. They mostly wander around, taking pictures, re-parking their cars, and doing some light sweeping. There are clothes to give away, and there's plenty of MRE's to hand out, but there's no one left in the Big Easy. They've been scattered to the winds.

These new tourists are already scoping out the bars, and all three of Larry Flynt's "Hustler" clubs have power — they should be open soon, and there will be no shortage of customers. Many have beads. Not all of them are loafing around: the cleanup workers, mold specialists, power linemen, tree clearers and local business people are all working inhuman hours in the brutal heat. The visiting firemen are working overtime to get NOFD back in business. The MPs and the search and rescue specialists are still going through buildings and making grisly discoveries. Some have told me they don't think they will ever know where all the bodies are. The teams working in St. Bernard Parish, which is now an enormous toxic waste dump, are waking up with sore throats and other respiratory ailments. Privately, the EPA testers have told them that all the pollutants and environmental toxins are way off the scale. No one is looking to stay there long.

The former residents fall into two categories: the hyperactive and the walking wounded. The hyperactive are trying to work as much as they can to get their lives going in some kind of direction, and make the best of the new realities. The walking wounded are just that. The people left in the shelters are fragile, beaten down, and bewildered. They are in no shape to deal with the bureaucratic nightmares of FEMA and the Red Cross.

They are also angry. Both groups rage against federal, state and local governments, President Bush, FEMA, Governor Blanco, and all the profiteers who have come to make their quick buck at the taxpayers' expense. Blackwater, Dyncorp, Fluor, Bechtel and Halliburton have all arrived like vultures at a fresh kill. Many people we've met feel deeply betrayed by their elected representatives.

The strangest thing is that they are also grateful to the media. This is one of the rare times people see a camera and want to shake your hand. Quite a few people have said that if the press hadn't reported on this still unfolding disaster, more people would have died. It's spooky to hear. It's spookier to think that they might be right.