Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, struck New Orleans in late August 2005 and became one of the deadliest and most costly natural disasters in American history. Severe engineering flaws in the flood protection system compounded the effects of the hurricane leading to flooding in about 80% of New Orleans and nearby regions for weeks. Tens of thousands of residents were left stranded with limited access to basic necessities. The response to Katrina exposed significant shortcomings in disaster preparedness and response. The leaders of both Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and New Orleans Police Department resigned.
After the levees gave way in New Orleans, Ron Beinner, the photography editor at Vanity Fair asked photographer Jonas Karlsson and two assistants to accompany him and wade through the city to create a photographic evidence of the unfolding disaster. They interviewed and photographed survivors and first responders, the Coast Guard and the National Guard troops, the staff of New Orleans Times-Picayune and other reporters like Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams, the city’s mayor and the state’s senators, and even Wal-Mart truckers helping with the logistics. The resulting feature, “Hell and High Water,” won a World Press Photo Award in 2006.