Home · News

The Tale of a Photograph

We all saw the photo of the elderly woman draped in an American flag. In the final installment of our 12-month series, we tell the story behind the picture.

The image is too haunting to forget. Some say it’s a reflection of America turning its back on its most vulnerable citizens: An elderly Black woman grips a blanket emblazoned with the American flag around her feeble body as she waits for help. When an Associated Press photographer snapped her picture outside the New Orleans Convention Center, he couldn’t have known the photo would become a widely recognized symbol of the tragedy.

Eighty-six-year-old Milvirtha Hendricks moved with her now-deceased husband from Mississippi to New Orleans in 1945. Of her seven children, three resided in New Orleans before the hurricane decimated their homes. All the heartbreaks of that day have given birth to yet another: Hendricks’s experience during Katrina has hastened her downward spiral toward dementia. With no memory of the hurricane, Hendricks now passes her days in the home of a daughter who lives in Texas.

Last year, Hendricks and her daughter Beverly fled from her home in the Lower Ninth Ward to her son’s two-story house in East New Orleans. “To tell you the truth, I really can’t remember the water,” Hendricks says. Other family members recall that on August 30, a Coast Guard boat came to the house. On the first life raft, Hendricks, her sister Vivian and daughter Beverly pushed through contaminated water toward dry ground. After a brief stay in a shelter, they were driven by truck to the Convention Center. There, Beverly draped the American-flag-printed quilt around her mother’s frail arms-the moment captured by the photographer. Miles away in Texas, Hendricks’s daughter Terry found reason to hope. “When I saw that photo of my mother on CNN, I knew she was alive,” she says.

Since then, Hendricks has found some peace: a sunny spot in her daughter’s living room in Texas and a mind gracious enough to remove the horrific memory. “After Katrina, everybody kept telling me, ‘We saw your photo,’ and I just couldn’t get myself together enough to figure out why they had my picture!” she says. “I really don’t know why this happened, but every day I thank God for taking care of me. It’s only because of Him that I made it through alive.”