Saturday, September 27, 2008

David R. Busse: Behind the Shot

AP Photo by Reed Saxon.

July, 1982, covering a flood for several weeks on the Colorado River near Parker, AZ. We're riding with La Paz County (AZ) Sheriff's River Patrol. Reporter on left is Bill Van Amburg, now out of the biz; sound guy on right is Tom Morris, now freelancing in Seattle.

It was July, 1982 and the United States Bureau of Reclamation, operator of most western US water projects, had miscalculated the snow pack in the Rocky Mountains, which meant more snow than expected melted and flowed into the Colorado River watershed. So much water flowed into Lake Powell that they had to open the gates a wee bit more at Glen Canyon Dam…then downstream at Hoover Dam, then Davis Dam, Parker Dam and so on.

It was great news for boaters on the lakes behind those dams, but it played havoc on the rivers below them. The BofR had done such a good job over the years stabilizing flow of the Colorado River that people started to assume that the Colorado would never flood again. So recreationists, commercial interests and some developers began building like crazy along certain sections of the Colorado, and specifically, the area just south of Parker Dam and it’s Lake Havasu impoundment became known as the “Parker Strip”—a sort of redneck Riviera largely settled by Californians from as far away as Orange County.

Development? Well, there never was a Ritz-Carlton planned for the area, and many of the settlers came here with big, loud boats and a “Gas-Grass-Ass/Nobody Rides For Free” attitude. Lets just say, by 1982, the Parker strip was a mish-mosh of riverfront homes, trailer parks, boat landings and bars…some of the latter including drive-up service for bikers on one side and boat-up service on the other. Again, none of it would be mistaken for a five star resort, but the development represented a sizeable investment--for somebody.

People who made “The River” their way of life never seemed to have the word “flood” in their vocabulary.

So, when this little, um, miscalculation happened, the Reclamation folks let everybody know that the gates would open just a pinch and the river might rise an inch or two.

More like 12 inches…nothing, really, for those of us who grew up along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, but when folks have built right up to a water line expecting it to NEVER change, 12 more inches of water might as well be 12 feet.

Which brings us to the subject of this photo.

Our assignment desk in Los Angeles had some vague idea of where the Colorado River was, and a nice United States Department of Interior-Bureau of Reclamation news release telling them about this leetle water problem that we might want to warn viewers about. Whether we actually did or not, I can’t recall…but we came into our Inland Empire Bureau in Riverside one Monday morning to a literal barrage of phone calls from angry river rats complaining of water in their vacation homes and businesses, ruined vacations and a tourist economy in shambles. The River was in our bureau coverage area…about 250 miles out the back door of our office…but that’s one of the challenges of bureau work covering two of the largest counties in the United States.

Our desk told us to check out this flood.

We had no microwave capability there, and satellite uplink trucks were (for us) a few years away.

So, we did what we always did when we smelled a good story out in the sticks and wanted to get it on the air the same day. We chartered airplanes, flew to the story, shot for three or four hours, flew home, and fed from the airport…sometimes breathlessly doing “this just in…” live shots next to the chartered King Air, Jet Commander, or whatever we happened to use that day.

I say “that day” because our desk in LA kept sending us out there on “one day” turns, thinking they would lose interest in the story. So we were never overnighted at the scene—we always flew home that same afternoon.

This pattern continued for three solid weeks.

One day we were in a small plane cruising along at something like 12,000 feet when the controller called the pilot and asked if we had cameras on board. “Yes, we have an ABC TV crew heading to the Colorado River flood…” pilot Clair Merryweather told LA Center.

“Tell then to get their cameras ready, and about 30 seconds from now, look out the window at your five-o-clock…”

We grabbed cameras and craned our necks in time to see the NASA 747, with Space Shuttle “Atlantis” on her back about a quarter mile off our wing, slowly climbing out of California enroute Florida.

That was fun. Most of our other memories of those trips were 115-degree heat, horse flies the size of canned hams, and interactions with increasingly irritated property owners becoming even more irritated as they drank more cold beer to slake both thirst and anger.

Local cops on the river were, of course, happy to take us for “guided tours” of the flood area for the first week or so, and those times on the water became our salvation from the hellish heat. The boat rides became so common, that we almost used them as scheduled respite from the midday heat. After a couple days of this flood duty, I dispensed with any sort of dress code and decided that cut off jeans and tee shirts were the way to go. This made me look like a local and simplified the “afternoon swim” that also became part of our flood-coverage ritual.

Keep in mind that another ritual of this coverage was my daily battle with the air sick bag on the flight home. Dawn flights into the desert are no problem, but mid-day flights across the Mojave are buffeted by thermals generated from the superheated air churning off the parched ground below, and the effect on a small twin-engine airplane or jet is profound. I had been taught at a young age to drink (or at least abscond with) all the liquor in the cabinet of any chartered aircraft, but most of the flights I didn’t even dare enquire of the brands of beer or quality of Scotch offered. It was enough to buckle up, keep firm eye on the horizon, maintain stiff upper lip and have supply of white sick bags at the ready. No, I never had to use one of those bags, but as they often say on the ferry trip to Catalina Island, the only thing worse than throwing up for a few minutes is feeling like you’re about to throw up for two hours.

You’ll note the camera in this picture is my good old Ikegami HL79A, with my ever-present wide-angle lens and trusty pistol-grip. Sound man Tom Morris is using one of those old Sony BVU-110s, better known as a “One-Ton.” We had this setup in the for almost seven more years, when we switched to Betacam tape format. Shortly before I left the bureau in December, 1989, we switched to one-man Betacams.


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