Katrina: The Power of the Press Against the Wrath of Nature

August 22, 2006
Category: Archive

Editor’s note: This essay was first delivered as the keynote address of the American Copy Editors Society conference on April 21, 2006 in Cleveland.

This is a story about the power of newspapers. While it is stylish these days to talk about their increasing irrelevance, their decline, their imminent demise, I come not to bury newspapers, but to praise them, for their relevance, their journalistic muscle, and their extraordinary power to serve their communities. For the past 10 months, I have been in the eye of that power.

On Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, a few hours after Katrina slashed through our city, I and the art critic for the paper, Doug MacCash, stood on a railroad bridge over Canal Boulevard, a broad avenue that spans the city from the Mississippi River all the way north to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

As we looked to the north, over the Lakeview neighborhood where I and many of my colleagues lived, I lifted my digital camera and snapped a  picture of  a familiar street rendered in catastrophic detail. The Shell station where I bought my gas is visible to the left under six feet of water. My coffee shop is just out of frame, to the right. My house is less than a mile away.

As I tried to process this extraordinary, life-changing event, I looked down through the gaps in the railroad ties beneath my feet, and I could see that this was not in fact a sea, but a river, flowing rapidly and inexorably south, toward the Superdome, the newspaper, the core of our city.  

Earlier, as Doug and I had headed out from the paper, riding down the abandoned interstate on our bikes, a symphony of national media reports was trumpeting the fact that New Orleans had lucked out again. Even as we stood on the railroad overpass, national news programs were broadcasting that the city had, quote, “dodged a bullet,” words that became a virtual media catchphrase for the rest of Monday and well into Tuesday.

But these national media outlets had sent to town in most instances a single reporter, and from where each of them stood, in their downtown and French Quarter hotels, on the high ground close to the Mississippi River, the phrase seemed to fit. It was all they could see.

 Within a single day, our way of life disappeared. On the other hand, Doug and I were merely two of more than 30 Times-Picayune reporters, editors and photographers who fanned out across the city and the suburbs as the winds subsided, which made us, the local newspaper, the most fully informed, the most vital and the most comprehensive source of immediate information about what was happening in New Orleans. It is a role we have never relinquished. Because this is a newspaper story.

As it happened, Doug and I were the only reporters who made it to the edge of Lakeview that day, and were the first reporters to grasp the extent of the catastrophe that would soon engulf us.

For New Orleans, bloodied but unbowed by the hurricane itself, the unfathomable was occurring. Over the next 24 hours, most of the city went under water, and stayed that way for a very long time. Our urban landscape, our culture, our people, our commerce were buried by a black flood of water and mud and sewage and oil. Within a single day, our way of life disappeared.

In modern times no American city has been ravaged by water in quite the way that New Orleans was struck down by the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina.

For the newspaper, it has been the most extraordinary story of our lives, as we report each day on a nightmare that we also live. We are narrator and subject of the story of New Orleans, a quandary that, pre-Katrina, we were usually able to avoid. Among the 30 staffers in my department alone, 13 had homes that suffered significant damage or total destruction in Katrina. They, like dozens of Times-Picayune employees, understand the stress, the despair, the frustration and the struggle that is life in New Orleans still today.

Now the dirty little secret of life along the Gulf Coast is that whenever a hurricane gets into the Gulf, we all start rooting for someone else to get slammed. We know it’s going to go somewhere, but we really don’t want it to be us. When Katrina got into the Gulf, it was pretty clear that someone was going to get it. We were counting on our luck, which we had been pushing  for a long, long time.

It had been 40 years since our last great storm, Hurricane Betsy, and even though we had narrowly missed disaster a few times since, and were long overdue, we were somehow confident that our luck would hold.

Then came the phone call to the paper that made everyone’s heart skip a beat. The call came on the Saturday before the storm from Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center, to our reporter, Mark Schleifstein. Now, Mark and Max knew each other well, because of Schleifstein’s extensive reporting on the vulnerabilities of New Orleans to hurricanes. Indeed, Mark had been the harbinger of doom for so long that his annual hurricane warnings were sometimes dismissed, even by his friends and co-workers, as “weather porn.”

But now, one of the greatest storms ever recorded in the Gulf, a Category 5 killer, was bearing down on us, and the director of the National Hurricane Center was on the phone, and Mark had our full attention. Max had a simple question: “Mark,” he asked seriously, “how far above sea level is the third floor of your building?”

We started to get the idea that we might be in trouble.

As it turned out, New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina in relatively decent shape considering her wrath. The power grid was devastated, trees were down all over the city, roofs were torn off, thousands of windows in downtown high rises were shattered. But the core of our city remained relatively intact.

Like the just-commemorated San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which sparked a fire far more devastating than the quake itself, it was the second catastrophe, after the worst of the storm was headed north, that devastated New Orleans. This one, though, was man-made.

On the northern reaches of the city, hours after Katrina’s worst had passed, the floodwalls designed and built by the federal government collapsed one by one — an event that our reporting since the storm has revealed to be one of the greatest engineering failures in our nation’s history. The water rose in the city for two more days before it finally started to fall slowly.

 Now the flood, and the ineptitude of the government’s response to it, made for reporting conditions that probably do not have a historical precedent in journalism on American soil. The magnitude of the devastation caused by the flooding was and remains difficult to fathom if you have not seen it. Multiple failures of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee system inundated 80 percent of New Orleans with at least three feet of water. That’s an area seven times the size of Manhattan.

In many neighborhoods of every economic stripe, the water exceeded eight feet, and stayed for three weeks. More than 1 million people were displaced. More than 200,000 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed. Most remain empty today.

More than 1,300 people perished in Louisiana, almost all in the New Orleans area, as a direct result of the storm. And that doesn’t count hundreds of elderly, sick or frail who died shortly after evacuating the city. In my neighborhood, 40 of my neighbors died, and another 17 remain missing.
 
The reason for the missing, which number in the hundreds citywide, is becoming clear. The devastation is so vast that body recovery continues to this day, as skeletal remains are discovered amid the rubble. A man’s remains were found last Wednesday in eastern New Orleans. He had apparently drowned in his home. Imagine a catastrophe so vast that body recovery is still going on ten months after the event, and you will start to get a picture of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Now the flood, and the ineptitude of the government’s response to it, made for reporting conditions that probably do not have a historical precedent in journalism on American soil.

The water that Doug and I had seen on Monday afternoon, and written about on Monday night, arrived at our newspaper’s doorstep in force early on Tuesday morning. We awoke to water three feet deep at our doorstep, stretching in every direction, and continuing to rise. The only dry land visible was the interstate that was directly in front of us, but reachable only by traveling three-quarters of a mile on a flooded service road.

Then we received word that a SWAT team had been called to the Orleans Parish Prison, directly across the interstate from our building, and home to more than 1,000 felons. It, too, was flooded, and word was that the guards were beginning to lose control of the place.

This was not in our hurricane plan.

Among those in our building at the time were 140 people, from elderly to infants, who were family members of newspaper employees. Under these conditions, we realized that we could not stay in the building, and we beat our now-famous retreat in the backs of our blue newspaper trucks.

Now, as we headed across the Mississippi River in about a dozen trucks, one small group of trucks ended up at our suburban West Bank bureau, about a 15-minute drive from downtown. Having seen on their trip across the river that the strip of New Orleans closest to the river was dry, our then-sports editor (who is now our city editor), David Meeks, a veteran newsman who had once run our suburban operation, determined to come right back across the bridge with a team of volunteers and head uptown to keep reporting.
 
It is hard to fathom an American city overnight becoming such a dangerous place to work. But not one single person ever questioned the fact that the return downtown would have to be an all-volunteer operation. You could not compel someone to risk their lives for the story. At the West Bank bureau, David convinced the editor to give him one of the trucks, and he took a motley group back into a city rapidly devolving into chaos and danger. Among them were the music critic, the religion writer and the art critic, my friend and bicycle mate Doug MacCash who I can only assume worked for five straight weeks in the city by treating it as some kind of performance-art show from hell.

As veterans of the hometown paper, our team’s knowledge of the city, their ability to go everywhere and to understand the scope, and impact, and context of what was happening, was why The Times-Picayune owned this story. I can’t tell you how many battle-hardened correspondents from national newspapers and television networks told us conditions were worse in New Orleans in the first week after the storm than they experienced in most war zones. A CNN producer who arrived the Friday after the storm realized how much trouble the city was in when she walked into the CNN trailer and saw Christiane Amanpour and the wartime camera crews in the room, fresh from Iraq.

When our own reporting team crossed the river on that Tuesday morning to head back downtown, scarcely an hour after we had evacuated our building, they came upon police and citizens at a downtown Wal-Mart. Mistaking it for a command post and relief center, they charged breezily into a massive and systematic looting spree. The police were not there to stop it. They were there to participate. When somebody shouted out, “The Times-Picayune‘s taking pictures. Let’s go out back and take care of business,” they knew, first, that it was time to go, and second, that the city was now completely out of control.

As our team set up a makeshift bureau in an Uptown house, a police officer pulled up and demanded of Meeks: “Are you armed?” When he told the officer, “No, we’re reporters,” the officer said: “Can you make yourself armed?” Within half an hour, a SWAT team came by the bureau and dropped off a .357 magnum and a shotgun.

While working in the city one day, reporter Gordon Russell, along with a photographer from The New York Times, Marko Georgiev, got swept up in a police dragnet for looters. Both were thrown violently against a wall, police held automatic weapons to their heads and threatened them, then threw Gordon’s notebook and the camera’s flash card across the street. Eventually, they were released, badly shaken.

In another case, staff photographers Ted Jackson and David Grunfeld got permission from an evacuated friend to break into her house for food and shelter. Ted broke in a back window pane, gained entry into the house, and went to the front door to let David in. When he opened the door, he was looking down the barrel of a shotgun pointed at his head by a very twitchy neighbor who demanded that he lie on the ground. The neighbor had been advised by police to shoot looters on sight. Fortunately, he ignored that advice long enough to receive an explanation.

And another group of officers, mistaking our Times-Picayune truck for a stolen vehicle on a looting mission one day, stopped the truck and pointed rifles at Meeks as he was driving back to the bureau. Later, when his colleague in the truck said, “I don’t know what I would have done if they’d have shot you,” David told him, “Don’t worry about it. If that had happened, they’d have shot you too.”

By the way, during the evacuation of the parish prison across the highway from our office, 15 prisoners did in fact escape. Later in the first week after Katrina, members of our team in New Orleans went back to the paper with a kayak to retrieve equipment, and found several orange prison jumpsuits discarded on the edge of the Interstate in front of our building.

These were the conditions under which our team of reporters and photographers did extraordinary and memorable journalism, siphoning gasoline to run cars to recharge cell phones and laptops each night, huddling in un-airconditioned houses during the worst heat wave of the year and risking their lives every day to get the story.

As veterans of the hometown paper, our team’s knowledge of the city, their ability to go everywhere and to understand the scope, impact and context of what was happening, was why The Times-Picayune owned this story. It was but one of many moments that defined what it means to be a newspaper.

Meanwhile, the larger paper was stretched out along a line that extended from New Orleans 80 miles west to Baton Rouge, La., and 150 miles east to Mobile, Ala.

 There exists in New Orleans now an extraordinary and explicit bond between its citizens and the local paper. …The challenge for newspapers is to figure out a way to rekindle that connection without having to suffer major catastrophe. I’m not sure how you do that. Throughout those first weeks, Times-Picayune staffers had to contend with monumental personal stresses, not knowing the conditions of their homes, or, worse, knowing full well that their homes were destroyed. Many didn’t know the fate of loved ones for several days. One of my assistant editors was missing for five days, when I finally learned that she had been plucked from her roof by helicopter. And we all had to find places to live while we worked endless days and nights.

My job was to oversee the creation from scratch of a fully functioning newsroom and business operation in rented space at a technology park in Baton Rouge. First order of business on Tuesday night: send the head of IT out to charge $22,000 in software and computers on his American Express card. When he asked me, “Can you guarantee that I’ll be reimbursed?” I told him, “Absolutely.” Using my supernumerary powers as features editor. I became a shopping fool, charging 30 rental cars on Publisher Ashton Phelps’ American Express. I sent an assistant sports editor to Wal-Mart with the general manager’s AmEx, and told him to load up a newspaper truck with a generator, gas cans, food and water for the New Orleans bureau. In less than 18 hours, we were a fully functioning newsroom again.

We published full pages online on Tuesday night and Wednesday night. By Thursday night, we were back in print, first in Houma, La., about an hour south of New Orleans, and then a week later in Mobile at our sister paper, the Press-Register. Meanwhile, our online presence had been transformed. Pages on NOLA.com that averaged 80,000 page hits a day before the storm were now averaging 30 million hits a day after Katrina. We had become not only the voice for our readers, but for the world.

Today, the suburbs of New Orleans have been quick to recover. But New Orleans itself remains two cities, one better off than you think, the other far worse: The streets of the French Quarter and uptown New Orleans, spared the flooding, are again buzzing with traffic. Restaurants and coffee shops have reopened. Conventions are returning to the city. I’m happy to say the American Library Association’s national convention is in town, meeting at the infamous Convention Center, as we speak. And the real estate market in these unflooded neighborhoods is robust.

But there is a vast and unending shadow city, stretching toward Lake Pontchartrain and for many miles to the east. You can easily drive through city and suburban streets for three hours and never see a habitable house. Ten months after the floodwalls collapsed, these neighborhoods are still powerless and comatose. It is haunting and incredibly sad to visit them.

But we know something about newspapers that many of you know, as well. There exists in New Orleans now an extraordinary and explicit bond between its citizens and the local paper. Here are some of the ways we’ve seen it.

While Doug and I rode along the edge of Lakeview that Monday in August, we came upon a bridge where firemen had pulled about 40 people off of their roofs and out of their second stories. And when we, two scruffy reporters from the local newspaper, arrived on that bridge, the people there were simply thrilled to see us. And I thought to myself, how can they possibly be happy? They’re stranded, surrounded by water, and have just lost everything. But what became apparent was this: the local newspaper had arrived, and that was enough for them. It meant their story was going to be told. That was everything to them.

Likewise, when Ted Jackson and a group of photographers headed to the Convention Center one day amid rumors — false, of course — of rioting, they approached the building with tremendous caution and even a little fear. When they turned the corner onto Convention Center Boulevard, several people in the crowd rushed toward them — then grabbed each gently by the arm and took them off to photograph the horrors of neglect happening there. “Tell the truth,” they said, and sent them on their way.

Our columnist, Chris Rose, who was part of our public-service entry in the Pulitzers and a finalist in commentary, spent weeks wandering his ruined city and writing deeply personal accounts of his alternating states of anger, determination and unspeakable grief. He received 10,000 e-mails of thanks in less than four months.

I got an e-mail a few weeks ago that is in some ways typical of e-mails we get at The Times-Picayune all the time now. It may sound familiar to some of you. Here is what it said:

There is just no way to say how very proud of the T-P I am. I can well remember sitting in Roswell, Ga. (physically OK) reading every word on NOLA.com trying to get the real picture of what had happened to our city, our friends, and trying to get an idea of what was left, if anything. I have ALWAYS  been a newspaper reader (even as a kid), but this story was so huge, so important, so critical and so essential to my “mental health,” that without the courageous efforts of all the people at The Times-Picayune, we would not have made it. Thank you.

We hear it from our readers on a constant basis. They now understand what a newspaper gives them that they can’t get anywhere else. It merely brought it into high relief for everyone, us and them. The challenge for newspapers is to figure out a way to rekindle that connection without having to suffer major catastrophe. I’m not sure how you do that. But the one thing I am sure of now is that newspapers matter. We do things nobody else can do. And we’re vital to our communities. That’s one important lesson that Katrina taught us.

Here is another: I know that many of you have spent countless hours drawing up your hurricane plans in the event that God forbid the big one hits. We’ve done so ourselves — again. We could all probably benefit tremendously from sharing what each of us has learned over the past five years.

But for those of you who have not taken a direct hit, I can tell you that it is the countless things that you didn’t plan for that will test you. You think you’re ready, but you’re not, and in some measure you can’t be. There are things that exceed the worst case scenario. What you can count on, though, what I’ve come to know in my bones, is that the resilience, the perseverance, the improvisation, the determination and the sense of public mission of this species we call journalist will carry you through.
Katrina is a test for America, and for America’s media.
We in New Orleans know that Katrina is a test for us, a test that will determine whether we survive, whether we once again become a viable city, or fade into third-class status as a once-grand backwater.

But I also believe that Katrina is a test for America, and for America’s media. What the nation does may well determine our fate as much as anything we in New Orleans might do for ourselves.
 
On March 10, the Army Corps of Engineers claimed that the events of Aug. 29 were so unusual that they were, quote, “unforeseeable.” Four days later, we reported that the Corps of Engineers, in its own laboratories, simulated the collapse of this exact type of seawall, under the exact conditions faced in Hurricane Katrina, 20 years ago, in 1986. Then the Corps proceeded to build those seawalls to protect New Orleans, knowing from its own data that the design literally would not hold water.

Three months ago, seven months after the storm hit, in the face of the overwhelming evidence revealed by our reporting, the Corps finally admitted that its levee designs were flawed. More than 1,300 people are dead.

Today New Orleans lives in limbo, waiting for the federal government that admits its role in our destruction to also fulfill its promise to rebuild the city’s shattered protection system, and help its citizens restore their ruined lives. If America allows that government to escape responsibility for these failures, then you might ask yourselves: In which of your cities can you feel safe, and assured that if you ever need help, it will be there?

I feel a kinship with the journalists who work along the Gulf Coast. I know that some live in communities that are still not recovered from storms past, and have worked longer than we have. For me personally, and for the city that I love, Katrina and the flood that followed were events of epic destruction. But they also gave me a gift, by reminding me why we do what we do, why we run toward the danger when others run away, why our communities depend on us so profoundly in their darkest hours — in short, why it’s great to work for a newspaper.  

Thank you.