September 1, 2016

The night the storm hit, before the water poured in and left her home destroyed and her two cats missing, Vicki Ferstel emailed a friend who lived close to the Mississippi River. If you need shelter, she said, come on over.

“That’s how unprepared we all were for it,” said Ferstel, night metro editor at The Advocate in Baton Rouge.

In the dark the next morning, Aug. 13, Glenn Bordelon left his home an hour and a half from Baton Rouge and headed for the newspaper. Bordelon, an electronic technician at The Advocate, got on the highway at about 4:30 a.m. In the distance, he could see an 18-wheeler pulled over, but he didn’t think much of it.

“And then water started rising really quick,” he said. “Then the next I knew, it was up to my headlights.”

Hours later, The Advocate’s photo editor headed out to get a few pictures before going into the office. Like so many other newspapers these days, he said, there are never enough people. By early afternoon, Michael Dunlap was stuck on Interstate 12 in a four-mile convoy. In all, he’d spend about 30 hours on the interstate.

Since the historic flooding started, The Advocate’s staff has covered the disaster and lived through it. Seventy-three employees suffered flood damage, about one in four members of the Baton Rouge staff, said editor Peter Kovacs. Many of them already know how to cover a flood like this after Hurricane Katrina clobbered New Orleans in 2005. And a few, who came to The Advocate from New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, also know how to live through it.

“I guess to me this is like Katrina the sequel,” said Kovacs, “and all the actors are older, including me.”

Report, publish, clean up

Eleven years ago, Kovacs was managing editor at the Times-Picayune when Hurricane Katrina hit. Kovacs left the Pulitzer-winning paper in 2012 amid staff cuts and print reduction and joined The Advocate along with other Times-Picayune ex-pats, including Advocate president and publisher Dan Shea, in 2013. The Advocate, which is locally owned by John and Dathel Georges, also has publications in New Orleans and Acadiana.

Many of the things he’s seen in Baton Rouge, Kovacs first saw in New Orleans.

“One of my memories of Katrina was people at their duty stations working without knowing if their home flooded,” he said.

Then and now, technology failed. In both disasters, getting the paper to readers was a challenge. And both times, it was local reporters who understood what was happening best, covered the story from the beginning and shared the magnitude of it with the rest of the country, Kovacs said.

He figures there are about two dozen former Times-Picayune journalists now on staff at The Advocate, and what they went through then helped prepare them for what was coming after the floods in Baton Rouge. It also helped them respond to colleagues dealing with flooding themselves.

As they did after Katrina, journalists have spent their weekends helping each other clean up. So far, they’ve gutted and cleaned out 17 homes. You can probably guess what the employee cleanup crew calls itself.

“We called ourselves muckrakers,” Kovacs said, “both then and now.”

The Advocate gave $300 to any staffers who had flooding in their homes or cars, said Shea. They also made $2,000 available as no-interest loans for people who had flooding in their homes. It’s another lesson from Katrina, said Shea, whose home was flooded then. People need money right away if they’re going to rebuild, and government aid takes time.

They’ve also had a food and clothing drive and offered help to The Advocate’s cleaning crew and paper carriers. The focus, Shea said, has been on getting the news out, including thousands of papers a day to people at shelters with no way to stay informed digitally.

“What I was trying to do is take off the table ‘how am I going to deal with life in the next two or three weeks?'” he said.

The flood is just the latest big story to hit Baton Rouge in recent months as the newspaper has grappled with the city’s turbulent news. In early July, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by police. In the aftermath, protests gave rise to mass arrests, a First Amendment lawsuit and an iconic photograph. Also in July, three police officers were killed and three were wounded after a gunman ambushed police.

It’s all combined to create a big few months for Kovacs and his staff.

Before the floods, The Advocate was coming off one of its biggest month ever in terms of traffic. From their baseline, coverage of the flood has brought in a 40 percent rise in pageviews, Shea said.

It’s one thing to cover huge news when it’s down the road, said Steve Buttry, director of student media for Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications. It’s different, though, when that news is happening in your own community.

“The Advocate is on a run of historic local news like few newsrooms ever experience,” he said.

‘I had 15 minutes to get out of there’

The Saturday morning when the floods hit, Ferstel, the night editor, woke up late. She started some laundry and chatted on the phone. Then, a neighbor came by and warned her to get out fast.

Ferstel doesn’t live in a flood zone. She didn’t have flood insurance. Outside, the water wasn’t yet up to the door. She still didn’t think her home was at risk, but Ferstel was scheduled to fill in for someone on Sunday, and she wanted to make sure she could get to the newsroom.

She grabbed three T-shirts, two pairs of jeans, underwear, a few papers. She left food and water on the coffee table for her cats. When she made it back on Tuesday, “it looked like a bomb hit it.”

That Saturday morning, Bordelon, the electronic technician, drifted off the highway with his car. It slammed into a tree, blocking the driver’s side door. Water began pouring in quickly.

“I started thinking if I don’t get out of here, I’m going to be trapped in this thing,” he said.

He told himself to calm down, don’t panic, think your way out. He took a deep breath, pushed on the passenger door. It wouldn’t budge. He tried again and could feel the current pushing hard against him. It was enough to climb out, though, and on top of his roof.

He called his wife, then saw a rescue boat 100 yards away. That boat didn’t see him. His phone died. Bordelon sat on the roof of his car for four hours before someone came back and rescued him.

Dunlap, the photo editor, woke up in his car early Sunday morning to a text from a friend who had to evacuate. He couldn’t reach his family. His phone service went down.

Dunlap walked onto the road about half a mile and saw the lake the flood created that wouldn’t let them pass. He knew the area, though, and decided to try to get out. When he did, he drove up through Mississippi, cut across by the Mississippi River and back down into Louisiana. A 20 or 30 minute trip took hours. When he got back into Baton Rouge, he went back to work.

Newsroom as refuge

Weeks after the rising water caught everyone off guard, the news keeps coming out. Everyone who was flooded is still cleaning up. And those floods impact their work in the newsroom, not just their personal lives.

“I think covering Katrina and covering something like this, you never have quite the same moment where you’re one with your readers,” Kovacs said.

They’re waiting in the same lines as the rest of the community, they’re dealing with the same shortages and the same frustrations, “and that really informs your coverage,” he said. “You have a better concept of what’s an outrage when you experience it yourself.”

Staffers are helping each other clean up. And as they often do in tough times, fellow newsrooms are sending in food and care packages.

“It’s been a hard, hard, hard month and a half,” Dunlap said.

For Ferstel, though, work has been a refuge.

“It sounds so stupid, but work is such a sanctuary that the newsroom feels normal.”

She isn’t sure where everyone’s getting their energy from. But for her, it comes from knowing, and doing, what she can do best.

“I may not be able to gut somebody’s house, but I can help by working at this newspaper and providing vital information that they may need, and helping tell stories that other people may not be aware of.”

She did find her cats, by the way, hiding in a suitcase in a bathroom closet. Ferstel adopted Phoebe, a tortoise shell, through a shelter. She found her black and white cat at The Advocate years ago.

His name is CQ. Both cats are doing just fine.

This story has been updated.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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