When the Center for Public Integrity hired me in November 2005, the mission was clear: to conduct an in-depth journalistic probe into one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina. Some in the national media, including The New York Times and CNN, were doing excellent on-the-ground reporting, as were many small and midsized papers, especially The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Sun Herald in Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi. What this opportunity allowed for was several experienced reporters to examine the disaster not only in terms of what went wrong, but to ask why, and to ask whether aspects of what happened here — as a result of the storm and then during the long recovery from it — could happen again somewhere else.
Our findings would be published in a book entitled “City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina,” divided into specific subject areas — environment, health care, housing and other critical topics. Its focus would be solely on New Orleans, a great American city that had been nearly destroyed. As an investigative journalist, I knew we’d want to rely on audits of government programs, congressional reports, and other public records so decision-making and mistakes made could be melded into the broader context of our storytelling. As it turns out, many of the systemic failures that plagued the Gulf Coast during and after Katrina should have been predicted; there is no shortage of reports and audits and testimony about similar breakdowns and failures by government agencies after previous disasters in other parts of the country.
My primary task was to find reporters either with specific expertise we’d need or with lots of experience in investigative journalism. I turned to a network of colleagues and peers to come up with some names, and in the end I hired five journalists to work on this project. The first one I brought on board was John McQuaid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who had just taken a buyout from The Times-Picayune. He was the coauthor of a series in 2002 that predicted a Katrina-type storm would hit New Orleans. And he knew a lot about the Army Corps of Engineers and its history. He was the perfect person to write a chapter about the levees.
We also hired Frank Koughan, a freelancer who had spent eight years as an associate producer for CBS News’s “60 Minutes.” While he wasn’t a print journalist, he knew a lot about investigative reporting and would be great at humanizing the story because of his TV background. He used those skills to write eloquently about housing and insurance.
We also were fortunate to bring Curtis Wilkie to the team. He was a long-time national political reporter for The Boston Globe and had written books. As a Mississippi native who lived part-time in the French Quarter, he understood New Orleans and Louisiana politics and was able to use his vast knowledge to write about it.
As I pulled together my team of reporters, I decided I wanted to report as well. With my background as an investigative health care reporter I examined the collapse of the health care system in New Orleans. I paid particular attention to the failure of the National Disaster Medical System, a federal program that is designed to swoop in and help triage and evacuate sick and injured people during a disaster when local health officials can’t. After Katrina, it didn’t work as it should have.
All of these reporters went to New Orleans. I didn’t just want this book to end up a dull treatise filled with facts and figures, missing the human element. The only way to get a real sense of what happened was to be there,doing what reporters do. I also wanted this book to go beyond many of the stories being told by newspapers and broadcast media. We had the luxury of time and resources to take a step back and closely examine whether decades of ineptitude or inertia by local, state and federal government and private agencies had contributed to the failures in New Orleans.
As each journalist submitted a chapter, I edited it and passed it on to Diane Fancher, the center’s editorial director, who then did a final edit. She also served as a valued sounding board for me throughout the process. When one reporter had trouble getting information from city officials, she and I discussed whether he should persist in this hunt or move on. (When we found out that the chaos at city hall was not dissipating, we advised him to move on.) Another of our journalists had given birth to her son in a New Orleans hospital the day before Katrina struck. Should she include it in her chapter? We decided no, since it was not relevant to our investigative mission.
Perhaps our greatest challenge was figuring out how these disparate chapters would flow. Journalists had written in their own style and done so without conferring with each other. But there was some common ground: In advance of writing, I’d let each of them know that I wanted stories from New Orleans’ residents to be woven throughout their chapter and, indeed, as I read the submissions, such stories were there. I’d also asked the authors to put their findings in an historic context to show that warning signs were apparent, but too often ignored, before Katrina struck.
Having these elements present in each chapter helped, but the fit wasn’t always easy, and a few nips and tucks — a few tweaks on beginnings and endings — were necessary to make it all work to tell a coherent story.
Readers have responded well to the mixture of human drama and weighty investigative findings. As many news organizations reduce or eliminate investigative staffs, this collaborative model of team reporting — with its findings being published as a book — is a way for the press to continue its essential watchdog role. In hiring a team of experienced reporters and having them tackle specific topics, we produced a relevant, serious and much-needed investigation. We hope our reporting can help prevent the kind of chaos that ensued in New Orleans and that continues to haunt its recovery.
Jenni Bergal supervised, edited and coauthored “City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina,” published by Louisiana State University Press in June 2007, in her role as project manager at the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism organization in Washington, D.C..