The night before we left Baton Rouge — our temporary base of operations after Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans — to return home, I felt I had reached my limit. By October 9, 2005, after six weeks of writing for The Times-Picayune about the havoc Hurricane Katrina had wrought — breached levees, ruined homes, and desperate evacuations that had fractured families — I didn’t know how much longer I could go on.
I said this to my wife over dinner, and she shook her head. “You’re not allowed to say that,” she said.“The easy part is over. The adrenaline rush of the storm is gone. Now you’re facing rebuilding. That’s the hard part.”
She was right. Coming back to New Orleans peeled away the protection of distance, forcing us to confront situations that had seemed almost abstract while we were working 80 miles away. As we live and work in greater New Orleans, we are surrounded by a shattered infrastructure throughout our city, in our neighborhoods and, in some cases, within our own families. Since the storm struck on August 29, 2005, The Times-Picayune’s pages — and, indeed, the lives of those of us on the staff — have been dominated by topics such as levees that won’t protect us, relief programs that don’t work, homes that people can’t inhabit, and a President who just doesn’t get it.
The result: intense challenges and frustrations — professional and personal, occasionally at the same time. Clearly we, as residents of this city and journalists telling its stories, are immersed in what we cover. It couldn’t be otherwise. Given all we’ve lived through, our coverage has developed a decided edge: We have become tougher, more aggressive, more skeptical reporters due, at least in part, to the fact that we have a rooting interest in the outcome.
Case in point: Shortly after the storm, several of our reporters put together a story that debunked every sensational claim our police chief had made about murders and rapes among the people who were left behind in New Orleans, cooped up in foul conditions at the Superdome and, later, the Morial Convention Center. They simply weren’t true. The day after that story was published, the chief resigned.
Our editorial policy has followed this aggressive path and served notice early on: Days after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to intervene while tens of thousands of people suffered and more than a thousand died in New Orleans, a front-page editorial said everyone in FEMA should be fired.
It’s tough to be part of the story you’re likely to be covering for the rest of your time in New Orleans, but that’s the post-Katrina reality. Despite the edginess, our news coverage has remained rigorously fair because we can’t let it be otherwise. But it’s a constant struggle, explained Mark Schleifstein, a Times-Picayune environmental reporter who predicted in a 2002 series of articles the type of damage that a storm like Katrina could cause. “I have to be careful about bias and think things through carefully to ensure that if my personal feelings might get into a story, I leave them out,” he said. His home in the Lakeview area had two feet of water — on its second floor.
The struggle to maintain a sense of balance in our news reporting makes our job tougher, said Coleman Warner, a colleague of mine at the Times-Picayune who is rebuilding his family’s home near Lake Pontchartrain after it drowned in eight-and-a-half feet of water. “It’s challenging in a different kind of way professionally because you want to maintain your journalistic principles and your dignity and your sense of fairness in how you portray things,” he told me. “All the standard ingredients of good journalism are there, but there’s an entirely different dimension for us because we have a different insight into the manifestations of this because we can see it. We can touch it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re living with it.”
While reporting on these conditions is stressful, Warner said that living in the same sort of situation can give reporters a personal perspective on what they hear others talk about. “When I interview people who are trying to renovate, and they’re frustrated with Road Home (the housing relief program) or FEMA, I can immediately empathize with that person,” Warner said, “because this morning, I woke up in a FEMA trailer.” Given this vantage point, “you can fill in the blanks about the way people can feel things,” he said.
Meshing Life and Work
As we struggle to get back to normal, we stumble across circumstances that might lead to stories. For instance, after my wife and I returned to New Orleans, we couldn’t find our general practitioner, and we knew that our files at our eye doctor’s office had been washed away. That led me to think that other people must be in the same situation and that I might be able to put together a legitimate story that could be beneficial, too. After a lot of calling and Web surfing, I learned — to my amazement — that doctors aren’t required to tell their patients where they are. But I found several new Web sites where doctors could let patients know of their whereabouts and, perhaps, their return dates. I did a story listing these sites and their addresses and wrote about the feasibility of electronic medical records.
Alert reporters can spot these stories on every beat. Editors welcome them, not only because they help depict the way we live in post-Katrina New Orleans but also because they offer a respite from somber tales of human misery and bureaucratic sloth.
RELATED WEB LINK
– nola.comSince the storm, The Times-Picayune has become the principal news source in this part of the world. In the days after Katrina hit, our Web site was getting up to 30-million hits a day, and people were using our electronic bulletin boards to find out how their homes had fared, where their relatives had wound up and, indeed, whether they were alive.
The push for Katrina-related stories continues, even for people whose beats have nothing to do with flawed levees or relief programs snarled in bureaucracy. It’s relentless, it’s tough, and it’s stressful. The stress was evident early on, when we were in Baton Rouge in the days after the storm, bunking in married-student housing at Louisiana State University (LSU), when I shared an apartment with 10 other men. We slept on mattresses and shared a bathroom. Although we were dead tired from the work, we couldn’t stop waking up in the middle of the night to worry about the conditions we’d left behind.
I watched a colleague crack one night; she was sent away to stay with relatives. One of my roommates had aging relatives and in-laws who had lost their homes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. His wife, who had taken their children to stay with friends several hours away, was wondering whether to enroll them in school there because there was no way to know when anyone would be able to return. At four o’clock one morning, he awoke with stabbing chest pains and had to be rushed to a hospital. It wasn’t a heart attack, but it served as a warning of the toll stress could take.
As we worked side by side in Baton Rouge — first at LSU, then in a windowless suite at a former shopping mall — we juggled work on stories with calls to family members and to contractors and insurance agents. We were trying to restore order to our own lives as we were chronicling the chaos that had befallen our city. Colleagues often hung up in tears. In a flash, someone was always there to offer a hug and words of support. Those gestures helped a lot.
When people were able to venture back into New Orleans, they took pictures of their ruined homes to bolster insurance claims. The photos were always horrible to behold, especially for those of us who had visited their houses before Katrina. For example, the director of our news-art department owned a burgundy-colored leather sofa that had been her pride and joy, but in the photo she showed us, it was white with mold. At times like those, the camaraderie was vital.
We cried, we hugged, and we kept working. We had no choice. Besides being what we were paid to do, our work — gathering facts and organizing them into stories — was one thing we could do to keep us focused — and reasonably sane.
Stress continues to be a problem and not just because, day after day, we’re forced to write about conditions that could destroy us, such as weak levees and the receding coastal buffer zone. Everyone in the newsroom has been forced to confront questions that have faced everyone who has returned to New Orleans, especially people whose homes were ruined. Rebuild or demolish? Stay or move?
There are no right answers, nor wrong ones. But each choice involves — and creates — stress. Two policemen killed themselves, as did the brother of a colleague whose pediatric practice had, literally, washed away after his little patients evacuated with their parents. Mental health counselors are busy, and prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications have risen significantly throughout the area. They have become so commonplace in post-Katrina New Orleans that the relative merits of such drugs as Wellbutrin, Cymbalta and Xanax are discussed as routinely — and openly — as the fortunes of the New Orleans Saints, our pro-football team.
But sometimes, for some people, everything can become too much. John McCusker, one of our photographers who had stayed behind in New Orleans to chronicle the destruction of his hometown, was deeply troubled. His house had been ruined, and insurers refused to give him the reimbursement he needed. One night in August 2006, McCusker snapped. He led police on a wild, careening chase through Uptown New Orleans and finally begged them to shoot him after he pinned an officer beneath his car. After being brought down with a Taser, McCusker was led off in handcuffs to jail and, later, to one of the city’s few remaining psychiatric beds.
McCusker, who is back at work, discussed his stress in an interview with a Brown University student: “Some nights … just in despair you lay in your bed, and like you’re a three-year-old and you just lay there and say, ‘Oh, my God. I want to go home.’ And you can’t go home.” McCusker’s desperation hit hard because it forced us to realize that we were all still coping with a lot of the same pressure.
Yet we keep at our jobs, surrounded in our newsroom by desks once occupied by colleagues who have moved away. Some desks have new occupants, talented young journalists who are drawn by the story of a lifetime. As New Orleans struggles to rebuild, we have to keep documenting what happens. As we do so, we walk a tightrope, trying to remain professional without seeming cold. Ours is a sacred obligation, and it’s nowhere near over. I took some wry satisfaction from an editor of a Hiroshima paper — one of a long procession of journalistic visitors to our newsroom — who said his city, which an atomic bomb had leveled in August 1945, was thriving.
That’s good to know, but will our recovery take 60 years?
Supportive spouses, friends and colleagues are invaluable. Through our work, strong ties have been formed that more than one colleague likened to the bonds that soldiers form in combat. That’s an apt comparison, but there’s a difference. People who fight wars — or cover them — usually have safe, comfortable homes to return to. Our war came to us, and it’s nowhere near over.
John Pope is a reporter for The Times-Picayune.