Covering Local Tragedies
Ochberg Fellowship Program
This is an edited transcript from John Pope's presentation at "Witnessing the Human Cost of Environmental Change," a Dart Centre Europe-sponsored panel at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, held June 21-23 in Bonn, Germany.
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In the nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina struck, I’ve often thought that covering that storm must be like covering a war because Katrina tore our world apart.
But there’s a big difference. People who go off to cover wars might have nice homes to return to. Our war came to us. The wind and rain blew through New Orleans. The levees broke, 80 percent of the city was under water, and almost 1,500 people lost their lives.
Our newspaper building, where we had ridden out the storm, became an island. We had to evacuate the next morning in delivery trucks that drove as water lapped at the headlights. Most of us went to Baton Rouge, where for six weeks we worked in folding chairs at long tables with laptops and our cell phones. A brave band of 10 or so colleagues stayed behind in New Orleans to try to make sense of the insanity.
We felt like everyone else who had been in Katrina’s path: anxious, furious, and most of all, betrayed. Government at every level – city, state and federal – had let us down. We were on our own. It called to mind when Jesse Jackson said that no one was going to help us but us.
As reporters, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to fall apart. We had an obligation to pull ourselves together and go out to chronicle the devastation and try to explain what went wrong.
This is, after all, what we do. But after the storm, there was more to it than that. I quickly realized something that mental-health specialists have known for years: Getting into a familiar routine was psychologically healthy because it kept us focused and gave us something important to do.
People were paying attention. Our website, NOLA.com, was getting as many as 30 million – yes, 30 million – hits a day from all over the world. In addition to keeping up with the news, people used the site as a virtual meeting spot to find out about friends' whereabouts and how their houses had fared.
That didn’t rebuild my colleagues’ houses or expedite their insurance claims, but it provided a necessary shot of purpose and self-esteem.
The spouses and children of many of my fellow reporters had fled the state, and many of my fellow journalists had homes that sustained serious damage or were obliterated. When my collegues weren’t working on stories, they were calling contractors or insurance agents. I saw many of them hang up the phone angry or in tears when something went wrong, as it often did.
Life was tough, to say the least. When we first arrived in Baton Rouge, we were put in student housing at Louisiana State University. I was in an unfurnished apartment with 11 other men and one bathroom. We slept, fitfully, on mattresses lined up along the floor.
One night, a colleague three mattresses away – a man whose family had evacuated to Mississippi and whose in-laws had lost their homes on the Gulf Coast – woke up in the middle of the night with chest pains. Some of my roommates rushed him to the field hospital where medics were treating evacuees.
We feared he was having a heart attack. He wasn’t, but it was an extreme example of the stress and anxiety we all felt.
At moments like that, and on the late nights after deadline, when we passed around bottles of cheap wine and shared our troubles, we were grateful for each other. We were all in it together.
This must be the way soldiers feel in combat. There’s a strong bond, an us-against-the-world camaraderie that lingers among us Katrina veterans, nearly five years after the nightmare.
And how did all of this pressure affect our work? I think it made us better reporters.
Because we were covering a catastrophe that had devastated our community, we asked tougher questions, and we were more persistent because these were answers that we needed, too. This was our home, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing what we could to make things right.
In the work that my colleagues and I did, I think we were unfailingly fair. Forget objectivity. It doesn’t exist until you’re dead. Strive for fairness.
This experience added another attribute to our reporting: empathy.
One of my colleagues lived in a government-supplied trailer for nearly two years with his wife and daughter while they were rebuilding their home. He told me that the experience gave him a valuable insight into what people he was interviewing were going through.
In interviewing people whose lives had been ruined, we had to walk an emotional tightrope. While we certainly couldn’t let ourselves fall apart and weep with them, we also couldn’t remain so emotionally distant that we would come across as icy and unfeeling.
I wish there were a happy ending. Rebuilding has been tough. Getting back to normal has been frustrating. And what does normal mean, anyway?
When our Times-Picayune team won two Pulitzer Prizes for our Katrina work, a member of the team turned to my wife and said, “Does this mean I get my house back?”
Nearly a year after the storm, one of my colleagues, whose home had been wrecked and who was having trouble with medical-insurance claims, snapped. He led police on a wild ride through Uptown New Orleans, backed over an officer who tried to stop him and begged police officers to shoot him. If the police hadn’t known him, I think they probably would have obliged.
He got the help he needed, he’s back at work, and he rebuilt his house. He seems OK, but he’s a reminder of the fragility of post-Katrina life.
While our colleague’s experience was extreme, none of us walked away from that storm without some psychological scarring. A Katrina colleague who moved to Nashville collapsed, weeping and trembling, when a tornado blew through that city.
I’m sure some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder is common at the newspaper, and many of us started taking anti-anxiety medication.
I’m one of many reporters who won’t plan trips during August and September, the peak of hurricane season, because something might happen that would keep my wife and me from getting back to secure our home.
Even today, I must confess to worrying when I hear thunder and see lightning. I have to take a moment and remind myself that most of the time it’s nothing more than rain.
Despite the slow pace of recovery, things started to get better. The Super Bowl victory in February of this year, coming a day after we elected a new mayor, put us on a euphoric high.
But, of course, that couldn’t last. We faced another calamity when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded April 20 of this year, killing 11 men and triggering the worst ecological disaster in United States history. As you know, it’s still unfolding.
This isn’t like a hurricane because there’s no wind, no torrential rain. Nevertheless, our coast and marshes are under attack, hundreds of fishers have lost their livelihoods, and what is normally a vibrant tourist season along the Gulf of Mexico is virtually kaput. The economic impact is devastating and far-reaching.
There is, however, one aspect about this catastrophe that is like a hurricane: The pit-of-the-stomach dread.
As the oil spill has moved through the Gulf of Mexico, we can’t help feeling the anxiety that takes over when a storm stalls off the coast, as if it were taunting us with its power while deciding where to strike and how hard.
Nevertheless, we Katrina-toughened scribes are back at it, using pointers we picked up in writing about the storm. We’re working as hard as we can to tell as much of this colossal story as we can.
I think we’re doing a good job, but I had to agree with my wife when she said to me recently, “I’m tired of being so damned resilient.”
We journalists don’t have that option. We have to be resilient because something like Katrina or the oil spill can happen anywhere.
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