Living Katrina: 10 Years Later
On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we asked seven journalists, a news executive and a clinician from the Gulf Coast to reflect on their experiences and what they’ve learned in the decade since. Scroll down for excerpts, and click to the right for full pieces from Eve Troeh, Clarence Williams, Stan Tiner, Debbie Fleming Caffery, John Pope, Joy Osofsky, June Cross, Russell Lewis and Mark Schleifstein.
By Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director, Dart Center
If you were a reporter driving into New Orleans not too many days after Hurricane Katrina, you would probably find your way to the French Quarter, where news satellite trucks crowded the median on Canal Street, their heavy power cables running up and down what would normally be a busy streetcar track. Or you’d head to Uptown, carefully navigating past fishing boats strewn across city streets far from the waterfront, massive live oaks felled by the storm, to a little shotgun house on a block that had stayed more or less dry. This was the temporary office of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and if you knocked on the door you’d be greeted by a handful of reporters - among them the sports editor and the art critic - who had headed back into the city at the height of the storm and been there ever since, running a little gasoline generator enough hours of the day to file story after story, photo after photo. And if you drove out to Baton Rouge you’d find their colleagues - nearly half of whom had lost their own homes - setting up a newsroom in exile in a suburban shopping plaza.
American journalism has never seemed more heroic or more urgent than in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. All of the skills, local knowledge and delight in the deadline craft of beat reporters; the raw communicative ability of photographers who honed their craft in local neighborhoods and remote war zones alike; the can-do ethic of copy editors and newsroom managers determined to keep their papers and broadcasts going with scotch tape and bubblegum if necessary; all of it coalesced into a unique moment of outraged witness.
Journalism after Katrina played a historic role whose complexity is still not completely appreciated - at once communicating critical information to fleeing residents; keeping the wider world alerted to the desperation of the city and its refugees; laying out a line of accountability for an avoidable and therefore criminal tragedy; and connecting Katrina survivors to one another and their families all along the Gulf Coast.
But the immediate challenge of covering the storm was more than matched by the quieter challenges of covering aftermath - months and years of it. When those satellite trucks left Canal Street the region’s local journalists were still there. They had to contend with new issues, from neighborhood rebuilding to post-traumatic stress disorder in storm survivors. They came face-to-face, daily, with their own losses, and fought to keep professional balance amid their own outrage at the corruption and incompetence that plagued rebuilding. And they have worked amid a wildly changing media environment, with the same upheaval facing journalists around the US resonating in even more profound ways in New Orleans’ post-storm media ecology.
Ten years later, some of that is recollected here by reporters, photographers and editors. Some had shared days of terror with their families and neighbors before being rescued and then heading back into the city with cameras and notebooks. Some, who had long covered a weakened Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, or who had already focused for years on racial and economic inequity, saw their worst fears fulfilled.
At the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, this 10th anniversary of Katrina holds special significance. Reporters who had previously been fellows and friends of the Center were among the storm’s immediate survivors and chroniclers. We held workshops for journalists in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast not long after the storm, and continued to do so for many months afterward. The Center’s Ochberg Fellows formed a volunteer squad to aid New Orleans reporters in gutting flooded and mold-ravaged homes. For this anniversary we’ve asked six journalists, a news executive and a clinician to reflect on the storm, and what they’ve learned in the decade since. Scroll down for excerpts, and click the article sections to the right to read the full pieces.
Eve Troeh, News Director, WWNO
It took Hurricane Katrina to teach me what kind of journalist I am – and am not.
When the levees failed, I was living in New Orleans as a freelancer and had the resources to return. My apartment was fine. I had no children or partner to consider. I came back determined to tell the stories of those displaced, those rebuilding and recovering from the trauma of the flood.
But resettled in my home post-disaster, I felt paralyzed. My impressions of Katrina would not fit into neat narrative packages. Story pitches had always come easily to me. Yet I seemed to have lost the ability to weave the threads of experience into discrete features.
Mark Schleifstein, Hurricane and environment reporter, Nola.com | the times-picayune
I was able to get back home for the first time four weeks after the storm, when water had been pumped out of the city. I crawled in through a window on the front door, which had swelled closed in the doorframe.
My first time in was when I really lost it. The house interior was coated with lake sediment, though we were well away from the lake, and I had to immediately crawl back out and sit on the front porch to calm down before going back in to figure out how bad it really was.
Debbie Fleming Caffery, DOCUMENTARY PHOTOgrapher
The government’s lack of concern and ability to care for the poor during and after Katrina was a crime. And it didn’t help matters when both politicians and preachers alike insinuated that, “these people deserved the destruction.”
They had lost everything and had no way to photograph their homes, neighborhoods and churches. It was a powerful reminder of how important it is to give back to the people we photograph. We are here to bear witness, and as recorders of history we must share our gifts.
June Cross, Writer, Producer and Professor, Columbia journalism school
Having covered the Middle East, the AIDS crisis and gang violence in the inner city, I thought I was accustomed to covering trauma. I was wrong. Going back and forth between New Orleans and New York over the course of two years, it seemed to me that the mainstream media moved on to other stories. In Manhattan, people went about their lives as if a major American city had not been nearly destroyed.
I became angry. Couldn’t they see nothing was normal? In classes at Columbia Journalism School, I looked at students I’d been teaching for weeks and struggled to remember their names. I lost vocabulary, became distant from loved ones. It took me a long time to concede I was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
CLARENCE WILLIAMS, PHOTOJOURNALIST
Hurricane Katrina is in me. I hate her. I love her.
The local and national coverage of the story broke my heart and weakened my bond with this country that birthed me. As a result of journalism I learned that I'm not a real American. Black President or not I struggle to feel like one. I'm just here. Why? Because I and so many others were called "refugees" over and over again. Words are powerful. The language of Hurricane Katrina substantiated my suspicions that I am not a truly vested American. I'm a fucking refugee! Ain't that some shit.
Despite that harsh, rude awakening, I told my story.
Joy Osofsky, ph.d, Clinical and Developmental Psychologist, lousiana state university
In the aftermath of any traumatic event, it is crucial for journalists to take care of themselves. The possibility of overload – especially when covering the human side of trauma – can contribute to secondary traumatic stress, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue. Photographers are particular at risk, as they often work independently or with little support from colleagues or institutions.
John Pope, Staff Writer, nola.com | the times-picayune
In the newsroom, where we were covering the storm’s advance, the wind pushed plate-glass windows hard enough to turn them into parabolas.
It got worse. After the rain stopped, colleagues who ventured out on bicycles and in newspaper delivery trucks returned with tales of horror: Levees had failed, and water was pouring into the city. People who had stayed put because they were unwilling or unable to evacuate were perched atop their houses as water lapped at the eaves.
New Orleans was drowning. I could feel the palpable waves of anger and fear spreading through our dark, hot newsroom – we had lost power 12 hours earlier – as we realized that government at every level had let us down.
RUSSELL LEWIS, SOUTHERN BUREAU CHIEF, NPR
Nothing about New Orleans was easy. But the passion of the people. Their love of the place. This deep-seated love. The random sounds of trumpets and drums on a random evening for no reason other than the need to play some music. I mean where else would you find people who celebrate funerals with a second-line parade? New Orleans had to come back. It wouldn’t be easy. But that’s New Orleans. It’s never easy.
Stan Tiner, Executive Editor, sun-herald
Once it became clear that the New Orleans levees had failed, most national media coverage was directed there, leaving our newsroom as the principal teller of Mississippi’s story. But it also provided us with a unique perspective and shared experience with those who suffered in the storm’s wake, and led to an urgent sense of advocacy in our coverage and editorial voice.
The Sun Herald community was profoundly affected. Many lost everything – homes and possessions – and many more suffered significant damage. Almost everyone was contending with the same issues they were covering.