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.

Read the full piece here.
 

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. 

Read the full piece here.
 

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.

Read the full piece here.

 

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.

Read the full piece here.

 

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.

Read the full piece here.

 

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. 

Read the full piece here.

 

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.

Read the full piece here.

 

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.

Read the full piece here.

 

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. 

Read the full piece here.


Eve Troeh: When the Story Lands on Your Back Porch

I live in New Orleans, where I returned a few years ago to start a newsroom at New Orleans Public Radio. I live to tell the long story, a nuanced picture of a place and its people over time, day by day covering the terrain of this fascinating, complicated, by turns ecstatic and tragic place. 

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. Just one example of a conversation I had – or rather tried to have – with an editor, was about a crashed public bus across the street from my apartment. It sat there rusting week after week. Apparently some teenagers had commandeered it to try to drive people out of the flooded city. But they’d wrecked it. What became of them? What would become of the bus? Could I do a story on The Bus? “Well, that’s not really what we’re looking for.”

Envy and despair set in as I watched waves of out-of-town reporters arrive, and heard their work on the air as I struggled to write even a single feature pitch. How did they do it so easily? Were their fresh eyes more valuable than my immersed experience? It took about six months for me to find a voice, to start my work.

Assignments helped. I’d floundered at first out of embarrassment that I didn’t know how to cover the chaos around me. Once I fessed up to editors that I needed direction, they came to me with ideas. A conversation started. More ideas flowed from there. 

Patience was key. Interview subjects, displaced or overwhelmed after the flood, often cancelled or rescheduled. Government officials rarely agreed to appointments; I had to track them down at public appearances. But time was on my side. Because I wasn’t flying in and out I could pick away slowly at stories, and avoid the trap of “bad” or “feel good” narratives for something more nuanced. 

Yet time also became a burden. Constant exposure to a decimated landscape, traumatic narratives, flailing recovery and, eventually, being a victim of a violent crime led me to move away. Those years away were valuable for healing, and I regained strength to return to the city. This time my mission has been to build something long-term for New Orleans, to serve a local audience.

As I take in the news coverage of this decade anniversary of Katrina, I am no longer envious of those parachuting in to cover New Orleans. I feel good about reporting here, telling the long story of this city. That, in some ways, will only begin once this anniversary passes. I have re-engaged and reclaimed my space in New Orleans with healthier boundaries. I’ve started a family here. And I feel a stronger sense of self than I could have imagined a decade ago.

 


Mark Schleifstein: Fears Fulfilled

I was sitting at my desk, attempting to explain to my editors and the paper’s publisher a computer storm surge model that showed a third of New Orleans filling with water, similar to what had happened during Hurricane Betsy.

“Is it really going to be that bad?” they asked. “Should we be scaring our readers by printing this?”

The phone rang and it was Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. Before I could even say hello, Max said, “Mark, how high is your building? What kind of winds can it withstand?” His voice was loud enough so that everyone around me could hear. The argument was over.

By Monday evening, I knew my home was flooded by a breach in a drainage canal floodwall, filled with water from Lake Pontchartrain. “Two feet,” my wife says when people ask how bad it was. “On the second floor.”

We went in different directions the day after the storm, evacuating from a temporary shelter in our newspaper building to the back of two different newspaper delivery trucks. She ended up in Atlanta and elsewhere in the months ahead. I found myself in Houma, Louisiana, that first night, then Baton Rouge the next day and until October 10.

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.

In the aftermath of the storm, I first focused on environmental issues, catching an aerial tour with a state environmental official who showed us that in addition to the intense flooding in the city itself, a crude oil storage tank had failed in St. Bernard Parish, adding oil to the floodwaters in an entire neighborhood. We saw a variety of other major oil and diesel fuel spills over the 90 miles to the mouth of the Mississippi.

I was also part of a team that reported on what exactly went wrong with the levee system. Having reported at 2 p.m. on the day the storm hit that the 17th Street Canal wall had failed, flooding my own neighborhood, I was able to report on what had caused that breakdown in the weeks after: failures of design and materials during construction, all overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Much of that work resulted from efforts that my colleagues and I made to obtain thousands of pages of design and construction documents, including a number that were discovered in flooded warehouses.

 

Tips:

I can’t stress this enough: You must be your own best defender in dealing with your newsroom management, ensuring that they are providing you with the mental health resources you will need in the aftermath of an event like this. 

I had the benefit of having heard reporters who covered the Oklahoma City bombing talk about their problems, and how the Dart Center had provided assistance. I and others who were aware of Dart demanded that our management abandon the traditional mental health contractor they’d used before the storm. To their credit, they listened, and agreed to bring in Dart and to reach out to trauma experts at Louisiana State University.

I also recommend that folks prepare a plan for themselves and their family now, before a catastrophe hits. It should include everything a traditional Red Cross or FEMA recommendation includes: where you and family members will go; alternative locations; contacts outside the area that everyone knows to call for location and status updates; portable health and other insurance records, mortgage documents, etc. And maintain your own personal equipment needs for work, including batteries, chargers, and backup equipment.


Lessons learned:

The biggest lesson I took away is that things are in no way as important as people. I was able to reach out to my extended family, members of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former Times-Picayune staffers time and again for assistance in the aftermath of Katrina, both for mental health purposes and for tangible things. The week after the storm, a note to our listserv led to hundreds of donations delivered to our temporary newsroom in Baton Rouge: snacks, razors, deodorant, you name it. The care packages continued to arrive for several months and meant so much to the whole staff. The Friends of The Times-Picayune set up a financial aid program that resulted in more than $300,000 in grants to our staffers. For the 40 percent of our paper’s employees who either lost their homes or dealt with major structural damages, the support was invaluable.

 


Debbie Fleming Caffery: Stunned

My first reaction was fury. Hundreds of evacuees were lined up on the blazing hot concrete waiting to go through metal detectors. Many had been picked up from the Superdome and off freeways, and most had been stranded without food and water. I could not believe I was in the United States. I was stunned by how ill prepared our government was for a disaster of this kind, and how completely inadequate the help was for the evacuees. 

I began talking to a few people who had checked into the shelter and were gathered under awnings, but it took me a while to make my first photograph. I was in partly in shock, and just listened and tried to comfort the people around me. The sadness was overwhelming, and the pain heart wrenching. It took me a few days to begin to work.  

And from there I documented the aftermath of Katrina for over a year.  

Debbie Fleming Caffery: A stormy day in the Ninth Ward in August, 2006.

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.”  One bright spot were the volunteers who showed up from the Louisiana countryside and across the U.S., providing food, clothes, and money, and, as time went on, helped to rebuild the homes of many evacuees.

Despite my initial hesitancy to photograph at the River Center Shelter, I learned over and over again that most people wanted their stories told. I’ll never forget how surprised and grateful people were when I brought them a copy of the magazine filled with their portraits. 

I discovered later that the images I took the year after Katrina became extremely important to some residents in the years that followed. 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, whenever possible, with those we photograph. It should always be part of any story or project we undertake.


June Cross: Chronicling the Destruction of the American Dream

As I set about documenting a city’s effort to rebuild, I instead found individuals falling apart as they tried to absorb what had happened. They were alternately depressed by the wall of bureaucracy they had to climb to file insurance claims, and angered that their government had abandoned them. In the Lower Ninth Ward – the predominantly black working class area – in Pontchartrain Park and in New Orleans East, I felt as if I were documenting an economic cleansing. 

The powers that be had decided to use the flood as an excuse to get rid of “undesirables” – a euphemism which seemed to be a code for poor blacks. Those who lived in the housing projects, which hadn’t flooded, were forcibly evicted. Charity Hospital, which only took on water in its basement, closed permanently as local, state, and federal officials made plans for a brand new medical complex in the middle of the city. Those affected were not all criminals – they were working people, middle class people – and as they spoke to my camera I became their therapist.

Even residents in the more affluent Uptown area, where floodwaters hit only two feet, were devastated. I particularly remember the registered nurse, whose husband had just received a kidney transplant the day the storm hit. She lost her job at the teaching hospital in the weeks following, and now cared for both her chronically ill spouse and an elderly father with Alzheimer’s disease in a city with unreliable electricity. She broke down in tears as she begged me to help. 

It was as if I was chronicling the destruction of the American Dream.

The ripple effect spread outward from New Orleans. Among those who were evacuated – the largest outward move of people from the South since the Great Migration – the stress took a toll. Suicides, strokes, and other stress-related diseases spiked upwards. Those with asthma, like myself, found their symptoms difficult to control. Public health officials suggested wearing a mask. But when so many of those I interviewed did not have access to one, I found that wearing it interfered with establishing rapport.

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.

Lessons Learned: Covering a city that is 85% destroyed is like being in a third world country. Electricity was spotty, so the chances for bacterial infection rose. I spent long days in destroyed areas, and finding fresh water became difficult. Bring a water filter with you! Carry energy bars in case you can’t get back to food. A satellite phone would also have been helpful. And I really should have worn the N-95 mask that FEMA recommended for dealing with mold. Finally: that phrase “self-care”? Heed it.

 


Clarence Williams: I Hate Her. I Love Her.

Much has happened in this decade. I still consider myself a photojournalist, but my role and identity in this beloved and evolving profession have changed over these past 10 years. For nine of them I was a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I was the head of Photojournalism at the College of Arts and Letters. Now, I'm Director of Communications for New Orleans City Councilman-At-Large, Jason Williams.

Today, August 23rd, I sat in front of my boss in a small ratty studio in the French Quarter as he did a live segment with the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC. As he and the other guests discussed the topics at hand, news images of Katrina danced across the screen. I thought. I felt. I hurt. Not for the first time, but I was reminded that I didn't cover the story. Shit, I was a part of the story. That hurricane happened to me and to my family. I spent days on a roof and in a sweltering attic as survival mode superseded all. I had a beautiful array of cameras to photograph my cousin's wedding, which was scheduled for August 29th, but no fucking film. 



Clarence Williams: "As the flood waters receded, the madness continued. Many black bodies littered the city. Some were stuffed in plastic bags and discarded as trash. This lonely soul was sprawled on Carrollton Ave as a luxury car passes by."

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. Hopefully, the book will be published one day. I stand behind the work. I'm proud of it. As far as covering a disaster like this, I think it’s crucial that we as journalists are honest, fair and loving. And we must do our research. More than natural disaster, this story was and is about poverty in America. Katrina also reminded me of the importance of just being prepared – knowing what you’re walking into. As the waters receded it was about cash in small denominations. There were ATMs. There just wasn't any electricity.

I try not to reflect on Hurricane Katrina. I do talk about it. I’ve shared her with every student that’s crossed my path. My book, after a handful of rejections, lives in a drawer. Life moves on. 

 

 


Joy Osofsky: A New Normal

The press helped us understand the extent of the devastation: the suffering and displacement of survivors, the problems confronting first responders, and the mishandling of the disaster on so many levels. For those of us from New Orleans working hard to address the mental health needs of evacuees as well as first responders, the news coverage had its positives and negatives.

Watching the news and devastation over and over was traumatizing to even the strongest among us, yet staying informed was crucial to our work. I would generally compliment the press, who were working under difficult conditions and traumatizing circumstances, for providing important information as well as poignant stories of human pain and suffering. I was particularly impressed with members of our local news teams, whose homes, in many cases, were devastated and whose families were also forced to evacuate; yet they continued to cover the news. From our leadership posts within Louisiana Spirit, the State’s crisis and response efforts, we had to be ready to respond even when physically and emotionally drained. We had to constantly remind ourselves to be thoughtful – to make sure that what we said was helpful rather than alarming. 

In the immediate aftermath, reporters frequently asked to interview victims, including children and families, when they might have been best left alone. We understood that talking to victims and survivors makes for a richer, more complete story, but it can also be traumatizing and push the bounds of what we consider appropriate from a mental health perspective. Most reporters were willing to try to strike a balance, and delivered strong stories while protecting their subjects.

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. 

Not only are photographers likely to become overloaded, but their work may also awaken personal reminders and family concerns. I remember vividly the strong reaction of a dedicated photographer who lost his home during Katrina. He was having difficulty with his insurance company, and, finally, lost it one day while taking pictures of the devastation. Seeing and hearing traumatic material over and over can be difficult no matter how much experience you have. Taking breaks and having what we call “reflective support” from friends and colleagues are integral to self-care. 

During Katrina, one of the most important lessons we learned is that most people love the place where they live and want to return. They exhibit strength and, over time, most demonstrate resilience and even inner growth. Children will also show resilience in the aftermath of disaster, especially with support from adults. However, the needs of children are not consistently addressed. It is important to build capacity and provide supportive services in settings that are accessible to children and families, like schools, churches and community centers. 

We have also learned that after a disaster a “new normal” will emerge. Everyday life and routines will return; however, they will be decidedly different. A large component of recovery centers on a willingness and learned ability to rebound, accept and adjust to this “new normal.”

 


John Pope: Surrounded by Angels

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.

At that moment, we also began to realize that if New Orleans was going to recover, we – citizens and reporters alike – would have to shoulder much of the burden.

Katrina made us better and tougher reporters because we were writing about issues that directly affected us. We could draw on our own experiences with hard-to-find insurance agents and contractors, as well as clueless bureaucrats, as we wrote our stories. One colleague, who lived with his wife and daughter in a government-supplied trailer for 18 months while their home was being repaired, said that experience gave him a great deal of empathy when interviewing people in similar situations. He knew what to expect, what to ask, how far to push.

Volunteers at all levels pitched in to bring back their neighborhoods and institutions. They restored the city’s libraries and built a better, charter -based public school system. Women of the Storm, a group of about 140 women from all over the New Orleans area, traveled to Washington three times to invite members of the House and Senate to visit the city so they might appreciate the scope of the disaster and understand what was needed to bring New Orleans back. Their mantra: If you don’t see it, you can’t understand it.

An early plan for restoring the city proposed turning the most heavily damaged areas into green spaces that would be indicated on a map by green dots. People who lived in those parts of the city rebelled. In Broadmoor, which sustained heavy flooding, residents not only brought their neighborhood back but also gave a name to a gathering spot in their handsomely restored library: The Green Dot Café.

There has been federal help – we have a $14.5-billion network of levees, floodwalls and pumps that should prevent future flooding disasters – but citizens, acting together, did much of the heavy lifting. 

I like to think that we, reporters and civilians alike, were like Dorothy’s chums in “The Wizard of Oz”: In the wake of this monster storm, we discovered traits we didn’t know we possessed.

That frame of mind has endured, said Walter Isaacson, a native New Orleanian, in a piece he wrote for The New York Times Book Review: “The memory of Katrina and the excitement of having to rebuild something better continues to keep people in New Orleans engaged and connected. There’s an edgy creativity that comes from the shared aftertaste of danger, a sense of community that comes from knowing you’re in the same boat.”

Another colleague expressed the phenomenon this way: We live surrounded by angels.

 

Click here for tips from John Pope on covering hurricanes before, during and after the storm.

 

 

 

 


Russell Lewis: Passion and Patience

But when it entered the Gulf of Mexico, it exploded into the monster that killed more than 1,800 people.

For days I watched the nonstop, unbelievable images on television and listened to the captivating reports on NPR about how bad the situation was and how little help was making it to those who needed it most. You just knew that the process to recover and rebuild New Orleans, and coastal areas in Mississippi and Alabama, would take years.

I moved to New Orleans in 2006 and spent the next year helping coordinate NPR’s coverage of the rebuilding along the Gulf Coast. We felt it was important to have a full-time person operating our bureau in the city as reporters and producers cycled in for three and four week stints. You learn a lot about a place by simply existing in it -- especially after a disaster. New Orleans' most important virtue is patience. Things always take longer than they should in the Crescent City. 

It took three weeks for my phone service to be switched on -- despite living literally across the street from the phone company. Streetlights worked occasionally. The potholes were big enough to swallow bicycles and simply going to the supermarket was an adventure. I fully expected that I would be a victim of crime. My first or second month in town, a friend of a friend was murdered. A few months later, another friend was abducted. Everyone, it seemed, knew a crime victim.  

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.

I return to New Orleans several times a year now and I’m buoyed by how much it’s changed. Yes, pockets of hurricane destruction remain. But it’s back. The richness of the place has returned (did it ever really leave?) The key to covering any long-term story is making a commitment to sticking with it. It would have been easy to give up on New Orleans. Buy why? It’s still one of this country’s most amazing and diverse cities.


Stan Tiner: Moving Forward

The shared tragedy – between our journalists, and friends and neighbors across the Mississippi Coast who suffered such massive losses together – fostered a sense of compassion and empathy that we’ve carried forward over the last 10 years. 

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. 

Around the Sun Herald building, Knight Ridder, our then parent company, immediately set up a support base complete with RVs, tents, food, water, and portable toilets, as well as a full complement of technical support to help keep us going. This included an embedded psychologist, Dr. Joyce Aaron, who stayed with us for several weeks, holding regular staff sessions to talk about issues of trauma that almost everyone was dealing with. Dr. Aaron was also available for individual counseling, and I believe most of us checked in for a session.

Our exposure to widespread suffering impacted us in haunting and traumatic ways, but the demands of our jobs also kept us focused on the story, and gave us fewer opportunities to dwell on our personal problems. 

The most important lesson I learned in those hard days was what I’d call the righteous purpose of journalism. We took great pride in delivering an edition of the Sun Herald every day after the storm. All of us – from newsroom personnel to ad reps to delivery staff – found satisfaction and reward in placing a newspaper in the hands of people standing in lines and sifting through rubble. I’ll never forget the genuine appreciation from members of our community upon receiving the daily paper. It was an important reminder of a newspaper’s value to a community that was trying to stand back up after the largest natural disaster ever suffered in America. 

South Mississippi’s journey of rebuilding and recovery has been chronicled over the last decade by Sun Herald journalists whose own lives and jobs were altered by Katrina, all during a time that’s seen the biggest changes in the history of American journalism. While our newsroom has been battered by these forces I can say, with certainty, that we have not been defeated.