Covering Katrina's Aftermath

When reporter Michael Perlstein stayed on the front lines of the New Orleans Times-Picayune's hurricane Katrina coverage, he had no idea what he was getting into.

When reporter Michael Perlstein stayed on the front lines of the New Orleans Times-Picayune's hurricane Katrina coverage, he had no idea what he was getting into. The 44-year-old father of three just knew it was his job. He'd chased Hurricane Andrew across the state of Louisiana in a Jeep, so he had experience. It was probably the biggest story New Orleans would ever see in his lifetime, and he didn't want to miss out.

By the time the hurricane hit, Perlstein had haphazardly packed his wife, 3-year-old son and 15-month-old twins into their minivan, bound for Florida. Their logic was that by heading east, they would avoid being stuck in the mad rush of traffic in the other direction. As Perlstein stood atop a dry railroad trestle watching the devastation in the city he's called home for nearly 20 years, he knew they had miscalculated. As the water rose outside the house they'd abandoned, his family was headed into the path of the storm.

His friend David Meeks, the paper's sports editor, was also in jeopardy. Meeks, who like Perlstein had stayed behind to cover Katrina, was determined to rescue his dog, Carson. Perlstein watched as Meeks paddled away from the trestle in a kayak, promising to return in 40 minutes. Perlstein walked up and down the trestle, interviewing first responders walking to work, panicked citizens desperate to get out of town, Cajun fishermen determined to save whomever they could. Forty-five minutes passed. An hour. An hour and a quarter. The sky grew dark as nightfall approached. Perlstein was sure his friend was dead, like so many others he'd known in his former life.

When we talked a few days later, once reality started sinking in, Perlstein compared covering the hurricane to covering a war. The unknown lurked around every corner. Rations were in short supply. Sleep was at a minimum. At times, the reporters' lives were in danger; they carried weapons for protection.

If Perlstein hadn't made the comparison, I would have. Back in 2000, after receiving a fellowship from the Dart Center, I traveled to both Rwanda and the Balkans to interview local reporters about what it was like to cover a war in your own back yard. As Perlstein spoke, I heard the voice of Eugene Cornelius, an African documentary filmmaker who saw bodies floating down the Ruzizi River along Rwanda's eastern border. I recalled the tears of Davoua Mezic, who reported for five years from the battle zone in Zadar, Croatia, by day and huddled in a bomb shelter by night, not knowing if she would ever see her family again.

Journalists are often criticized as cold and hard-hearted by the communities we serve. Everyone has heard the old cliché about the reporter who asks, "How do you feel?" after some unspeakable tragedy has occurred. But there is a reason for our detachment. It helps us see things more clearly, especially in times of crisis. More and more often, however, we're beginning to realize that the clarity eventually gives way to emotion. The line between passive observer and compassionate human being starts to blur. We're still trying to figure out how to react when that happens.

The Dart Center aims to help reporters cover traumatic events more sensitively and to support reporters who suffer their own emotional fallout due to events they've witnessed. I have to admit that when I attended my first Dart seminar in fall 2000, I felt a little left out. I was one of just two reporters there who hadn't lived through some catastrophic story. Elaine Silvestrini, who worked at a newspaper in New Jersey at the time, and I were just run-of the-mill court reporters who covered garden variety crimes. We felt separate from the rest of the group, which included a woman who had been on the scene immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing and an emotionally wounded man who had written prolifically about the Rwanda genocide.

Less than a year later, Silvestrini was covering the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I can't help but feel my turn is coming too, sooner or later.

Every reporter, somewhere deep down, longs to cover "The Big Story"—the one the world is watching. On the other hand, I hold on to hope that no disaster—natural, man-made, or otherwise—ever hits so close to home.

Perlstein says he felt the same way.

"You have mixed feelings when it's your city, your property, your stuff, your family uprooted. You love to have the big story, but I'll pass on this one," he said.

In those first days after the hurricane—before he knew his family was safely ensconced with relatives in Milwaukee—Perlstein encountered desperate people everywhere. They had no food, no water, no information. The crowds implored the reporters: "Tell them we're here. Tell them we need help."

For a time, he and the other journalists even collected hopeless civilians in the back of their delivery truck and ferried them to safety.

"We were some sort of lifeline to these people," he said.

And the people sometimes returned the favor.

Meeks and his golden lab eventually made it back to the railroad trestle because a Good Samaritan with a boat rescued them from his flooded home's second-floor window. When the Times-Picayune staffers set up shop temporarily at the Houma Courier, 60 miles from New Orleans, razors, tooth brushes and homemade meals mysteriously appeared. The reporters' piles of dirty laundry were replaced the next day, folded and clean.

"It was nice to know that somewhere, somebody was trying to help," Perlstein said,

Always, there was the work, helping Perlstein keep his mind off his own situation.

One of his darkest moments occurred the first time he saw a dead body, floating, covered with a sheet. Perlstein assumed a drowning, but onlookers told him the man had been shot five times, then dumped. He knew the killer would never see justice.

Then there was the elderly man who had been rescued from his home, only to die en route to safety. Rescuers propped the body in a chair near the downtown convention center, which was ill-prepared to serve as a shelter and had been taken over by thugs. The dead man's elderly wife, who had survived, sat beside him for days. Then she wasn't there anymore. Perlstein doesn't know what became of her.

Outside the convention center, amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis, Perlstein encountered the New Orleans police chief, a man he knew well from his pre-hurricane days on the criminal justice beat. The chief looked red-eyed, embattled, exhausted. Perlstein embraced him, and the two men sobbed.