Living Katrina: 10 Years Later
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.