Living Katrina: 10 Years Later
By Mark Schleifstein
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.
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.
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.
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