"Words Fail..."

I arrived on Monday afternoon and spent about a week covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the outlying areas of New Orleans.

I arrived on Monday afternoon and spent about a week covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the outlying areas of New Orleans.

First it was just frustrating. There was no Internet access, calls weren't getting through, and official knowledge was sketchy at best. My main concerns, as I drove south from Dallas, were transmitting a story on deadline and chasing Oklahomans responding to needs in the Gulf Coast area.

Then it became heartbreaking. The first refugees I met in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—those who got out and arrived in the outlying areas of New Orleans—talked of damaged homes, and businesses they may never see again. Some left behind pets, photos, belongings they could never replace.

Then it got worse.

Hour by hour, more refugees came out of New Orleans, plucked from rooftops, some having waded through a 'toxic soup' for rescue—a lucky few were lifted to safety, while thousands were left behind. Many were rescued by civilians in flat-bottom boats passing by. They showed up at shelters in Baton Rouge and elsewhere with nothing but what they wore. I had to wonder how they got out infants and wheelchair-bound relatives, but some did. And they were all so desperate, begging for help, it was hard not to be drawn in.

Then it became surreal. Life, as I knew it, was suspended. My lifeline to normalcy was my editor, Sonya Colberg, who provided good, rational advice in the midst of an unraveling situation. And yet I knew I wasn't even seeing the worst of it, just down the road on Interstate 10. I was safe—but what about my colleagues, like Natalie Pompilio of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who arrived in New Orleans before the storm?

I both envied those 'inside' for their access and worried about their safety. Should I dare to reach New Orleans, or just cover the mess out here? My head swirled. But there was plenty to go around.

At the Baton Rouge River Center, Arthur D. Smith told me of his harrowing escape to his own rooftop, where he contemplated death as he stretched his numb feet into gutters to heave himself up. "I thought, 'God, I don't want to die like this, " he said.

The 77-year-old diabetic spent two days waiting in the scorching sun for rescue. He stood wet, smelly and relieved in a line for newly arrived refugees.

After the interview, Smith asked me to call his family and rattled off a number. I called after deadline, got through eventually, and asked the man who answered if he knew 'Arthur.' "Jesus, " the man said. I thought he was dead. I told him where to find Arthur, hung up, and cried.

Each day brought concern from state and federal officials. They realized the "frustration" and "were addressing it." But it wasn't frustrating any longer, it was a "desperate SOS," as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin put it. People weren't just hungry or angry, but dying. Hospitals had run out of generator juice. The normal "honeymoon" that typically follows a tragedy never came. It just went from worse to horrible.

I started feeling guilty about having a hotel room in a hotel that had opened their conference rooms for refugees to sleep on the floor. I recognized the feeling of inadequacy in finding stories to define the scope of this catastrophe, and in finding the words once I found a story. We dilute words—everything is horrible and disastrous, or heroic and so on. Where are the words that raise the bar to this?

Each day brought something more jarring than the last. When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin began cussing and crying on a local radio station, it was, frankly, shocking. Could it really be that out of control? And who was in charge?

By Thursday, all bets were off. People were angry. Reporters were angry, and I was angry too. As an Oklahoman who covered numerous tornadoes and the Oklahoma City bombing, I understand tragedy, especially a natural disaster, but a response this slow was frightening and surreal. I went in search of the Louisiana National Guard and found them—I called their headquarters, but could not find anyone who knew anything or who had time to talk, so I had to show up to talk. They, too, had little communication in their small headquarters at an airport in Hammond, just north of New Orleans. Help from other states was coming, but Master Sgt. Bruce Stein of the 236th Air National Guard Combat Communications Squadron couldn't say from where, nor could he say where they were going or for how long. This was not because he was withholding information, but because he really didn't know. But he did know this:

"You know what they're saying on the news, " Stein said. "It's worse than that."

Helicopters and C-130 cargo planes would land and take off from this small municipal airport, but what happened in between would not be communicated because, as one guardsman said, troops didn't have a way to communicate with other state troops. Soon, my little frustrations with filing a story or finding a meal paled in comparison to what these people were going through. At least I had a car, and gas, and a home to go back to. I filed my stories via dictation and, when I got lucky, by e-mail. Then I drove for miles for the next story because phone lines were still down and the only way to find out what was going on was, again, to show up.

At the hotel I stayed in, and elsewhere, locals talked about the bad segment of New Orleans, saying their worst kind were those stuck in that city. Some stayed because they chose not to leave, but others said they couldn't leave because they couldn't pay $30 for a bus ticket, were too ill, too old, had pets, or just underestimated Hurricane Katrina. Second-guessing will go on for months and it starts with the evacuation. Why no public transportation? Why no stronger force?

And then it became mind-boggling. Words fail when Americans die in lawn chairs and are left to rot in the sun. When hospitals are looted and corpses are laid in stairwells because the basement morgue is flooded.

I no longer had problems. And I no longer recognized my own country—not in Louisiana, where people who survived were reduced to animal-like conditions for indefinite periods of time.

But leaving the area left me with mixed feelings. I didn't want to let go of writing about this catastrophe—a true catastrophe. My fear is that we'll forget New Orleans and the Gulf Coast way too soon, that attention spans will wane and media reports will dim. This hurricane will change our country's landscape and the repercussions will be felt nationwide. Bad as it is, that is a good thing, because until Americans feel a personal pinch, too many will forget the horror, even when it happens so close to home.


Click below to read some of Cockerell's stories about the disaster:

» "Camp ready, but waiting for 'guests'," Sept. 7
» "Camp awaits evacuees," Sept. 6
» "Katrina's legacy is lesson learned," Sept. 5
» "Refugees describe escaping rising water," Sept. 1
» "Oklahoma volunteers man Red Cross shelter," Sept. 1
» "Red Cross responds to Katrina in ways both large and small," Aug. 31