Many months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, some of us started to muse idly over lunch about when a story not containing the “K” word would finally be published in our newspaper, The Times-Picayune. Two years, some figured. No, five, others said. A few thought it would be longer still.
As it happens, the day of the first Katrina-less story has come and gone, and none of us really noticed. These days, in fact, it’s possible to pick up the Picayune and find a story or two or three on any given day that doesn’t mention the dreaded storm. That said, two years after the event, Katrina is still our alpha and our omega. It’s like a tree that casts such a large shadow over your backyard that you eventually just accept its existence and fail to notice it anymore. The ruination wrought by Katrina — with an unwitting assist from the Army Corps of Engineers — looms over nearly everything we do. And it will for years to come.
Working in a place where a single subject so dominates everything is strange for journalists, accustomed to covering an ever-changing tapestry of characters and storylines. New Orleans, in particular, has always been a town of a million stories. Perhaps we at The Times-Picayune feel a bit like some of our peers did a few decades back in cities that were ruled by a single industry: In the old Pittsburgh, the story was always steel; in Detroit, it was the Big Three.
But as the writers in those cities surely learned, and as we have, there’s endless variety in a story so big. And that may be particularly true in our case. If Katrina is the only story in town, she is a damn good one, with tangents and sidebars galore. A few examples:
Last year’s mayoral contest, shaping up as a ho-hum victory lap for Mayor Ray Nagin before the storm, was transformed by Katrina into a complex, fascinating nail biter.
The storm’s wholesale devastation spawned a wrenching but enlightening discussion over how best to rebuild, a debate shot through with themes ranging from the scientific to the socioeconomic and from racial to political.
With various government agencies awarding billions of dollars through emergency no-bid contracts, the stakes surrounding the awarding of these contracts—always a source of controversy and entertainment in New Orleans—rose dramatically.
New and intriguing beats arose and had to be charted where none existed before. For instance, one task I was involved with was coming up with ways to count the city’s population, one of the more blunt measures of recovery. These days, we have a reporter, David Hammer, whose sole duty—and his reporting constantly appears in the paper—is to chart the progress, or lack thereof, of the state’s homeowner-aid Road Home program. Likewise, following the construction of levees and other flood-proofing measures is now one of the paper’s essential beats.
Journalistically, some find writing about Katrina and her aftermath the most fulfilling work they’ve ever done; others find it tiresome. For many — most, perhaps — the reaction to our post-Katrina work falls somewhere in between.
My colleague James Varney, a veteran who rode out the storm and authored a number of revealing exposés about FEMA’s contracting practices, decided one day he’d just as soon never type the word “Katrina” again. He’s now covering Louisiana State University sports for the paper. Though the university is just 90 miles away from New Orleans, it might as well be in a parallel universe. For him, the job operates as if Katrina never happened.
Varney is my only coworker who managed so thorough a change of scenery without leaving the paper. But we’ve lost a handful of other top-notch journalists since the storm to other cities and, in some cases, other occupations. Some had their lives turned upside down — homes damaged, schools closed, and so forth — and others just didn’t want to stay in a city that was clearly going to be on its knees for a long time.
The life here is not for everyone. My neighborhood, nestled close to the river on some of the city’s highest ground, is a good example. Though none of the homes in my neighborhood were flooded, at least a third of the people who lived in them, perhaps even half, have moved away from New Orleans since the storm. For most, I think the decision to leave was driven largely by a lack of jobs — or, at least, the kinds of jobs they’d had — after Katrina. Others were driven out by skyrocketing rents, insurance and utility bills.
But the psychological factor can’t be overlooked. Even when your life is sort of in order — your home, your job, your spouse’s job, your children’s school are all in place — there’s a weight to be shouldered simply by soldiering on. At the grocery store, at the corner bar, at the neighborhood restaurant — everywhere — the refrains continue to sound the same. “How’d you make out?” “When did you get back?” “I’m waiting on my Road Home money.” Or: “I’m moving to Dallas.” That’s an option that has tempted some of us, too, myself included — the idea of chucking it all for a “normal” place.
I’ll never forget what Varney said after making his first trip to the outside world a few months after the storm. People, he told me somewhat indignantly, are walking around Charlotte, North Carolina, “like nothing ever happened.” They’re shopping, selling, eating, drinking, living and building. Life marches on out there, while in New Orleans we continue to wallow in a frustrating mess that seems like it will never be picked up.
In the newsroom, it’s especially difficult to shut out what our columnist Chris Rose refers to as “The Thing.” After all, we spend a lot of our time talking to people wounded by the storm and struggling to recover. At times, after Katrina, some of us have felt like part-time social workers. Not everyone has been up to that task, and some of us have visited psychiatrists or seen counselors for the first time.
Every time someone writes a story about the city’s plan for demolishing damaged homes, a flurry of calls and e-mails is inevitable. Same goes for stories about the state’s Road Home program. The flurry becomes a hailstorm whenever stories about the city’s rebuilding priorities are published, in particular when the controversy about whether some sections of town will be rebuilt resurfaces. On many days, I’ve spent an hour or two just returning phone messages from people with concerns raised by our reporting. Other reporters have had to deal with far more given the topics they tend to write about. Often as not, callers seem to want counseling as much as they want information, and this wasn’t in our job description before Katrina hit.
Sometimes these interactions take us out of the journalist’s traditional spectator role. I listened the other day as my colleague Michelle Krupa dealt patiently with a frantic man whose home was about to be torn down, even though he had taken the required steps to ensure it wouldn’t be. Though it was off the official demolition list, the word hadn’t trickled down to the subcontractors in the field with the backhoes, and they were about to get started.
Some reporters might have just given the man a couple of phone numbers and told him to call back if the bulldozers didn’t go away. But Krupa went further, calling a couple of contacts at FEMA and getting the agency to spare the man’s home. She wondered aloud whether she had done the right thing. I told her she had.
I’d be lying if I said that all of us have cheerfully accepted the extra load. Stress, depression and plain old overwork have taken their toll. For a few months after the storm, it seemed like adrenaline — plus a sense of mission, a feeling that the information we were supplying to people mattered as it never had before — was enough to get us through. (We got a lift, too, from the two Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the staff for Katrina coverage.) But adrenaline subsides. There was a time during 2006 when I — and a fair number of my colleagues — felt beaten down. A few of our coworkers had quit and not been replaced. We had all been working very, very hard, and there was no reason to think the story was going to get easier to cover.
Morale in the newsroom went south, and people began to mutter more loudly about jumping off a ship that felt like it was slowly sinking. There was a palpable feeling that we were being bled dry as our bosses shrunk the staff down to some unspecified level that we had yet to reach. Some of us also made pleas to the editor, Jim Amoss, who assured us that he wasn’t planning to preside over the dismantling of our newsroom.
He spoke the truth. Though it didn’t happen as quickly as some of us would have liked, the Picayune eventually filled every open position in the newsroom. To a person, the replacements have been terrific: They are young, energetic and enthusiastic, and they’ve lightened the load considerably. There’s still more than enough for everyone to do. I often say that in a news-saturated city like New Orleans, we could keep a staff twice as big as ours busy with good stories. I try to be realistic, though. And I recognize that it’s remarkable that our newspaper (part of the Advance chain, privately owned by the Newhouse family) has avoided layoffs even in the face of a disaster that shrunk our circulation by perhaps a third — even as our Web site’s traffic has increased significantly — while dozens of other papers have been slashing jobs with no Katrina to blame for the downsizing.
Throughout the ups and down, the fact that some of our staffers have been going through the same problems as our readers has helped our coverage immensely and bolstered our collective sanity. My boss, city editor DavidMeeks, recently moved into his rebuilt home in devastated Lakeview, giving him a firsthand look at life as a pioneer in post-Katrina New Orleans. Coleman Warner, a veteran Picayune reporter, has been spending most of his time since the storm in a 240-square foot FEMA trailer on his property with his wife and daughter. He’s hoping to move back into his renovated house this fall.
Sometimes I think about what a long time two years is. When Coleman’s daughter remembers her high school years decades from now, she’ll think of life in the trailer. To Coleman, perhaps the most unshakable person I’ve ever met, FEMA’s accommodations are nothing to whine about. A few months ago, he wrote a whimsical and hilarious first-person paean to the humble white box — an “icon of hope and loss and government bungling,” as he put it. His words appeared on the paper’s front page.
A Shift in Perspective
There was a time, early on, when I envisioned that New Orleans would someday turn a corner and that the newspaper would shift from writing stories about picking up the pieces and return to the sort of meat-and-potatoes stories about institutions and events that newspapers generally provide — trials, arrests, school board meetings, elections, graduations and so on.
Now I see the city as rounding a wide bend rather than turning a corner. As time marches on, the newspaper, too, has come round the bend, and our emphasis has gradually shifted away from how the city will be rebuilt to how it is — now, in the present tense. In some ways, that shift is a subtle reflection of the reality that, despite all the heady talk of remaking New Orleans’s broken institutions from the ground up, none of that is going to happen. Instead, the old ones are just being patched up — or, in some cases, they are deteriorating further.
In a more positive sense, the slow refocusing of the Picayune’s lens may be a sign of progress, an unspoken indication that the newspaper and its readers alike are working their way through the grieving process. At some point, the thinking goes, it’s time to stop dwelling on what happened — not that we should forget it — and move forward.
This perspective was summed up by six-year-old Edmund Philipson, who sent a two-sentence letter to the Picayune in March. The child had apparently heard enough excuses about why the city’s beloved St. Charles Avenue streetcar line was still inoperable 18 months after the storm.
“I think the streetcar should be running,” he wrote. “The hurricane was a long time ago!”
Gordon Russell is special projects editor at The Times-Picayune. At the time Hurricane Katrina struck, he covered city hall, after having begun his work at the paper in the River Parishes’ bureau.