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Covering Katrina

Getting the Story While Trying to Survive at The Times-Picayune.


(page 1 of 2)

The generator cut out about 3 a.m., if memory serves me.

The small backyard power source that kept a fan going in the sweltering Uptown house of a Times-Picayune colleague sputtered and died as it ran out of gas.

I cursed and rolled off the couch, stumbling toward the back door in my boxer shorts.

Outside, the city was ink-dark, without electricity, creepy.

En route to the yard, I picked up my 16-gauge shotgun, the one I had retrieved days earlier at my own home in Lakeview – via a canoe – from an upper floor just beyond the reach of Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.

Some parts of Uptown never flooded after levees and floodwalls collapsed, and that’s where many news people set up camp, wrangling with an odd assortment of authority figures enforcing an evacuation order.

Stepping off the back steps that night, I groped about to find the generator and gas can, still toting the gun my father gave me long ago for bird-hunting.

Suddenly the rumble of a large truck cut the quiet of a mostly vacated city. The truck stopped abruptly and a man shouted out something in Spanish. Then someone swept a spotlight across the backyard.

A realization jolted me: The Puerto Rican National Guard, heavily armed (I had seen them earlier, when they tried to evict us) was paying a visit as part of its search for looters. At this hour, carrying a long-barreled gun, I looked like trouble. A moment of confusion, tangled communication, and I just might get shot.

The generator could wait.

I tossed the gun beneath the house and bolted up the stairs. Hunkering down just inside the back door, sweating, I waited for the soldiers to move on.

The late-night episode was one among so many five years ago in a prostrate New Orleans. The weeks immediately after the inglorious arrival of Katrina were dream-like to many staffers from the daily newspaper, simultaneously horrible and riveting. There were lots of stories to cover.

Even now the post-Katrina time seems a fog, a blur of victims and responders and flooded, ruined things.

I can recall a body wrapped up and placed on the porch of a house near Magazine Street. Someone had attached a sign, naming this victim, asking for pickup and processing of the corpse as soon as possible. It remained there for some time.

The house where I slept, not far from Audubon Park, belonged to Gordon Russell, one of the more relentless journalists toiling for The Times-Picayune (more recently serving as its city editor). It was a few doors down from the home of TP columnist Stephanie Grace, which had been transformed into a bureau and crowded sleeping spot, complete with bags of food, beer and myriad laptop computers.

We called her place Fort Apache.

Grace’s house became one base of operations for a dozen or more TP staffers at a time, following a quick evacuation of the newspaper’s building on Howard Avenue, next to the Pontchartrain Expressway (in big paper delivery trucks) as Katrina waters surrounded the three-story complex.

Ashton Phelps Jr., the publisher, ordered everyone to grab critical items and get out, while the high-axle trucks could still move.

For months afterward, the newspaper was directed out of Baton Rouge, its executives and much of its staff fashioning a journalistic MASH unit, split up between LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a converted space at a former shopping center miles away.

The paper’s affiliate website, nola.com, grabbed a worldwide audience as it funneled news and narrative accounts from New Orleans and neighboring hard-hit sections.

The website and WWL radio became emotional lifelines for displaced city residents who were sick with worry.

Ferrying in sacks of supplies from Baton Rouge with veteran TP police reporter Walt Philbin, a Vietnam War vet with fine instincts for navigating a disaster zone, I served a couple of stints as informal bureau chief in New Orleans.

I have held on to a battered notebook and a bagful of other relics from the weeks after Katrina changed everything.
Pulling out the mementos jogs the memory. One crumpled sheet of paper bears early-morning jottings from Fort Apache.

It details tasks and needs, a to-do list of sorts:

— passes for press
— get Guard off our backs/Puerto Rico, esp.
— clean up
— need to discuss pay
— list of items needing replacement – mustard – spices
— find ano. table for wk.
— hotel accom?
— router coming?
— docs to Amoss –
— deliver papers –
— Rose leaving? Car to O’Byrne?

As staffers swept in and out of the house each day, reporting and then feverishly tapping out stories on victim searches, the destruction of key institutions, police and military tactics and the machinations of government officials, we fretted over personal logistics.

When can we fix technology glitches? Who gets a vehicle? How can we secure a hotel room with air conditioning?

Jim Amoss is the newspaper’s editor. James O’Byrne, now chief of nola.com, served as TP features editor at the time. Accompanied by arts critic Doug MacCash, O’Byrne, scouting out toward Lakeview on a bicycle the day Katrina made landfall, was among the first to report that a torrent of water, from a busted floodwall on the 17th Street Canal, could be seen rolling across the city. Chris Rose, then a TP columnist, penned wrenching pieces about what had come of a beloved city. (Many were later assembled in the book One Dead in the Attic.)

Katrina created the ultimate discomfort zone – and a huge opportunity.

Reporters and photographers scrambled to claim pieces of the story; one moment, a bombastic James Varney, known for his coverage of Jefferson Parish politics, strides through the door and says, “Throw me into the breach!”; another, Russell is squeezing quotes out of Ray Nagin, having managed to get the bedraggled mayor on a land-line phone.

Beyond sacks of fruit, MREs (the military’s Meals Ready to Eat) and warm beer, food was scarce. But there was one especially memorable feast at the scruffy bureau. Rose showed up one afternoon with a pile of steaks, freshly donated by a fancy restaurant whose freezer room had belatedly thawed out.

We fired up the grill, generating a robust side-yard blaze that probably attracted the notice of Coast Guard helicopters cutting across the evening sky. We cooked it all, ate as much as we could.

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