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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.
Then Rose pulled up a car, cranked up a CD player and played Randy Newman’s “Louisiana,” recalling the Mississippi River floods of 1927 (“… they’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away.”) The song would become the anthem for those mourning losses from the 2005 storm.
It certainly resonated with our motley group. Across the city, neighborhoods were still flooded; people were still suffering and dying.
I wasn’t in New Orleans when 80 percent of it was engulfed by Katrina waters. I was not in the Howard Avenue newsroom when people climbed aboard the delivery trucks. I have heard the stories of how one band of TP staffers, led by then-sports editor David Meeks (and including Terri Troncale, MacCash, Michael Perlstein, Brian Thevenot, John McCusker and Bruce Nolan) took one of the big trucks and returned to the chaotic flood zone after an initial evacuation to the newspaper’s West Bank bureau.
They and a few others scattered about the city became the TP’s vanguard. The first story upon their return to the east bank: rampant looting of a Walmart store, with police officers among the looters.
As Katrina’s towering black-and-gray cloud bank rolled toward New Orleans the Sunday evening of Aug. 28, 2005, I caught glimpses of the stunning nature show in my rearview mirror, driving north across Lake Pontchartrain.
Riding with me was our family cat Sizzle, and a pile of cherished pictures. I was hauling them to a town in Arkansas, to which my wife and daughter had evacuated.
During the storm’s approach, I had tried to secure a reporting post (and garage parking space) at Baptist Hospital.
Officials at the Tenet-owned Uptown hospital – which would later become a scene of misery and death – firmly insisted they had no place for journalists.
So I belatedly joined a river of anxious people creeping north on Interstate 55. Catching a couple of hours’ sleep in a fast-food restaurant’s parking lot in Memphis, I delivered the cat and pictures to family on Monday.
Sometime that night my wife woke me, sobbing. She had picked up a WWL Radio report that water had overrun the city. Doomsday had come.
I worried about our house and neighbors, and about Ash, the yard cat we hadn’t been able to catch. And, hundreds of miles removed from the story, I debated whether I had screwed up in leaving New Orleans at all.
Cell phone connections were a mess. Assuming the TP organization would regroup in Baton Rouge, where we had a capital bureau, I drove in that direction on U.S. 61, through the Mississippi Delta. On the radio, one frantic Mississippi government official, reacting to bad reports from the coast, advocated the shooting of looters on sight.
I slept the night in a Sunday school classroom of a Baptist church in Natchez, Miss., transformed into a Red Cross shelter.
Clusters of evacuees were everywhere, clinging to radios and rumors, pacing hallways, their faces strained with grief.
Parking at the Capitol building, I walked into the TP bureau office. I found no one, just a “while you were out” pink slip bearing a scribbled message for whomever: “Come to Manship.”
At Louisiana State University, the scene around the Journalism school looked like a staging point for war. Evacuees were crowded into the university’s assembly center, where a medical triage operation had set up. Entering the Manship center, I was relieved to find a critical mass of TP staffers – longtime friends – working laptops and phones, assembling stories, pictures and graphics.
LSU put many of us up in a few rooms at a married students’ dorm; we slept fitfully in close quarters, rows of bodies.
There was fierce worry over the fate of Leslie Williams, a reporter dispatched to his hometown of Bay St. Louis, Miss., as Katrina bore down on the coast. For days, no one could reach him. Bay St. Louis, a lovely old community, had become the hurricane’s bull’s eye.
Riding out the storm with family, Williams would later write: “Pine trees bow to the ferocious winds until the trees snap like twigs in a child’s hand. One breaks several feet from its base, then another, then dozens …”
Itching to get into the disaster zone, I got my first chance several days after the flooding hit when James O’Byrne and I strapped a borrowed canoe to the roof of James’ truck and took a circuitous route to the city, by way of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Both Lakeview residents, we were determined to get to our flooded houses (with help from press badges) and were enlisted to try and retrieve the stranded house cats of two colleagues.
The scene we found was surreal.
At the point where Veterans Boulevard meets the 17th Street Canal, one staging spot for rescue boats, police officers with rifles were edgy over reports of looting and gunfire in Lakeview. Nearby, on the upper floor of a home surrounded by water, a distraught older man paced about a porch, ranting incoherently about the failures of government.
As James and I paddled toward our homes, following street markers protruding from the water, we encountered a neighbor of mine, driving a small motorboat. He was sunburned, wild-eyed.
He had spent days on the roof of his mother’s house, then commandeered the boat as it floated, unmanned, through the neighborhood. On his own, he had rescued several people still trapped in their homes.
The heat was unrelenting and the water smelled foul – tainted with chemicals and who knows what – as we glided through what had been a quaint neighborhood. No evidence of life, not even the flight of a bird.
At my house, there was no sign of Ash. We managed to retrieve one cat from the home of environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein (who later co-authored the Katrina book Path of Destruction) after breaking through an upstairs window. The rescue of a couple of cats from another staffer’s home proved more hazardous, as one of the frightened animals fought James. The editor’s hand wounds, exposed to contaminated water, would become badly infected, requiring surgery.
Days later at the TP’s Uptown outpost, staff prepared or contemplated stories about the body count process; uncertain prospects for Mardi Gras in 2006; the terrible, early accounts from Baptist Hospital. Staff writers Gwen Filosa and Trymaine Lee canoed to an eastern New Orleans school where we had been told (falsely, it turned out) a pile of bodies had been discovered.
Higher education having been my last beat before Katrina, one of my early tasks involved visiting heavily damaged college campuses, as floodwaters were slowly pumped out of the city.
Delgado Community College, next to City Park, had become a bustling National Guard encampment; soldiers were, oddly, making sure the grass was cut in one section that didn’t flood. At the Dillard University campus in Gentilly, reachable then by foot but not vehicle, was desolate, covered by a chalky crust. It looked like it had been firebombed.
After a few weeks, the TP secured a couple of rooms in the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street (one of the first downtown buildings to see restored power), allowing a relocation from Fort Apache.
Creature comforts materialized: a few beds, better food, an open bar at night.
Down on the fourth floor, dozens of New Orleans police officers – among the majority who stayed and did their duty – held a religious service one morning. There, a female patrol officer sang about how a higher power “knows what’s best for me … more than my weary eyes can see. So I’ll just say, thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord, and I won’t complain.”
The officers turned to each other for emotional sustenance. Upstairs, in their ad-hoc bureau, TP staffers did the same, asking about evacuated family members and trashed homes, invoking dark humor, even as they raced the clock, recording bits of history.
Out on Canal Street, when a TP supply van arrived, someone would haul out bundles of the latest hold-in-your-hands edition, and passers-by, desperate to make sense of what was happening to New Orleans, to their lives, would snatch up copies as if they were pieces of gold. And we were reminded what newspapering is all about.
Coleman Warner is a former assistant city editor and reporter for The Times-Picayune. He, too, spent time living in a FEMA trailer. His Lakeview home has been restored.