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September 21, 2005

Hero-tales of the newspaper tribe
Posted by Teresa at 04:23 PM *

The Times-Picayune has been on the story all along:

The Saturday after Hurricane Katrina drowned my city, I sat alone in a rented Jeep in front of the latest headquarters of the Times-Picayune’s “New Orleans bureau”—our fifth in as many days—pounding furiously on a laptop, taking belts of Johnnie Walker Red to beat back tears. I was locked out of the staff’s uptown house, awaiting the return of the tiny team of colleagues that now represented the entirety of the paper’s presence in the city we once dominated. �

It had come to this: During the worst natural disaster on American soil and the biggest story in its 168-year history, the Picayune’s roughly 200-member city-based editorial staff had been reduced to about a dozen editors, writers and photographers. We’d set out four days earlier, as the rest of the paper evacuated to Baton Rouge and Houma, to cover the storm out of one delivery truck. Since then we’d gathered a canoe, a kayak, two bicycles and several staffers’ cars. We’d foraged in journalists’ homes for food, water, housing, computers, notebooks and sporadically working landlines. A wind-up radio served as our only connection to fast-breaking news of the storm.

My crying bout that morning had been hardly unique, for myself or for the rest of the New Orleans-based crew. I had watched a woman die on the street. Arkansas National Guardsmen had carted her body away to put with the others inside the food service entrance at the rear of the Convention Center. They’d been murdered, or they’d perished, like the woman in front of me, from simple lack of food, water and medicine—here in America, here in my hometown.

What broke me wasn’t the horror but the beauty of the sight just a few feet away, of refugee Anita Roach defiantly belting out gospel standards, leading a chorus of family members and complete strangers. We locked eyes, a poor black woman who had barely escaped death in the Lower 9th Ward and a relatively well-fed white reporter with a dry Uptown house and a rented SUV.

I lost it. My notebook and pen fell to my sides in my limp arms. I mouthed the words “Thank you” as she finished. She smiled and nodded. I walked to her through the filth, and she wrapped me in a bear hug. I sat her down and bled her and her family of the details of their suffering and the strength that now poured out of them in song. I knew then I’d never forget the privilege.

Back at the Uptown shotgun double, I had to write it—and fast, facing a ludicrous 4 p.m. deadline. I knew I’d have to dictate the story—again—which would eat up 30 or 45 minutes of the two hours I had to spare. I delivered it on the phone to Baton Rouge to Editorial Page Editor Terri Troncale, who had been with us until just a couple days before. We both struggled to avoid another breakdown as I read and she typed. �

Here’s where the story began:

Even before we’d stared the devil in the face, we knew Katrina had unleashed hell when Publisher Ashton Phelps, clearly distraught, announced the evacuation Tuesday morning.

Normally unshakably composed, Phelps, from the old-money family that has run the Picayune for generations, bounced from department to department in the three-story building shouting: “Get out of the building—now! You can not stay in the building!”

Not to say that Phelps overreacted in the least: Floodwaters from the burst levees had nearly entered the building, a giant, gray, brick box on the high ground of Howard Avenue, near the Louisiana Superdome. Then word filtered in that the inmates of Orleans Parish Prison, a block away, had either escaped or been freed. (Which turned out not to be true; the prisoners were later evacuated on buses at gunpoint—well before buses arrived for the tens of thousands of people at the Dome, at the Convention Center and wandering aimlessly on Interstate 10.)

The news staff that had stayed to ride out the storm and work—about 80 of the paper’s 260 editorial employees—loaded into the back of delivery trucks with a host of staffers from other departments. The fleet pushed slowly through water nearly high enough to flood their diesel engines. Certain now that the paper would fail to print for the first time in its history,

Their predecessors at the Times-Picayune will have had their own tales of journalism committed under difficult circumstances.

we drove on Interstate 10 over the Crescent City Connection, a bridge over the Mississippi River, to the newspaper’s still-dry West Bank bureau. We unloaded and regrouped. Changing minute by minute, the plan had been to flee to Houma or Baton Rouge, then parachute reporters back in with the National Guard. The best the brass hoped for that day would be to publish a blog reported by phones that might or might not work.

A few of us started grumbling immediately. We can’t just leave the world’s biggest story in our own hometown, we griped in hushed conversations. Sports Editor David Meeks, formerly the suburban editor and the man who hired me in 1998, harnessed the unrest. He made the pitch to Editor Jim Amoss: Give me a delivery truck and a small group of writers. We’ll go back.

“How are you going to eat?” Amoss asked him. “How are you going to file?”

I love that part.

It’s a long piece. I’m going to have to skip over the part about the Wal-Mart. Other stuff, too. This is an amazing story. Onward to:

�McCusker, Pompilio and I pulled up to the St. Claude Avenue Bridge in our truck, stinking of swamp water and the cigarettes I had been chain-smoking. The bridge over the Industrial Canal marked the dividing line between deluged and merely flooded.

I had been there the day before, Monday, with photographer Jackson. We’d found only two police boats running rescue operations for the thousands of people trapped in attics and on roofs. A rescue volunteer had offered to take us out on a third boat.

We floated through the Lower 9th Ward, past the house of the legendary Fats Domino, where a group of men yelled to our boat from a second-story balcony. We passed them and scores of others who screamed for help on our way east to St. Bernard Parish, the white working class suburb where people had fled after school integration first took hold in the 9th Ward in 1960.

Returning from St. Bernard with a deadline looming, we rode on a boat full of rescued people, a dog and a duffel bag full of cats one woman had smuggled onto the boat without the captain’s knowledge. The memory that sticks out most: We had to duck to avoid hitting stoplights that had towered over the street.

Now on Tuesday, refugees, many elderly and handicapped, hobbled and wheeled themselves across the bridge to the corner of Poland and St. Claude Avenues, the dry side of the bridge that had become a rescue boat launch. We found hundreds of people who had been rescued, then abandoned into a whole new struggle for survival. Filthy, soaked and stinking, they lined up behind three National Guard trucks that couldn’t begin to make a dent in the growing crowd. Those that did get taken out would end up in the Superdome or at the Convention Center downtown, which would become their own dark scenes of terror and suffering.

People mobbed us, competing to tell us their stories, hoping to let relatives know they were alive and authorities know they might still die without help. Pompilio and I interviewed a weeping Daniel Weber, a rotund man perched on a black barrel in the muck. I’d never seen a man so broken. He had watched his wife drown and then floated for 14 hours in polluted floodwaters on a piece of driftwood.

“I’m not going to make it,” he told us. “I know I’m not.”

When we got back in the car, Natalie said to me, “I know it may sound inappropriate, but I love my job on days like this.”

It struck me as perfectly appropriate, I told her. We were this man’s only lifeline to plead for help from the outside world. �


Art critic MacCash had been Uptown all day, collecting shocking anecdotes of standoffs between shotgun-toting business owners and armed gangs of looters. He’d relayed them in impeccable prose on a notepad and handed them off for the other three of us to weave into a 60- or 70-inch story that covered nearly every accessible neighborhood in the city. Who knew the 49-year-old art critic could tackle the hardest of hard news stories in history? Who would have guessed he’d even be there—and as a volunteer? A couple days later, nearing the breaking point and struggling to focus, MacCash would find himself interviewing Mayor Ray Nagin on a helicopter ride over the city.

That first night on our own we had to load up the delivery truck and flee to the West Bank to McCusker’s mother’s house. The news had come over the wind-up radio: “The bowl” that is New Orleans was filling up as the breach in the 17th Street Canal widened to the size of five football fields, pouring millions of gallons of water into the city and threatening to swamp even Uptown, engulfing the million-dollar homes on St. Charles Avenue, just a few blocks from our base at Troncale’s house.

Though we were thrilled to have it, the McCuskers’ place lay in a suburban area where the houses had been built with none of the high ceilings and wood floors of the famous homes on the East Bank—so the one-story ranch house had almost zero ventilation. With the humidity off the charts, sleeping inside that house felt like sleeping in Vietnam. We woke the next morning from broken sleep in pools of sweat and headed back into Uptown. The water had stopped at St. Charles Avenue, sparing some of the city’s most historic neighborhoods—and our base of operations in our personal homes.

Even as our reporting got stronger on Wednesday, our technological challenges became ridiculous, and basic law and order continued to disintegrate. As we drove from the McCuskers’ place, over the river and all the way to Uptown, a distance of several miles, we saw not one cop or soldier.

“Where the fuck are the feds? Where the fuck are the Marines?” I kept repeating as, in the civilized outside world, the lack of response churned into a national political scandal.

McCusker and I went to Interstate 10, chronicling the plight of a long trail of suffering refugees who had walked through the polluted waters surrounding their homes from neighborhoods across the city. Spera, the music critic, wrote about a body in the middle of Convention Center Boulevard, highlighting a rescue and police operation so overwhelmed it would ignore rotting bodies in plain sight for days to come. Perlstein teamed with Lee to write of how the city’s criminal justice system had been obliterated as the evidence room was flooded.

The real star that day would be Lee—a 27-year-old rookie cops reporter from New Jersey, who showed up the rest of us that day.

He’d instinctively realized what it takes some reporters years to understand and most never will. When the story gets too big to cover, in this case too enormous to even comprehend, you have to focus on the small story: one person, one family, one day, whatever, that personifies the larger whole. You fire the rifle, not the shotgun.

Lee, scribbling on a notepad at McCusker’s hot-as-hell West Bank house, wrote this lead: “Lucrece Phillips’ sleepless nights are filled with the images of dead babies and women, and young and old men with tattered T-shirts or graying temples, all floating along the streets of the Lower 9th Ward.”

Then Lee got out of Phillips’ way and let her tell it, quoting her saying: “The rescuers in the boats that picked us up had to push the bodies back with sticks… And there was this little baby. She looked so perfect and so beautiful. I just wanted to scoop her up and breathe life back into her little lungs.”

You aspiring writers out there? You make note of that. Lee nailed that story with one perfect and terrible detail. Which �

�almost didn’t make the paper: Late afternoon on Wednesday, I tried to make a call from McCusker’s landline. Nothing. I tried 10 more times. Nothing. We ran to neighbors’ houses to try their phones, to no avail. At about 5 p.m., we had four or five stories to file, written on notepads, ready to dictate—and no phone.

“We’ve got to run to power,” Meeks said, amassing the crew of people, cars—and now a dog and two cats after rescue missions.

We raced to Houma in heavy traffic, not exactly sure how to find the Courier, a New York Times Co. paper, where a small office in a conference room awaited us, along with the first hot food we’d had in days.

When we got there, I could barely focus my scattered brain on typing my story into an e-mail to editors in Baton Rouge, even though I’d already written it out on a legal pad. Then I screwed up the e-mail, and it never arrived—and so the story didn’t run. Then it didn’t run the following day, even though I re-sent it, because of a communication breakdown. I’d never felt so defeated.

In a perverse turn that saved the story of homeless residents filling Interstate 10, the roadway teemed with even more refugees two days later. The piece remained valid in a lightning-fast breaking news environment, with little updating, only because of the sickeningly slow emergency response.

Chalk up another account confirming Larry Bradshaw and Beth Slonsky’s story.

The city continued its descent into Hades. Russell, the City Hall ace, had been visiting the Superdome occasionally for several days. By Friday, 30,000 people filled the Dome, with many retreating to the large decks outside to escape the smell of excrement and the threat of thugs.

The scene washed over him like a bout of acute nausea. He nearly threw up inside the building simply from the stench, to say nothing of the stories he heard from the people lining up around him, shouting out their horrors in a desperate hope that the press could call in the cavalry. Rapes, murders, suicides, and where the hell are the buses to Houston?

But in a repeat of the experience all of us had across the city, Russell never felt threatened. By contrast, people cheered the sight of him—the hometown Picayune reporter—and grilled him about where they might get a paper.

The only threat Russell would face, in a bizarre twist, would come from cops. On Thursday, he and New York Times photographer Marko Georgiev had pulled up to the scene of a shoot-out between cops and God-knows-who. A couple of blocks from the looted Wal-Mart, they spied a white limousine crashed into a pole, and a group of New Orleans cops standing over a bullet-ridden body. Georgiev started snapping pictures—and then found the guns trained on his red SUV. The journalists stopped and tried to explain their business, but suddenly found cocked guns at their heads, then their faces being ground into a brick wall amid a hail of motherfucker this and motherfucker that.

The cops ultimately let them go, after tossing the photographer’s camera and Russell’s notebook across the street. The pair retrieved them before bolting.

I hate hearing about journalists getting roughed up. It’s not because I think they should be uniquely immune to mistreatment; but if journalists are getting whomped on, you’ve got to figure the citizenry is getting it worse.

On Friday, Meeks drove Lee and Perlstein to the Convention Center to report on the increasingly desperate scene, where thousands gathered without food, water or security. At one point, witnesses said, a convoy of commercial buses pulled up and idled for several minutes; then their drivers left, apparently out of fear. The center, one of the nation’s premier destinations for conferences for doctors, educators and entrepreneurs of all stripes, had become a nightly site of murders, rapes and regular stampedes.

Perlstein hadn’t been able to reach Police Chief Eddie Compass since the storm started, as police communications had been as decimated as our own. But there he was on Convention Center Boulevard. Both men wept at the sight of each other, familiar foes in the professional world of reporter-versus-public official, but now both comforted at the sight of anything familiar at all. Perlstein seized the moment for an exclusive, in-depth interview in which Compass would frankly admit that his shattered department had become a disconnected militia operation crippled by desertions—even combat conversions of cops to criminal looters—but he said the majority of his officers had stood strong. Going sleepless for days marred by harrowing gun battles, police in individual districts had organized their own crude chains of command and communications apparatus, Perlstein reported in Sunday’s Picayune.

As the two men talked, Meeks turned paper delivery boy, passing out Friday’s Picayune—the first paper edition since the storm had hit at the beginning of the week—into crowds that gobbled up the papers as if they were food. The printed Picayune, after a three-day absence, marked a beacon of normalcy, the bolstering of hope for the still absent influx of soldiers and evacuation buses.

As he handed out papers, Meeks peered into the crowd at a stunning sight: recently retired Picayune copy editor Bob Payne, a severely overweight diabetic, badly sunburned, signaling for help after having spent the last three days with little food or water.

“They didn’t bring any food or water here until the reporters started coming around,” Payne told Meeks.

There it is! See? That’s what newspapers are for.

I left the city Thursday, September 8, after 13 days of storm coverage and 18 straight days of work.

As I write this, I’m staring at the Picayune’s front page, that of Sunday, September 11. It’s dominated by two long Russell stories, an exclusive, astonishingly frank and profanity-laced interview with Mayor Nagin, and a hopeful analysis suggesting the flooded bowl of New Orleans might be empty in weeks, not months as predicted. Other stories since I left have posited that the death count, while still unknown, may be far less than the 10,000 bodies Nagin had predicted while I was in town.

I bought the paper at the convenience store down the street from my uncle’s house in Baton Rouge. Before Katrina we’d never circulated here, but now a flood of New Orleanians have bought houses in their new city. Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News is setting up a bureau at my Uptown house, even promising to pay rent.

I wish I could end this story with one of those hopeful, clich�d phrases where “the mighty Picayune will rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes,” or some such trite nonsense. The ugly truth of the matter is that we’re fighting just to keep it alive, a fight that won’t end any time soon. Our circulation and advertising nearly vanished in one day and will have to be rebuilt along with the city, the prospects for which remain uncertain.

When it all shakes out, I trust we’ll still have a newspaper, of what size and power I haven’t a clue. Our Jefferson and St. Tammany parish bureaus, in high circulation suburbs, are already reopening. Since the storm hit, our Web site traffic on has exploded to more than 30 million page views a day.

More important, we’ve cranked out better journalism in the last two weeks than we have the last two years, and we’re getting stronger every day. And Katrina remains our story to own, and we mean to own it.

Read the whole thing. Really. Just read the whole thing.

Comments on Hero-tales of the newspaper tribe:
#1 ::: Moi ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 07:28 PM:

Thank you, so much, for posting that.

They deserve the goddamned Pulitzer, is what I think.

#2 ::: hrc ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 09:28 PM:

That kind of writing puts the WaPo and the NYT to shame. They've been sitting on their cushy tushes for way too long, republishing the administration spin as real stories. I hope they read the Times Picayune and are embarassed enough to remember or perhaps understand for the first time what a journalist's true calling is.

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 09:45 PM:

Deserved: Pulitzer prizes, pullet surprises (for the award dinner) and some kind of medal for Above and Beyond the Call.

#4 ::: Kayjay ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 09:57 PM:

The above reminds me of why I'd never really make it as a journalist. I don't have the sinews for it.

#5 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 09:59 PM:

"With rue my heart is laden"

I used to do this. Never at that level of need, but I used to do this. Now I fill the sandbags and haul people out of the wreckage, or would it they called.

They still haven't called us up, but Rita is coming, and my bags are still packed. Reading the news is painful. The bitter pain of frustration. The story is there, the need for the Guard is there and I am here, serving by waiting.

Thank you. A small bit of chatharsis to read this and cry.

#6 ::: kathy ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 10:17 PM:

holy shit.

they are all heros. pass the pulitzers and whatever else is handy. if these folks were not on the scene, i can only imagine how much worse things might have been, and how much less we might have known.

#7 ::: Michael Falcon-Gates ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 10:20 PM:

Pulitzer, ha. Not that they won't get the award, not that they don't deserve it, but.. y'know, for the last thirty years, the inspiration for young reporters has been Woodward and Bernstein. That might change, a bit.

#8 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 10:27 PM:

Why is this one for your mother?

#9 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2005, 11:45 PM:

I read pieces of this in Newsday. I have to say that as a former, terribly disullusioned, journalism major this story made me cry.

#10 ::: Shunra ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 12:03 AM:

Teresa, thanks for that. The reading was a very good release for all that fury and frustration that has been building up and not quite properly find outlet in the past few weeks.

And PJ, might I contend that rather than "above and beyond" that is actually the clearest expression of the call (The Call?) that has been seen in the media for a good long while?

There *is* a call for people, I believe, and people who listen well enough get to do that sort of expression of it, I think. Be it an inward thing, made of biologically controlled impulses or an outward pressure, intelligent or otherwise, seeing that call/calling responded to so heroically was one of the satisfying aspects of reading the story.

#11 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 01:28 AM:

They should create a new journalism award. The Pulitzer isn't enough for these folks. People doing brilliant journalism from the center of catastrophe should get Picayunes. I don't know how to write the spec so it would include people reporting on radiation sickness from Nagasaki in August, 1945, while excluding all the embedded storm trackers (even if some of them end up in the center of a catastrophe.)

#12 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 11:15 AM:

Anyone know if there's a way to donate toward the Times-Picayune's continued operations? I've emailed asking this, but not surprisingly their autoresponder says they're pretty backed up, so if anyone else already knows, I'd love to hear about it.

If not, I'll pass on what I hear whenever they do get back to me. Supporting their continued coverage--in a time when they have, indeed, lost much of their financial base--seems a worthy thing to do.

#13 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 12:05 PM:

They take advertising.

#14 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 12:26 PM:

Pulitzers, sure. They're a start.

We need another award for those journalists who tell the truth in 12-foot letters of fire, "Look! See! We're in this together. This is what it means to be human."

The T-P staff gets that one, no contest.

#15 ::: Barbara ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 12:47 PM:

This is a "be careful what you wish for" because it's a reporter's dream story. It's the reason one goes into journalism, to cover a really big story first hand. It's the reason reporters consented to be imbedded with troups in Iraq, and what made Ernie Pyle such a great reporter during World War II. Such experiences and stories make up the continental divides of our lives, and certainly for the Times-Picayune staff everything will be ante- and post Katrina. Strangely, the pictures are easy. They're 360 degrees from wherever the photographer is standing, but digesting then interpreting the photos, that's the work. There was absolute beauty in the detail of this story. Thanks for the link.

#16 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 04:33 PM:

Barbara: You're right, stories like this (which one always wants, and never expects) are touchstone moments.

As I said elsewhere, about awards, these guys deserve them, but in a trade where the motto is, "what have you done lately," these few can say, "I was with the Times-Picayune, in New Orleans," when like the aged heros of Shakespeare's Agincourt,

"... gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

#17 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2005, 05:25 PM:

They take advertising.

I thought about that-for the web version, starting at something like $1500 100K minimum impressions. (Haven't found info on print rates.)

If there's no way to donate in smaller amounts, I suppose we could take up a collection for an ad, maybe.

Will wait a bit to see if I hear back first, though.

#18 ::: Kristjan Wager ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2005, 02:49 PM:

Am I the only one having problems accessing the article? Hopefully I can do so at a later stage.

The journalists have done a tremendous job of covering the disaster. Journalists from other news outlets have also been good (I've evenm been impressed by some of the Fox people), but nothing like the T-P staff.

#19 ::: Fernmonkey ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 07:45 AM:

Kristjan: it's cached on Google.

#20 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2005, 11:26 PM:

A different take on what happened in NOLA: a friend of the the 2-I-C of a FEMA med team posts the guy's write-up about his experiences at the Superdome.

Not for the squeamish.

#21 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2005, 12:21 PM:

I found this in an ad in a Boston rock weekly:

Emergency fund to help out the staff of the New Orleans Gambit.

#22 ::: Cady ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2005, 10:03 AM:

Wow. I've been avoiding the news on Katrina; partly because it's too much to take in, partly because I'm a bit jaded about the "if it bleeds it leads" crowd.

This story, I couldn't tear my eyes from. There was so much personal humanity expressed by the journalist writing the article. It truly brought home to me the massive enormity of the loss that is Hurricane Katrina. The loss of lives is devastating, but the loss of basic human dignity is a tragedy of it's own. I'm not sure who my heart goes out to the most: those mourning the loss of their loved ones, or those who have to live with the memories of surviving Katrina, of surviving the filth, the hunger, and the fear. The fact is these journalists voluntarily embraced those experiences, a heroic act in and of itself. But, by listening, simply listening, to the stories of the survivors, by saying "your suffering matters, please let me tell others about it..." and being the survivors' voice in a dark and dangerous hour, they did more than their just their jobs; they returned to the survivors a small measure of their human dignity. A Pulitzer Prize can't begin to touch that. No award can.


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