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Home > Publications > Quill > ‘The story of our lives’



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Thursday, March 30, 2006
‘The story of our lives’

Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss looks back on his newspaper’s role and the everlasting effects of the disaster

By Jim Amoss

The wavy brown line, where Lake Pontchartrain lapped against the house, streaks the weatherboards five feet above my head. Tiny, petrified frog carcasses are plastered to the walls. Inside, the mold reaches to the ceiling. I gaze at the ruined remnants of 16 years of family life — paperbacks swollen from immersion exploding their bookcase, slides from family trips blackened, Mardi Gras beads spilling out of the attic.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina, this was the house of my colleague James O’Byrne, features editor of The Times-Picayune, his wife Cathy and their sons Colin and Brendan.

I once sat in this living room while James introduced me to the magic of surround-sound. The centerpiece of his demonstration, a 51-inch Sony high definition projection TV, is still in place, defunct and coated in the salt water’s silver residue.

You could walk out of this house, get in your car and head east past an uninterrupted succession of collapsed houses, gutted houses, houses no one has entered since August, houses that rose with the water and drifted down the block with their slab attached, coming to rest in somebody’s front yard. You could drive for two hours without ever leaving this lifeless zone, an urban devastation of unprecedented scale.

In the final days of August, when the inside pages of our newspaper first took notice of Tropical Depression No. 12, our newsroom was well prepared for a major hurricane. But no amount of forethought could have painted the picture we are left with today as we put together the pieces of a broken city.

For us in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina was just the prelude, triggering a far worse disaster that struck the city and the paper.

Like any newspaper potentially in the path of a hurricane, The Times-Picayune had rehearsed for “the big one” many times. We worked in a hurricane-hardened steel and concrete building, and had prepared ourselves by creating a special storm room in its fortified core. There, rows of computers would be powered by generators with enough fuel to last us a week.

As we had dozens of times in the past, we rode out the storm in the building, then immediately hit the streets on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 29, deploying by car, boat and bicycle throughout the city with resources and experience that only a local newspaper can bring to bear on a story.

From the French Quarter to the Garden District to the stately manors Uptown along St. Charles Avenue, homes and businesses were heavily damaged by wind and falling trees. The power grid was devastated. Parts of the eastern suburbs had been overwhelmed by storm surge. The blow delivered by Katrina was considerable, but not insurmountable.

But contrary to a widely held belief that persists outside of New Orleans, it was not the storm itself that would devastate New Orleans. As we worked the story throughout the afternoon, the magnitude of a much more epic catastrophe would reveal itself.

On the northern reaches of the city, hours after Katrina’s worst had passed, water from Lake Pontchartrain had risen inside the canals lined with concrete floodwalls and built to funnel rainwater out of the city. In the course of Monday, key floodwalls, designed and built by the federal government, collapsed one by one — an event that our reporting since the storm has revealed to be one of the greatest engineering failures in our nation’s history.

The water poured in through the gashes in a cruel black torrent that not only destroyed vast swaths of the city, but ultimately claimed more than 1,000 lives.

By Monday afternoon, what was a fierce but survivable hurricane had been overtaken by an epic flood whose magnitude and duration have no modern American equal.

At its deepest, the water rose higher than 14 feet. More than 80 percent of the city went under. In all, 140 out of 180 square miles of New Orleans — an area seven times the size of Manhattan — were flooded. More than 200,000 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed, and virtually all remain unoccupied today. More than a million people were displaced.

Of those trapped by the surging water, the lucky ones scrambled onto their rooftops and began the long wait for rescue, or for transport to a different kind of hell at the Superdome or the Convention Center. The unlucky ones succumbed to the rising water and drowned, or got trapped in their attics and died from heat and exposure.

In a city going under, the cruel combination of wind and floodwater knocked out communications on every level. Police, fire, emergency responders, city workers: all became forces of one, as radios and phones were rendered useless.

Within hours of the storm, the trappings of civil society collapsed. Three blocks from The Times-Picayune’s building, a reporter and photographer went to check out reports of looting at a clothing warehouse — and the mob working over the warehouse chased them away.

There was no calling 911. Hours after the storm, before communications went dark, the New Orleans 911 operations center had been inundated, its operators evacuated by boat as calls from desperate and drowning citizens continued to ring in the background. Weeks later, authorities used those 911 tapes to search for bodies.

This unprecedented flood stayed, its saltwater polluted with gasoline, oil, pesticides and other toxins, continuing its destruction over days and weeks. It would be three weeks before the city was pumped out; longer for many suburban areas. Vast areas remained inaccessible and unsafe more than two months after the storm. And within days of the city finally being pumped dry, Hurricane Rita would reflood many of those same areas with more water, a cruel double blow.

The unthinkable had occurred: A city ravaged as no other American city in modern times, its urban landscape and human vibrancy drowned in acres of water and muck, its commerce choked off, its spirit almost suffocated. Our way of life and sense of order were wiped out in a day.

For us at The Times-Picayune, the catastrophe ushered in a story that will not end. It is a story that has taxed us to the breaking point. At times, it has exhilarated us professionally, but it has also plunged each of us into despair. And its toll continues. Dozens of staff members who lost their homes still have not been able to return. And throughout the city, cadaver dogs were still finding bodies in the attics of New Orleans homes in the second week of March, more than six months after the storm.

Our first indication that we might be facing something unprecedented came on the Saturday before the storm, when Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, called our hurricane reporter Mark Schleifstein. Having written extensively about the dangers of hurricanes to New Orleans, Mark knew Max well, and was deeply troubled by the question Max had for him: How high, Mayfield wanted to know, was the third floor of our building?

Katrina by that time had grown into a Category 5 monster, with winds above 150 mph and a huge wall of water pushed out in front of it. After evacuating my wife and son, I headed to the paper Sunday afternoon and waited for the storm.

Sunday night, I placed my camping mattress in an inner corridor of the newsroom, alongside 140 other editors, reporters and photographers. The storm began howling at 2 a.m. The young reporter bunking next to me, new to the city and terrified, paced the corridor. At 4 a.m. we lost power. The howling outside, no longer masked by the white noise of air conditioning, scared even the veterans among us. There was a loud crash in the executive office area. Several of us shot up from our sleeping bags. One of the huge windows in the general manager’s office had been blown across the room into the opposite wall.

We awakened Monday morning, Aug. 29, to the full force of Katrina: Sheets of rain blown horizontally, interrupted every few minutes by an opaque curtain of water poured as though from a huge bucket in the sky. We could see the wind snapping trees, smashing billboards, peeling roofs from houses. We could see the gashes developing in the Superdome’s roof, just a few blocks away.

Standing in our building’s lobby, you could hear the oddly peaceful melody of the wind whistling past the entrance cavity — three sad, flute-like notes played over and over. At times, the wind would shriek to a high-pitched wail before returning to the three-note dirge.

Throughout the day and all night Monday, reporters and editors in the hurricane bunker posted constant updates on our Web site, NOLA.com, about the worsening conditions in the city. Our readers, scattered in hotels and motels throughout the Southeast, flocked to the Internet and their newspaper’s online presence.

Before the storm, The Times-Picayune’s online pages were visited on average 800,000 times a day. As the storm struck, and for many days afterwards, traffic on our site increased 30-fold, to more than 30 million page hits a day.

On Monday afternoon, as the winds died down, James O’Byrne and Doug MacCash, our art critic, went on a bike trip. Mark Schleifstein had told them of his conversation with a source, who said the levee of the 17th Street canal, which funnels rainwater out of the city and into Lake Pontchartrain, had breached at a point several blocks into the city from the shore of the lake. Like good reporters, they needed to see it with their own eyes. And James had an added motive: His house, from which his family had evacuated the day before, lay only a few blocks from the canal. The two knew that they would be incommunicado, as all cell phones were dead.

During that afternoon and into the evening in the French Quarter, national television and radio reporters were leaning playfully into the wind, proclaiming that New Orleans had once again “dodged the bullet.” But O’Byrne and MacCash were discovering a different story as they headed toward Lake Pontchartrain. There was water in the street, not unusual for New Orleans after a storm, so they opted for the high ground of a railroad track. As they crossed the train bridge over Canal Boulevard, a main artery leading from the lake to downtown New Orleans, they stopped dead. The street beneath them had turned into a torrent of rushing water, seven feet deep. They saw the first waves of the swollen, brackish lake rolling south toward the city’s business district. Water from the lake was pouring through the breaches, inundating the city, submerging houses and whole neighborhoods.

Both James and Doug had been furiously scribbling their observations. Now James put down his notebook. He stood frozen on the bridge for several minutes, as it dawned on him that his house was drowning, that there would be no coming home when this was over. Then he shook himself back into reporter mode and continued writing.

As the two approached the Filmore Avenue bridge at the eastern edge of the sinking neighborhood of Lakeview, they had an astonishing encounter. People who had been plucked by boat from rooftops and second-story windows only minutes or hours earlier were huddled on the bridge, the only high ground in the neighborhood. O’Byrne described the scene: “I was struck by how incredibly happy people were to see us, the newspaper arriving at the edge of their destroyed homes, wanting to tell their story. We were welcomed as their salvation, even though we weren’t taking them off the bridge or off their rooftops. It never felt more important to be journalists.”

That same afternoon, photographer Ted Jackson, one of eight photographers fanning across our coverage area, had driven in the opposite direction, to the city’s eastern neighborhoods. He made it through flooded streets across the Industrial Canal bridge. There he stood, unable to drive further, at the edge of the Lower 9th Ward. The water from a levee breach along the canal had almost completely submerged the houses. People had broken through their attics. Ted could hear them calling to him from their roof perches. But what caught his eye was just across the street from the bridge. Three women and four children were clinging to their raised front porch. The water was up to the women’s chests. Ted estimated that the channel between him and the porch was 14 feet deep. One of the women was about to try to push her child across the torrent, but Ted urged her not to, sure that the child would be swept away. He promised to come back, rushed back to the paper, retrieved a boat, and returned to the scene. But when he got there, they were gone.

It would be months before Ted learned that a boat had come by shortly after he had left and rescued the women and children, and they would learn that Ted had indeed kept his promise and come back for them.

On Monday night, after a harrowing six-hour bike ride, O’Byrne and MacCash returned to the newsroom, fording rising floodwaters on their return trip, and burst into the evening news meeting with their report. That night, page 1 of our paper, published online as PDF’s, carried the headline: “CATASTROPHIC/Storm surge swamps 9th Ward, St. Bernard/Lakeview levee breach threatens to inundate city.” The lead story described how the brackish waters “flooded huge swaths of the city in a process that appeared to be spreading even as night fell.”

If we had any reason to doubt that statement, we had only to step out of our own main entrance. By the time we were ready to turn in to our sleeping bags, water had reached the parking lot in and crept up the first step to our building.

We woke up just before dawn on Tuesday, hoping for good news. The sky outside my window was cloudless. The trees barely rustled. Katrina was inland and well north by then, downgraded to a tropical storm. But the sight at our entrance was sickening. The water had reached the third step. And now it was rising more rapidly. By our estimate, it was gaining an inch every seven minutes.

We continued to receive reports from throughout the city of looting and unrest. There were still no communications, no security, and no sign of federal assistance, a situation that would persist, unbelievably, for another four days.

As we pondered our options, we also began hearing reports that things were starting to get out of hand at the rapidly flooding Orleans Parish Prison, located just a couple of hundred yards across the interstate from The Times-Picayune building, and housing more than 1,000 inmates. On Tuesday morning, as water rose around our building and the jail, a SWAT team was dispatched to the prison to keep things in check. Over the course of the next three days, while the prison was evacuated, guards would ultimately lose track of 14 prisoners who escaped during the chaos.

We had planned for wind, water and an extended period without electricity. But with almost an entire city going under for an indefinite period, with no civil authority functioning, with a communications blackout, with no federal presence and with no sign that order would be restored any time soon, we were facing an unprecedented challenge for an American newspaper.

And to top it off, we were about to be trapped in our own building, which housed not only employees, but more than 100 of their family members who had sought refuge from the storm, ranging from a six-month-old baby to an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

This was the backdrop as I met with a group of senior editors in my office at about 9 a.m. At that time, we didn’t know if any part of the city besides the elevated expressway outside our door had remained dry. And our high-riding delivery trucks were having trouble fording the moat surrounding our building. The transportation director reported that we might have only 20 minutes left before we were stranded. In my office, the six of us were reaching a conclusion: We must evacuate while our trucks were still able, seek high ground and regroup.

We ran through the building, shouting “Leave! Leave now! Go to the loading dock!”, evicting journalists from the newsroom and late breakfast eaters from the cafeteria. We needed to herd 240 employees and family members to the loading docks.

We didn’t know if the trucks would make it through a half-mile stretch of service road under four feet of water to the dry interstate in front of our building. We didn’t know where we were headed. We had torn ourselves away from the storm room and its generator-powered computers, taking only what we could fit on our laps. We left with the queasy fear that, for the first time since the Civil War, we might not produce a newspaper for tomorrow.

A quarter mile down the watery road, a pickup truck had stalled, blocking much of our path. Driving around it meant entering still deeper water. An emergency light on my truck’s dashboard was flashing the message, “Water in fuel.” Ahead of us, one of our trucks plowed the wrong way down the I-10 exit ramp, reached dry pavement and made a U-turn on the deserted highway. The journalists crouching in the back cheered. One by one, the rest of our convoy gained the highway. We rumbled past people carrying suitcases and babies, headed to the downtown bridge across the Mississippi, through Algiers and Gretna to our West Bank bureau a few miles from the downtown office.

As we traversed the city on the elevated expressway, we could see that Uptown, the French Quarter and the Central Business District — the only areas of the city that are above sea level — were still high and dry. So as we rumbled down the highway, editors and reporters began formulating a plan to split into teams. One group of writers, photographers and editors would stay in the city and cover the storm from the high ground. The other would head west and north to set up a news operation with power and communications, where we could produce, edit, design and publish the paper. We knew by then that our city would be out of commission for weeks, not days.

Shortly after our stopover at the bureau, a dozen journalists, all eager volunteers, piled into one of our delivery trucks and headed back downtown. We already knew that New Orleans had become a dangerous and difficult place to practice journalism. It would get worse.

It was still morning when the rest of us, in several trucks, headed to Houma and Baton Rouge to reconstruct the infrastructure that would allow us to put out a newspaper, and to put together the next day’s edition, which was posted online in full pages that night.

As our group headed north, a team led by veteran editor David Meeks arrived back downtown. It immediately came upon massive looting of a Wal-Mart. Without computers or telephones, with no food or water, and still not knowing where on the island it would be safe to set up shop, our reporters and photographers entered the Wal-Mart and began reporting on the looting. They noted that the police had arrived on the scene, but soon realized to their dismay that the officers were joining in the looting, not restoring order.

Photographer John McCusker heard one of the looters declare, “The Times-Picayune is here taking pictures, let’s go out back and take care of business.” Meeks knew the looting officers weren’t going to be able to provide any protection, so he pulled the team out.

As the team moved Uptown to set up shop in a staff member’s house, they began a days-long odyssey of reporting under dangerous conditions more akin to war time. Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot, who had been embedded with the military in Iraq for several weeks earlier in the year, would later recall how Iraq was more stable, felt safer and had much better communications than New Orleans in those early days.

The danger in the streets was palpable. One day while reporting, Meeks and two co-workers were driving a newspaper truck through the streets when a twitchy SWAT team pulled them over and held guns to their heads. The police were convinced that the truck had been commandeered and was being used for looting.

During another sweltering afternoon in the house-turned-bureau, police came by seemingly on a sweep for weapons. Asked if he and his colleagues were armed, Meeks told the officers, “No, we’re reporters.” Their response was stunning: “Can you make yourself armed?”

Twenty minutes later, a SWAT team came by the house and left behind a .357 magnum, a shotgun, and instructions on how to use both.

As conditions worsened, the bureau soon had a generator, and went to the downtown office to retrieve badly needed laptops and equipment. The mission called for a dangerous traverse across fast-moving waters by kayak, shuttling equipment from the office to a truck on the interstate. In the weeds between the highway and paper, Meeks and reporter Jeff Duncan found a pile of several discarded orange jumpsuits emblazoned on the back with black lettering: “Orleans Parish Prison Inmate.”

Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, within hours of arriving from a six-hour journey out of the city, we were up and running. Having landed with nothing but the clothes on our backs, in fewer than 24 hours we had an operating newsroom, thanks to Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Journalism, and across town in a technology park, we had built a copy desk, a design desk and a photo desk, equipping them with computers and software. We had Internet and telephone access, a motor pool of 30 rental cars and all of the infrastructure necessary to produce a paper. We even had space for the advertising department. We were back in business.

With a million of our readers evacuated, we produced full pages and posted them in online versions of the newspaper through Wednesday night. On Thursday night, Sept. 1, two days after we evacuated our building, we printed a 16-page Times-Picayune on the presses of the Houma Courier, a New York Times newspaper that had given us refuge, food, phones and the ability to produce a paper in the hours after our hasty evacuation.

We trucked papers to shelters, hotels and the scattered readers in our area and distributed them for free. Two weeks later, we moved to the larger capacity of our sister paper, the Mobile Register. Both papers had proved inexhaustibly generous.

During the six weeks we published in Baton Rouge, and for many weeks after our Oct. 10 return to the city, our reporters, photographers and editors have faced extraordinary loss, hardship and obstacles in their personal lives. But at the same time, we have been constantly energized by an enduring sense that we have become utterly indispensable to our readers and to our city.

The examples of this are persistent and profound, starting with the experience of reporters MacCash and O’Byrne on the Monday of the storm, on a bridge next to a flooded neighborhood, where people who had lost everything reacted with joy at the arrival of reporters from their hometown newspaper.

It continued on Friday, Sept. 2, when Meeks arrived at the Convention Center with a stack of newspapers, and the people wept at the sight of The Times-Picayune, pouncing upon the copies as if they were food.

It was apparent as the reporters in the city started up their own paper route, in which each night after deadline, they’d take to the streets with that day’s paper, delivering it to first responders, soldiers and refugees all over the city. They used Times-Picayunes as currency to get through military checkpoints, and after a few days, the “customers” on the paper route would complain if they ran late.

Our columnist, Chris Rose, who spent weeks wandering his ruined city and writing deeply personal accounts of his alternating states of anger, determination and unspeakable grief, received 10,000 e-mails of thanks from readers in less than four months.

And for many weeks, as readers returned to their homes, they would call us to explain how they were simply overwhelmed by emotion when the newspaper arrived on their doorstep.

It continues even today, where it is not uncommon for people on the street to stop our employees and tell them that they don’t think they would have made it without The Times-Picayune. Often, their eyes fill with tears. Sometimes, they spontaneously hug us. They mean what they say, and we feel it, and even amid our continuing devastation and loss, it is the most exhilarating feeling many of us have ever had as journalists.

The suburbs of New Orleans have been quick to recover. But New Orleans itself, for now, is two cities: The streets of the French Quarter and Uptown New Orleans are again buzzing. More restaurants and coffee shops have reopened. But there is a shadow city, stretching toward Lake Pontchartrain. More than half a year after the floodwalls collapsed, these neighborhoods are still powerless and comatose.

Katrina and its aftermath consume most of our pages these days. For our readers, these stories have a lasting urgency. For them and for us, the city’s fate and our own are inextricably linked.

So we do not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines as passive observers. We report aggressively on everything from the quality of the frantic levee repairs to the plans for rebuilding the city and suburbs to neglect by officials in Washington to the critical and complicated policy decisions that still must be made if we are to move forward.

For us, whether our house was destroyed or we merely suffered a few downed tree limbs, Katrina is and will be a defining moment of our lives, a story we’ll be telling until the day we die. And the newspaper will be an integral part of the plot.

Being a part of the plot is both riveting and deeply unsettling. We don’t yet know the end of this story. And the storyline is more than some engrossing journalistic narrative of the kind we’re trained to tell. It’s the story of our lives, and we must both live and chronicle it.

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