The Curse of Prescience  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   October/November 2005

The Curse of Prescience   

Covering a disaster in a city that belongs to all of us

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


A late-summer hurricane was barreling toward New Orleans, and the front page carried a story so full of apocalyptic visions that one could be forgiven for thinking this was the Book of Revelations instead of the Washington Post.

I was teaching a class on writing news features, and as it happened we were just starting to explore how to use quotation effectively. The piece, written by Michael Grunwald and Manuel Roig-Franzia and detailing what awaited New Orleans if it took a direct hit from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, was punctuated with so many vivid and alarming quotes that I distributed it to my class and discussed it at length.

Said the president of Jefferson Parish: "If you want to take a chance, buy a lottery ticket. Don't take a chance on this hurricane."

Said a levee supervisor: "I'm terrified. I'm telling you, we've got no elevation. This isn't hyperbole. The only place I can compare us to is Bangladesh."

Said a New Orleans emergency manager, who had 10,000 body bags at the ready: "This could be The One. You're talking about the potential loss of a major metropolitan area."

The hurricane was Ivan, the summer was 2004, and at the last minute the storm tipped slightly eastward. The Crescent City got its stay of execution.

For a year.

There are times when you hate to be right. Good as that Post piece was, those of us on but a Mardi Gras-and-beignet basis with New Orleans soon learned that apocalyptic predictions about The Big One were hardly new. Indeed, two years earlier, in 2002, New Orleans' Times-Picayune did an extensive series that called the inevitable killer storm exactly that The Big One. Turns out that engineers, hydrologists, meteorologists and Louisiana politicians feared precisely this scenario the breaching of levees and deadly flooding of New Orleans for generations. It seems the only folks caught by surprise work for the Bush administration.

Having watched its worst-case predictions come true, the Times-Picayune did exactly what great news organizations usually do when confronted with disaster: It shone. Its news staff established base camp in Baton Rouge and heroically went about keeping the world apprised of the unfolding horror, first via the Internet and then, within days of the storm, with print editions produced at the New York Times Co.'s paper in Houma, Louisiana (see "Apocalypse in New Orleans").

About 10 days into the calamity, with phone service into the affected region still unreliable, I caught up with Times-Picayune Managing Editor Peter Kovacs by e-mail. Proud as he was of his staff's work, there surely was no joy in the paper's prescience. "One of the problems with our political system is that a disaster has to actually occur before people believe it is possible," he wrote.

And the personal toll on journalists who are covering the demise of their own hometown? "This makes you realize that the underpinnings of your comforts and lifestyle are more fragile than you imagined," he wrote. "If I had to guess, I'd say 10 to 20 percent [of the editorial staff] suffered home damage beyond repair. I've seen people who lost every single belonging soldier on in service to the cause of information."

About all they could count on, as storm-tossed Louisianans have for centuries, was the hospitality of their neighbors. "We could not have accomplished our mission without the kindness of the folks at the Manship School [of Mass Communication]" at Louisiana State University, Kovacs wrote. "We fetched up at their door as sweaty refugees in the back of our circulation trucks. They were tireless in helping us with our professional and personal needs. We ate chips and drank soda pop sitting at their brand new computers in their freshly renovated building and they didn't complain. One of the few good things about covering a disaster is that you don't have to wear a tie to work (which is good because I don't have one in Baton Rouge) so I bought myself a bunch of LSU T-shirts."

As always, we were riveted by this big story, by the enormity of the horror, the suffering and death, the courage, the ineptitude. But I found myself wondering if our reaction would have been so visceral if the devastated community was Augusta or Boca Raton. Maybe, but I doubt it. New Orleans belongs to us all, our home away from home. For as long as there has been an America, we have been slipping away to New Orleans to let our hair down, get our freak on, channel our inner Spring Breaker. Dresser drawers from Omaha to Orlando hold cheap beads that can revive memories of good times as powerfully as Proust's madeleines.

To borrow a line from the Big Easy's younger counterpart in hedonism, what happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans.

At least it used to. Now it will stay with us all for a long, long time.

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