Apocalypse in New Orleans
A firsthand account of how a small band of Times-Picayune journalists covered devastation and misery in their shattered home
By Brian Thevenot
Brian Thevenot, a reporter at New Orleans' Times-Picayune, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. On the advice of cops who warned us they couldn't patrol the area and to forget 911 we'd arranged for a shotgun and two .357 revolvers that would arrive before nightfall.
As I typed, I struggled desperately to do justice to the scene I'd witnessed that morning, amid a mass of refugees at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, one that had laid bare the beauty and the horror of mankind and reduced me to a sobbing wreck.
Sitting in the Jeep, air-conditioning on full blast, the scene through the windshield turned even more surreal: A building collapsed 30 yards in front of me. A dozen men dressed in black flak jackets and shirts marked simply "security" raced toward me and away from the cascading bricks, glass and wood.
I leapt out of the car to help but found no one hurt. My heartbeat returned to whatever had become normal after days of rushing adrenaline, sporadic food and listless sleep on hard floors.
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.
We stopped midway so she could sell the story for the Sunday front page and deliver the first half so editors could meet deadline for the one-section, 16-page paper now printed an hour-and-a-half away in Houma.
By the time I'd finished, much of the rest of the crew had arrived. Mike Montalbano, a sports copy editor I barely knew before the storm, could see the stress on my face. I stammered out a description of what I'd seen. He grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it.
"It's OK," he told me. "Let it out. You stared into the face of God today."
The last time I'd prayed and cried so hard indeed, at all was in Iraq in January, where I spent a month embedded with Louisiana National Guardsmen, going on combat patrols and attending funerals held for several men at a time killed by the same roadside bombs. All week my colleagues kept asking me to compare the two experiences. The similarities were striking: days that bled one into another, the constant whirr of helicopters, death, the heavy weight of history.
But a week in post-Katrina New Orleans felt like a month in Iraq. Iraq was Iraq. This was home , suddenly plunged into a scene out of "Hotel Rwanda." We've all run out of adequate descriptors, words we couldn't believe appeared on our screens or notepads even as we wrote them: Armageddon, Bedlam, Chaos, Apocalypse, Hell.
All I know is that few if any newspapers in history faced what the Times-Picayune did just to publish in the days after Katrina hit Monday, August 29.
Still sifting through the wreckage of our formerly thriving 260,000-circulation paper to say nothing of our homes, families and lives we're now literally rebuilding the paper from scratch at offices in Baton Rouge and one staffer's house in what's left of New Orleans. Those in Baton Rouge, many of whom pulled off daily miracles in getting the paper out, hadn't fared any better emotionally, perhaps worse. But as we worked in what had unbelievably become a combat zone, we at times resented, even cursed, some of our colleagues in Baton Rouge, as visions of them sitting in air-conditioning and sleeping in real beds contrasted so sharply with our harsh new reality. Just an hour separated us, but we might as well have been on different continents.
We came to realize later that we had been much more fortunate: At least we could work through the pain, riding a wave of adrenaline and immense journalistic purpose. We could view and relay the terrors firsthand. It drove home just how lucky we'd been to simply survive. In Baton Rouge, while the staff faced its own intense challenges in rebuilding the paper's editing and production operations, many found themselves with entirely too much time to watch CNN, to mull their heavy losses and the prospect that their homes, schools, lives and jobs could have been obliterated by something as fickle as one day's weather. Many others who had evacuated before the storm stayed in other states, weighing whether they should stay there for good.
Through tears, hugs and Xanax, we're surviving. We've been guaranteed paychecks whether we work or not through October, along with a generous per diem and clothing allowance. After that, no one knows. There's rampant gossip of buying or merging with the Baton Rouge Advocate, but for now it's just talk.
In Newhouse we trust. The paper's owner has taken good care of us until now. Besides, we've got no choice.
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!"
With mussed hair and a flushed face, he ordered we bring nothing we couldn't hold in our laps.
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, 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?"
"Jim, we'll find a way," he said. "We'll find good New Orleanians who will help us out. I'm a resourceful guy."
"I know you are," Amoss said. "Do it. Who do you need?"
Meeks hurriedly amassed the team, a bizarre but complementary mix: myself, the education reporter; Troncale, the editorial page editor; Assistant Editorial Page Editor Dante Ramos; cops and courts reporter Mike Perlstein; music critic Keith Spera; art critic Doug MacCash; photographer John McCusker; and religion writer Bruce Nolan.
Natalie Pompilio, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who previously worked for five years at the Picayune, also hopped in the back of the truck with us.
We left the West Bank bureau with a few days' supply of water, hardly any food or clothes, very few notebooks and one laptop.
A few other staffers had remained in the city and suburbs because they had not been at the downtown building during the evacuation. Photographer Alex Brandon had gone native with his SWAT team contacts. None of us saw him again until he brought us a shotgun and a .357 revolver that Saturday, then jumped right back in a black police SUV and took off. Photographer Ted Jackson winged it in his black Toyota truck with 325,000 hard miles on it. General assignment reporter James Varney, another veteran of Iraq duty, would arrive soon, mostly working separately in those first apocalyptic days with photographer and photo editor David Grunfeld of the paper's St. Tammany Parish bureau. Several other photographers would commute to the city on day trips, bringing back stunning images. A handful of suburban reporters most had evacuated before the storm reported daily in outlying areas, mostly by making day trips from Baton Rouge.
Trymaine Lee, hired just four months ago as a cops reporter, remained at the City Hall command center at the downtown Hyatt completely unaware the paper had evacuated the offices until someone told him they'd heard it on CNN. Gordon Russell, a City Hall reporter, had left the paper before the evacuation to visit his house up the street from mine on Laurel Street in Uptown. Russell and Lee would soon join us.
Any uncertainty about the chaos we would face vanished at our first stop, the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street. With fire trucks and police cars blanketing the parking lot, we mistook it for a staging area for rescue operations. It also appeared authorities themselves had opened the store to provide a lifeline to refugees.
We could not have been more wrong.
We fanned out inside the store, looking to get some interviews and a little food, but found the most basic fabric of society had dissolved. One man smashed the glass tops of jewelry cases, screaming, "Free samples! Free samples!" Assembly lines ran from the electronics and computer sections to vans waiting outside, clogging the wide boulevard next to the Mississippi River. Cops and firefighters pushed carts alongside looters, who scrambled like coked-up ants through the massive store, slipping and sliding on its soaked and filthy floors. We interviewed looters and cops alike, finding conflicting accounts of how the store had been overrun and why the authorities now helped loot it. Most cops stuck to the basics but some joined the free-for-all. Photographer McCusker snapped off a shot of a cop carting out an armload of DVDs before McCusker left, fearing for his safety.
"Times-Picayune's over there taking pictures!" he had heard one crazed looter shout. "Let's go take care of business!"
Most of us had walked out with a few necessities: food, T-shirts, socks, a camping stove, etc. But when we got back to the truck, we realized the crazed spree had no official sanction and certainly not that of Wal-Mart. We toyed with taking inventory of the goods later and sending Wal-Mart a check but ultimately took a unanimous vote to immediately return every item, even if it only meant someone else would take it.
Our next stop would be Troncale's house to set up our first base and get much-needed food and phone lines to file stories. We gulped glasses of bottled water and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Her phone was dead, but a neighbor's worked. Cops reporter Perlstein and I filed our first dispatch, the Wal-Mart looting story , scribbling on notepaper and talking through paragraphs out loud. We phoned it in from the neighbor's house and headed back out on the street.
Others went to retrieve cars donated by staffers from homes and parking garages. I ended up in Managing Editor Peter Kovacs' truck, headed to the impoverished Lower 9th Ward, where water engulfed ramshackle houses as far as the eye could see. Rescue operations had just then begun in earnest with 100 boats from the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
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. Even at our most self-important, prattling on about the watchdog Fourth Estate and whatnot, none of us could have imagined our work could be so vital. Weber featured in both of our leads in the next day's papers. In the Picayune's case, it was an online-only edition that remained the sole way the paper could publish for the next two days.
The Weber lead would sit atop one of the strangest bylines ever to run in the Times-Picayune: Brian Thevenot, Gordon Russell, Keith Spera and Doug MacCash. The education and City Hall reporters teamed up that night with the music and art critics, writing by candlelight and flashlights in Russell's house. We borrowed the laptop from the New York Times, the least the paper could do given that Russell had granted the Times full use of his gorgeous Uptown home. In a rare victory, we e-mailed the story from Russell's working phone line.
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."
It 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.
We had our own emergencies to handle.
I had slept on the floor in the advertising department of the Courier, and I woke to find Troncale at a computer, typing out an e-mail to a friend saying that she might need a car and a place to live for a while maybe a long while. She started weeping as she typed. I grabbed her hand.
"I just don't see how you can have a newspaper without a market," she said.
In the flurry of work, it hadn't even occurred to me that Katrina may have destroyed my newspaper, that the Picayune might fold or become a shell of its former self.
McCusker faced a more personal emergency: a call from Baton Rouge to tell him his wife hadn't slept much in four days, that she needed him more than the paper did right now. He left, apologizing. We told him he had his priorities perfectly straight.
He had been the only photographer with us. Times-Picayune photographers remained in the city, but we had none alongside our team of reporters for two more days.
While we'd been out reporting that day, our chief, Sports Editor Meeks, had broken off for a personal mission to save his dog, Carson. He pulled the delivery truck as close as he could get to his Lakeview home, near the catastrophic Lake Pontchartrain levee breach at the 17th Street Canal. Shocked to find he'd have to paddle two miles in the kayak under the punishing sun, Meeks nonetheless forged ahead.
At his home, he tied up the kayak to a drain, kicked out a window, and submerged himself in the polluted water, fighting the upward pull of his life jacket and narrowly escaping a run-in with his floating refrigerator.
Once Meeks was safely upstairs with Carson, he heard shouts from outside in unmistakable Cajun accents: rescue volunteers from Assumption Parish, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He welcomed their help. They loaded Meeks and Carson in their fishing boat and towed the kayak behind them.
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.
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.
"I can get you out, but I can't pull the delivery truck up here," Meeks told him. "Can you walk?"
Payne hobbled on his cane for two blocks, and Meeks evacuated him to the Courier in Houma. Another Picayune employee met them there to ferry Payne to Baton Rouge, where relatives took over.
As he scoped out his friend Margi Sunkel's house Friday for our next headquarters, Meeks told a local cop of his plans. He asked if the police might keep us in mind and send patrols around.
"Are you armed?" the cop said.
"No," Meeks said. "We're reporters."
He thought he'd given the right answer.
"Can you make yourself armed?" the cop responded.
Meeks called Brandon, the photographer, for weapons that would arrive the next day. After writing the gospel singer story on Saturday, I retrieved another revolver from a friend's nearby house and fed his cat, Rudy, while I was there.
Two days later I assigned myself the grim duty of trying to get a jump on the body recovery story. All week we'd heard from rescuers that they couldn't pick up the dead while the living remained in peril. But we knew where the concentration of bodies would be and at some point, someone had to come up with an answer for what to do with them.
One of my first stops was the Convention Center. I tried to walk through the food service entrance near the back when two Arkansas National Guardsmen stopped me.
"You don't want to go in there," one of them said.
"There's bodies," said Arkansas Guardsman Mikel Brooks.
"That's actually kind of what I'm writing about," I told him, a bit sheepishly.
"Fine. You want to be a hoss? We'll escort you," Brooks said.
Just inside the door lay a man under a blanket, his decomposing arm sticking up in the air. Next to him, a child. A few yards away, an old woman in a wheelchair Brooks had carted in himself. Next to her lay an old man with his head bashed in.
They wouldn't take me to the freezer in the next room, which they said contained 30 or 40 bodies, a figure still unconfirmed amid a swirl of urban myths churned up by the storm. "I ain't got the stomach for it, even after what I saw in Iraq," Brooks told me.
I didn't particularly need or want to see more bodies, either. I'd seen quite enough.
I could tell Brooks had, too. I'd seen his type of agitated mannerisms before in Iraq, the soldier's mind just clicking, clicking, clicking, the mouth spewing out details of death and anarchy. The scenes of bodies would live in his head for some time. I know they'll live in mine.
I told them I'd been to Iraq, too, as a reporter in January, in some of the same areas of Western Baghdad they had patrolled for a year, where many of their comrades perished in roadside bomb attacks. Back outside in the sunshine, away from the stench of bodies, we chatted awhile with a group of four or five other guardsmen. All of us agreed: The horrors of Katrina trumped anything we'd seen overseas. Death in war makes sense. Death on Convention Center Boulevard makes none.
I roared off Uptown in the Jeep, and called my editor, Jed Horne, in Baton Rouge, to tell him I'd have a vivid if gruesome story coming.
He stopped me short: "Where are you right now?" he said.
"I'm on Tchoupitoulas headed Uptown," I told him.
"Good. I need you to go to Gordon's house right now and get him the fuck out of there. He's in a bad way. He said he's got heat exhaustion or something and he's been throwing up. He keeps calling here, which makes me think he's in deep, deep trouble."
I sped to Russell's house to find him somewhat better than feared, but dazed. He'd found a pool in the neighborhood to soak in and he'd guzzled bottled water. But he seemed out of it. I could tell he'd reached his breaking point and maybe passed it. He only answered about half the frantic questions I asked him.
We quickly decided to send him out with Brett Anderson, the Picayune's food critic, who conveniently happened to be arriving in town in minutes with food, water, gas and plans to reinforce our reporting ranks, which had been depleted substantially. Several others had already reached their limits and left for Baton Rouge. No one had yet taken their places.
The next day, I talked to Russell via phone at his mother-in-law's home in Raceland, in Cajun country. He sounded human again. He started back reporting almost immediately. 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, clichιd 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 nola.com 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.
At the slightly-more-permanent New Orleans bureau, now at the house of columnist Stephanie Grace, just three blocks up my street, a new team of reporters has taken over. I'm heading back there, with Meeks, Perlstein, Lee, Gordon and many others real soon.
To retrieve the borrowed staffer's car I used to escape the city September 8, I had to walk up nine flights of the dark, circular parking ramps at Canal Place, the upscale downtown mall, with a National Guardsman walking five feet behind me, a machine gun pointed at my back.
He told me his unit was working security for some undisclosed high-ranking federal official in the building. Whoever it was the national broadcast media reported Vice President Dick Cheney had arrived about that time I hope he or she had the good sense to spend 50 cents on a Times-Picayune.
Thevenot rejoined the "New Orleans bureau" shortly after writing this story.
For more AJR articles on the coverage of Hurricane Katrina see: "Essential Again," by Marc Fisher and "Playing Big," by Rem Rieder