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From AJR,   August/September 2006  issue

"To Love This City Back to Life"   

A reporter for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune reflects on a wrenching period spent covering the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the effort to rescue a damaged yet absolutely essential place.


By Brian Thevenot
Brian Thevenot, a reporter at New Orleans' Times-Picayune, can be reached at brianthevenot@hotmail.com.     

On a recent reporting jaunt to Cameron Parish in western Louisiana, a peaceful feeling washed over me. I felt curiously like I was on vacation, even though the lower end of Cameron, destroyed by Hurricane Rita, still lay largely in ruin, much like home in New Orleans.

Still, I reveled in driving through the farms, marshes and beaches, jawing with fishermen and oil industry workers and small-town government types. After nine months covering Katrina's everlasting aftermath for the Times-Picayune, at least in Cameron I was covering a different hurricane, something – anything – new to refresh the soul.

As I write now, nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina and the grueling coverage that ensued, I'm on my first bona fide vacation, a long, slow drive through the South and the East Coast, with plenty of stops to see old and good friends, to camp, hike, canoe, golf, to rest my mind and exercise my body. I headed for the mountains, miles above sea level, far away from the hyperventilation on TV about the start of the first post-Katrina hurricane season, far from The Story that's swallowed my life and that of my New Orleans colleagues.

Like many others, I'd hit the wall. The adrenaline stopped pumping long ago, replaced by agitation, depression and the Sisyphean struggle to maintain intensity on what doubtless will be the most important story any of us will ever cover. I felt weary, scattered. Sometimes I could barely focus on reading, much less reporting and writing. Sometimes I drank too much to get away from it, but that didn't help. On my way to work every day, I passed a boat that still sits rotting in the middle of a major thoroughfare. It was past time to admit I needed to get out of New Orleans for a good long while.

This has been a season of extremes, befitting a city that has always embodied the best and worst the world has to offer. That, of course, is attractive to any writer with so much as a pulse. Trouble is, none of us knows when this season of suffering will end and we can all go back to covering the "normal" New Orleans, which was intriguing enough, thank you very much.

While much of the media has moved on, citing "Katrina fatigue," a lot of us have gone way past fatigue, past burnout, to some emotional netherworld none of us yet fully understands. I've heard more than one former New Orleanian who has returned from exile for a visit remark, "It seems like the whole city has post-traumatic stress disorder." And that's probably as true at the newspaper as anywhere else.

I personally have days, sometimes several in a row, when I'd just as soon stay in bed rather than spend another day plumbing the depths of devastation and sadness. I have others when I experience waking flashbacks of a dead body I saw in the 9th Ward a week after the storm (see "Apocalypse in New Orleans," October/November 2005), or feel like tearing up at odd times for unclear reasons.

And I'm one of the fortunate ones: Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn't lose my house to the flood, or have family members move away.

The night before I left for vacation, I watched the local weathercasters' expansive coverage of Tropical Storm Alberto, what once would have been considered a relatively minor event, a blip. Not even a hurricane, and without question headed directly for Florida, not here. Now they treated it like an omen, an uncommonly early storm portending a new series of episodes in The Cycle that some believe will bring ever more wind and water, destruction and death, for years to come. And, of course, my city will still be digging out from Katrina for years to come.

Years. It's still hard to fathom. After almost all of the national media have left New Orleans, save for the occasional update, we'll be covering Katrina regularly, if not daily, for years. I'd guess a decade.

After fighting through those first insane days, surrounded by water and death and chaos, a few of us who remained started taking bets on when the Picayune would put out its first edition that didn't contain the word "Katrina." Two years? Three? Five? Ten? Almost a year later, I have not written a single story that didn't mostly focus on the flood or deal with an issue that it caused.

And I can't see writing a non-flood story any time soon. Who would care? For journalists and residents alike, nothing else really matters here. Anything that might normally qualify as big news has been forever changed by the events of August 29, 2005. Presenting anything outside of that context would be laughable.

I often run into people, especially out-of-towners, who understandably want to hear what it was really like covering The Story. Sometimes they say things like, "Wow, that must have been an incredible experience. I mean, for a reporter.."

I never know what to say. What can you say? "Yeah, save for the 1,500 or so deaths and the almost total destruction of my hometown, it was great!" Which, crude and silly as that sounds, is basically true. I mean, for a reporter ..

I usually fall back on, "I just wished I could have covered it in somebody else's hometown." But now that I think about it, that seems grimly selfish, wishing Katrina-type hell on somebody else. I suppose that's the nature of the hurricane: Pray to God it spares you, even if it hits your neighbor.

I talked recently with a top editor at another paper, who put it as eloquently as I've heard. As a young reporter, he'd play a bar game with colleagues. They'd try to one-up each other by naming the single best story in history to cover. One night, deep into the drinking, one of them came up with the consensus winner: the parting of the Red Sea.

"Katrina was that kind of story," the editor said.

Indeed it was, and still is. Especially for the local press corps, Katrina unleashed opportunities to explore the human condition at its margins and to provide information and comfort to a readership that may never need it again so desperately. And now we're in the unique position of covering the rebuilding of a truly great American city, almost from scratch, a privilege few other journalists have ever had or ever will. The complexities blow the mind of both writer and reader on a daily basis. And complexity fuels good reporters like gasoline fuels race cars.

More gratifying than anything has been the close, almost intimate connection the newspaper has forged with its readers through our shared struggle. Like most reporters, I've grown used to dealing with the kind of people who love to hate the media, including their hometown paper. But those people have all but vanished in the post-Katrina media landscape.

No one here complains about the paper anymore, and I can't count the number of regular readers I've met recently who have gushed with gratitude when they learned I work for the Picayune. As I took a long walk down St. Charles Avenue recently, I ran across a newspaper box with a heart spray-painted on it. Another recent day, I sat in a bar watching a young woman read the paper, then heard her remark to a friend, "This paper has just been fantastic lately."

And it has, if I can be forgiven for bragging. Before the storm, I always thought the Picayune excelled on the most important stories, on breaking news, politics, corruption investigations and long, meandering feature stories that captured this singular and sacred place. But day to day, we could be raggedy, inconsistent. For the last nine months, the paper's been solid almost every day, owing both to the substance of The Story itself and the reporters and editors who have covered it like it happened to them personally – because it did.

The flood also gave us the opportunity to win two Pulitzer Prizes, one in breaking news, the other public service. The day the prizes were announced, after weeks of nervous speculation, we all gathered around the city desk in the newsroom, which exploded with cheers and tears when the official announcement came over the wire.

Editor Jim Amoss stood on a chair, reading from a prepared speech, the most memorable line being his description of one of the paper's new missions: "to love this city back to life." It was a beautiful sentiment, and one that tossed aside the academic detachment from subject that pervades journalism (see "Off the Sidelines," December/January). All of us at times have had to jettison that arm's length journalistic tradition: when we can't help but tear up with the people we interview; when we're enraged at the hysterical assertions that New Orleans should be abandoned to the sea.

Of course, beautiful sentiments don't make the stories write themselves. And they don't change the nature of the struggle in which we're now locked: covering an ever-expanding story with a shrinking staff on the verge of burnout.

To their credit, the Picayune's leadership and its owner, Newhouse, haven't gutted the operation. There have been no layoffs, no buyouts, which is almost shocking considering the rash of both at papers nationwide in places that didn't have a disaster scatter large chunks of their readership across the country.

But we're bleeding slowly, through attrition. About 35 editorial staff members have left so far, many because of flood-related hardships, and only one had been replaced as of mid-July. For one reporter, the final straw came when she couldn't fix chronic sewer problems in her FEMA trailer. Another, a native of Louisiana and a productive veteran reporter, told colleagues he simply needed to "get some distance" from the event. Both are sorely missed, both personally and professionally, as well as for the extra work piled on those who remain.

The Story still humbles us. So massive in its scope and importance it all but ensures we can't do it justice, no matter how hard we work, how passionately we feel every story, how desperately we want to inform and help lead the city's recovery.

On the wall inside the newsroom, cards advertise the availability of free counseling sessions for a variety of mental and emotional maladies: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc. However many people have sought out help, more could probably use it.

I've been meaning to write something on the shell shock that has consumed the whole city, leaving all manner of stresses and mental plagues in its wake, not to mention suicides and divorces. But I think I've been avoiding it; it's a little too personal. I could find all the anecdotes among my friends. At the bar up the street from me, an employee recently died of a heroin overdose, years after he'd kicked the habit. Was it storm-related? Who the hell knows, or cares. "Great. More death," a drinking buddy of mine groused at the bar.

We all could use some more reporters to cover the flood of news we're still wading through, upstream. No one knows when – or if – we'll replenish our depleted ranks.

And every day here, there's a new tale of woe, a new outrage, another reminder of the many years of struggle that lie ahead.

I think I speak for all New Orleanians when I say the worst of it is the gnawing uncertainty about the city's future. When will all this end? Will it ever? When will we know?

The other question I'm constantly asked by out-of-town strangers is, "So what is it like to live there ? Do you think the city's coming back?"

Sometimes the question gets annoying, particularly when the questioner seems horrified at the mere prospect of living in the city I still deeply love, broken as it is. I've answered it so often I feel like I'm giving a rehearsed speech, and I wonder if I'm painting a naïvely optimistic picture. Yes, I tell them, I have hope. Definitely. New Orleans won't die. People love this place too much. We're still here, fighting, and New Orleans remains a singular treasure, a hunk of Brie in a sea of Cheez Whiz. But you have to understand, I tell them, the mind-boggling volume and complexity of the rebuilding effort. Send prayers and money.

But even after all the worldwide coverage, people still don't understand the biblical scope of the disaster, and even the best writer can't find the words to make it plain. Nor can pictures relay the full horror of a walk through the miles and miles and miles of stinking rubble.

But in the end, I just have one thing to say to people who want to know what it's really like here: Thanks for asking, for giving a damn. We'll be here, every day, trying to find you the answers.

Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot (bthevenot@timespicayune.com) wrote about coverage of Katrina and its aftermath in the October/November and December/January issues of AJR. Thevenot and Times-Picayune colleague Gordon Russell won the 2006 Mongerson Award for their story correcting exaggerated accounts of violence after Katrina.