A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

In the eye of the storm

By Quill

By Meera Pal

I was gone for two weeks, covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In those 14 days I learned more about journalism, human nature and myself, than I had in my lifetime.

But, reality didn’t hit me in the face until the moment I approached Gulfport, Miss., on the I-10. I turned the radio down and stared in open-mouthed amazement at the freeway signs that had been ripped apart, the billboards that had been bent in half and the cars that rested sideways against a tree.

I had never seen anything like this before.

This was my first assignment covering a disaster and I didn’t know what to expect.

Every thing was foreign to me.

The first few days, we slept on air mattresses in a room above the Sun Herald newsroom. Besides the fact that someone decided to blast the air conditioning all night, there was at least one person who snored every night. Let’s just say, sleep was elusive.

I was monumentally tired the first few days, but driven by the excitement of a new experience.

Each day, I drove to a different Gulf Coast city: Bay St. Louis, Long Beach, and Pass Christian.

Late, one afternoon I drove into east Biloxi. I made my way into the storm-ravaged city, stunned by the damage and the devastation.

As I drove further east, I caught a glimpse of the large casinos that line the coast road. They were an eerie sight. Most of the first few floors of the casinos had been gutted by the 28-foot storm surge that had swept ashore.

My breath caught, however, when I saw what I realized was not another apartment building, but a floating casino barge, resting against a small building, about a quarter mile inland. The storm surge had picked up the 250,000 square foot barge, yanked it from its moorings and tossed it about as if it were a bathtub toy.

Even though I was looking directly at the devastation, my brain was having a hard time computing and reconciling what I was seeing.

As my friend and fellow reporter, Scott Marshall, explained. I blinked from red to green in that instant. Meaning, I would forever be affected by the traumatic scene.

I drove a few blocks inland and entered a neighborhood through what looked like a newly bulldozed access road. Shards of wood, plastic and metal lined the streets where homes once stood. Furniture and clothing lay strewn about the debris, entire homes ripped apart.

As I turned on to one street, I came upon two large, black SUVs which were blocking my passage.

They were a private security detail from Ohio. They had been helping the local police by patrolling the gutted neighborhoods.

Today, they had heard a baby’s cry from one of the homes.

They found a Vietnamese family of four — a husband, wife, 8-year-old daughter and baby boy — who had ridden out the storm in their attic. In broken English, the man pointed to the water line marking the second floor of his house.

The security team, describing the gunshots and looting they had encountered in the neighborhood after dark, was trying to talk the family into leaving.

As we waited for the family, a security office said to the other, “There’s a DB in the house across the street.”

I looked at him and asked, “Did you see the dead body?”

He told me that the 8-year-old had told him about it.

It hit me than that while I am used to being the probing journalist, this assignment was going to expose me to a new world, one that I wouldn’t soon forget.

There were still corpses in many of the collapsed homes and neighborhoods.

There was still looting and danger after curfew.

Each day taught me something new, whether about death, destruction or the importance of journalism in times of disaster.

Whenever we left the newsroom, we brought along stacks of the newspaper.

I had always known newspapers served to inform and educate the reader, but what I learned in Mississippi was that newspapers also become a lifeline in times of devastation.

People who had lost their homes, possessions and other family members, rushed for the paper, wanting to read about the rest of the world and stay connected to their community.

And, as the days passed, sports, entertainment and even the comics returned to the paper. For those effected by Hurricane Katrina, it provided a sense of normalcy, hope and reassurance that life on the coast would go on.

Meera Pal is a reporter at the Contra Costa Times in California. She was one of two reporters deployed by the paper to Mississippi to help the Sun Herald staff.

Reporter confident home state will rebound

By Beth Bienvenu

As I write this on Sept. 11, 2005, I think back to four years ago today. How was I to know that those attacks on our country that horrible day would not be the toughest story I’d ever cover? The week following Katrina’s landfall took far more out of me. My home state was devastated, and probably changed forever.

I am lucky. Only Katrina’s far western edge passed through my city, leaving behind no damage. But suddenly our streets and shelters were flooded with evacuees, and our target demographic shifted. My job now was to provide information and, hopefully, a bit of comfort for our new viewers. The newsroom phones rang constantly. People had questions I couldn’t answer.

Had their house, their pet, their loved ones survived? I was overwhelmed because I didn’t know what to tell them. So I did the only thing I knew how to do — tell the truth.

We worked hard, for long hours, sacrificing our weekends and Labor Day holiday, to find as many answers as we could. Callers from eastern parishes wanted to see video from their towns. We found it and put it on. Viewers from here wanted to know how the zoo, the Quarter, the casino, the insert-your-favorite-attraction-here fared in the storm. We found those answers and reported on them.

Then, finally, when reporters and producers from our sister stations arrived to help out, I was able to answer my own questions. I went into New Orleans to see the aftermath first hand.

It wasn’t pretty. The damage was everywhere, visible even from the interstate. The stench was sickening.

And most shocking to me, the place was a ghost town. This was not New Orleans on a Saturday afternoon.

Sure, the media, police and National Guard had moved in, but for the most part, the city was empty. Café du Monde was void of tables, tourists and street musicians. Jackson Square was no longer lined with amateur artwork and horse-drawn buggies. No one leaned over the balconies of the French Quarter to look down on the now-lifeless streets.

But there was one sign of hope. A lone bar on Bourbon Street was still open — an oasis in a desolate town.

In that one corner of the Quarter, things looked normal. People looked happy. The New Orleans spirit was alive and well.

So now I can definitively answer one question everyone Has: Will New Orleans survive? You damn bet it will.

Beth Bienvenu is a news producer for KATC TV-3 in Lafayette, La.

Citizen journalist comes to the rescue

By Paul W. Girard

I am a retired journalist, a former chief of bureau for the Vallejo (Calif.) Times Herald. From the T-H, I went to work for PG&E, California’s huge electric and gas monopoly and retired from there after 25 years, part of which was served as a nuclear emergency planner for the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. I am a certified emergency planner.

I am also an amateur radio operator — KC6TZU — and worked the devastating Oakland Hills Fire, Loma Prieta earthquake and a large earthquake in southern California.

Amateur Radio use in times of disaster has changed a lot in the past 15 or 20 years. Sure, we still communicate, but “how” is a big part of the story. Computers now pass most of the messages from the scene to command and control centers.

Such was the case on Friday, Sept. 2. I was at my home in Concord Calif., monitoring traffic from the New Orleans area on my computer using a ham-based computer program called Echo Link. As I monitored traffic on KN5ENC transmitting from Florida, a caller from St. Bernard Parish in reported that there were six souls trapped at the county courthouse at Chalmette. They were in 6 feet of water.

I had no idea where these people were located, but I had a telephone number and a name, Patsy Brown. I couldn’t get back to the control operator but used my instinct that told me the folks trapped in the courthouse were desperate. I called the AP and got the number for the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center in Washington, D.C.

Within seconds I had the OOD (officer of the deck/day) on the line and gave him the information I had. He thanked me and said they would dispatch a rescue team. I knew then help was on the way, and Brown and her companions would be plucked from safety. I had done a job for relief from my easy chair while seated before a computer. I knew I would not want for food or water and felt very saddened seeing the televised plea for help from the father of an infant in New Orleans who said he had no formula, no water and little hope. He had no electricity, either, and his toilet didn’t flush.

It was from this same computer that I sent my relief check. I didn’t even have to go outside in the bright California sunshine to post a check. It went right from my computer to the American Red Cross hurricane relief.

That’s my story. I can’t tell you I missed a meal, or a night in a soft bed, or even had to give up my favorite cocktail. My feet were dry, even after giving the lawn a soaking.

Paul W. Girard is a retired SPJ member