Reporting in New Orleans: If FEMA Couldn’t Get In, Why Was It Easy For Me?

As Hurricane Katrina gathered force on Sunday, Aug. 28, my editors shipped me off to Hattiesburg, Miss., where Gannett owns a small newspaper—the Hattiesburg American—that sat right in the storm’s track. Our team of reinforcements flew in on the company jet right before Katrina’s first feeder bands swept the town. It was a Gulfstream with plush leather seats, a deli spread and a full bar. We looted some booze, but since the plane was heading to Florida to pick up an executive, an editor with us insisted that we leave some of the mini-bottles of whiskey behind. By Tuesday, she was cursing herself for it.

Within 16 hours, the storm screamed overhead as a Category 3 hurricane: no power, no water, trees ripped down everywhere. We spent the next three days careening through Mississippi in cars whose fuel gauges were sputtering toward “empty,” unable to call anyone because the phone lines were down.

Even though we had a generator and air conditioning, it wasn’t very comfortable. It’s hard to maintain work/life separation when you sleep just down the hall from the police scanner, which crackled all night with reports of mayhem. The publisher ordered the bathrooms sealed off with rolls of duct tape to keep everyone in the office from filling the useless toilets up with shit. After four days without showering, I became obsessed with the little bottles of hand sanitizer I’d brought from Washington.

No one in the city had enough food, though somehow we brought plenty in from Jackson, Miss., where Gannett owns a larger newspaper. Thieves snuck in the wrecked back door of a barbecue joint Tuesday to steal food while the owner sold water out the front. Across town, a man shot his sister in the head during an argument over a bag of ice.

But things were worse in places like Biloxi, Gulfport and New Orleans, and I was losing patience with myself for not being there. So I left with a photographer, Bart Boatwright of the Greenville (S.C.) News, for Baton Rouge on Thursday. We planned to embed ourselves with an Army unit running rescue missions in New Orleans. The Pentagon had set up a command post at a base near Hattiesburg, and we thought we’d get a good story about the cavalry coming to the rescue.

Of course, the cavalry wasn’t quite ready to roll. Bouncing from one military flack to another by phone on Thursday, I found that units that should have already been on the ground hadn’t even left Texas.

That night, we rushed to Ruth’s Chris for dinner, eager to spend some corporate money that we’d been unable to use in Hattiesburg’s closed stores. We couldn’t finish what we ordered. Add the $65 check (for rib-eye that I didn’t eat) to the list of things I feel guilty about now—but put it somewhere beneath feeling sorry for myself because I was sleeping in an accountant’s cubicle and missed my girlfriend while people were dying all over the region.

On Friday, Governor Kathleen Blanco declared that the press could pass the police checkpoints encircling New Orleans. Nixing a suicidal plan to take Gannett Baton Rouge bureau chief John Hill’s Jaguar, Boatwright and I set out with Hill and the Monroe News-Star’s Barry Johnson in a borrowed pickup. State troopers told us we’d need bulletproof vests, which we didn’t have, and asked, “Y’all know you’re on your own, right?”

We cruised nearly empty highways, passing convoys of buses and the occasional Army truck. After hearing how hard it was for FEMA and the military to get supplies in, we were shocked at how easy the trip was.

We stopped to check on an apartment in the Warehouse District where Hill plans to retire. It was undamaged. Then we drove the wrong direction down one-way streets and arrived downtown. Within view of the Sheraton where I’d spent a drunken, raucous JazzFest weekend in May, military police patrolled the streets. Thousands sat on the filthy sidewalks outside the convention center, surrounded by garbage.

Now that the authorities had begun to show up, they wouldn’t let people out on their own, making them wait for buses to the organized shelters. Starving babies wailed as frantic survivors tried to flag me down to tell their story.

“You couldn’t leave,” said Carl Osborne, 49, who was trying to keep his 4-year-old grandson Tyrese safe. “I couldn’t take my family and leave.”

We had passed empty buses on the way, but people outside the convention center said they had only seen six all week. They hadn’t stopped. Everyone asked me when they would be taken to safety and why they’d been abandoned.

Still, many told me they couldn’t bring themselves to break into stores for food and water. Osborne said he paid others for survival supplies they’d taken, unwilling to damage someone else’s property even to save his family.

At the Superdome on Saturday, M.P.’s got the last few survivors out of an arena still surrounded by water that people said they’d dumped corpses into all week. But the sight of mostly white soldiers herding destitute, mostly black evacuees through rows of steel barricades messed with my head, even though people said the military treated them very politely. I know it was a rescue, but it looked like something else.

“We are being treated like dogs, like slaves,” said Tinita Castell, a pregnant nursing student who couldn’t stop sobbing outside the convention center Friday.

A teenager with asthma sat wheezing on the sidewalk, his family fanning his face as if that would help him breathe. Born premature, 3-month-old twins Jamie and Jhané cried listlessly on their mother Jahari Bean’s lap, unable to eat the solid M.R.E.’s Bean had been given. They looked ghastly on Friday, and I don’t know if the babies are still alive. I doubt it.

“Why in the hell did I vote for them? Why do I pay my taxes?” asked Shelvis White, who lives—or lived—uptown. He’d voted for George W. Bush, Governor Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin, but now he was marooned. “Should I vote for somebody else?”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t explain why I could come and go, but no one had managed to get help in. As dusk fell, I was also getting scared.

“If any of these pedestrians jump in front of you, there’s a good chance they’re trying to steal your vehicle,” one city cop in a bulletproof vest said in the French Quarter. “Run ’em over and keep going.”

We had decided earlier that we couldn’t feed people we talked to, both for security reasons and out of fairness—how could we choose? But after Tinita Castell told me she thought she and her husband Lionel would die in New Orleans but that his family had fled to Florida, I asked if I could call his relatives to let them know the Castells were alive but stranded. It seemed decent and humane, though it didn’t really feel that helpful.

We took nearly a dozen numbers down and called people from the safety of Baton Rouge. Many numbers didn’t work; 504 cell phones were jammed. But I did get through to Dynelle Watson, a relative of the Castells. My hasty notes are a little confused on how they’re related, and I don’t remember where in Florida she found shelter. I do remember the way she broke down when I explained why I was calling.

“Oh, thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Lord!” she cried. “Thank you for calling! We love you! God bless you!”

Reporters usually say good news isn’t really news—it’s not our job to write things that make people feel better about the world. But that phone call and others like it were about the only things that happened all week that didn’t break my heart.

Mike Madden is a reporter for Gannett News Service.