Embedded with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans

We hit the first checkpoint on Highway 10 at about 10 p.m.

I’m with a freelance reporter who is on assignment for a major magazine, and we’re our way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans one night last week when state troopers pull us over and ask who, exactly, we are. The trooper has no idea what CJR Daily is, but when the guy riding shotgun flashes his press credential — National Geographic magazine — she shouts it out to the other troopers and asks him to autograph her yellow police vest, before flippantly wishing us luck.

Welcome to New Orleans.

We soon find ourselves creeping blindly through an endless succession of darkened, flooded, looted and deserted streets, with only our headlights showing the way. The quiet is sporadically punctuated by one- or two-man military checkpoints, each one sending us a different direction to the press staging area in front of Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal Street. Downed power lines, broken trees and abandoned cars loom out of the darkness, and impassable street lakes force us to backtrack or slowly wind around. Every now and again, a stray dog appears at the side of the road, clearly starved. A couple of Oklahoma National Guardsmen, posted across the street from an apartment building from which you can hear the sound of rummaging, (“probably looters” they tell us) advise us that Magazine Street is our best bet in.

But after about 15 blocks on Magazine, we’re stopped by one pissed off New Orleans cop nervously gripping his gun who reroutes us back toward the river, to Tchoupitoulas street, a mostly industrial route which hugs the Mississippi riverfront. Finally, a little after midnight, we hit Canal, which glows from blocks away with the lights of television news crews and their humming, well-stocked Winnebagos. We pull over, walk around to take in what looks like a giant media camping excursion, and sleep the only place we can — the car.

In the morning, we wake to the sound of military vehicles rumbling past and television crews setting up their shots. By 8 a.m., I’m on the cell phone with the Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan. We’re describing what we’re wearing, so we can recognize each other in front of the media spectacle that is Harrah’s.

Duncan has the Times-Picayune’s high-profile New Orleans Saints beat, one of the newspaper’s most-coveted in a football-crazy state. But he also epitomizes the all-hands-on-deck ethos of the Picayune these days. He puts it simply: “As a reporter, how can you not want to cover the biggest story of your life?”

Duncan and about ten other Picayune staffers hole up nights at a co-worker’s empty house a few miles from the staging area. Using a gasoline-powered generator for electricity and fueled themselves by military MRE’s and occasional supply runs from their new home office in Baton Rouge, the staff spreads out each morning to cover the pieces of their hometown that are left to be covered.

On this day, I follow Duncan, the football writer, and Steven Ritea, who covers “a school district that doesn’t exist anymore,” through their daily routine. First thing up is to gather others of the staff and note who is going where. Brett Anderson, who in normal times is the paper’s much-envied restaurant critic, is about as far from his usual beat as it’s possible to get; he’s latching on to a military convoy going out on a search and rescue, while editorial page writer Jarvis DeBerry, equally separated from his usual duties, is heading out to walk through the downtown area to speak with residents who still refuse to leave; he later tells me that some of them claim to have food and water enough for a year, and don’t plan on going anywhere. The rest of the reporters and photographers are already out on their rounds.

I ask Ritea what it’s like covering such an overwhelming story. The answer is — it’s overwhelming. “Normally, I’m used to writing down quotes and saying ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re saying,’ he says, “but now their problems are real — they’re your problems.” (In a sense, Ritea is lucky; the house he bought just six months ago made through the storm and flood intact.)

Football reporter Duncan, whose house also survived the flood, is working on three story leads today, and we’re going to hit the “11 a.m. follies” — the city government’s daily press briefing — in a couple hours at City Hall. Meantime, I stand back and watch as other journalists jockey for position to scramble onto military trucks and pickups to head out in search of survivors. They’re literally running and shouting to be included, with cameras and notepads flying as soldiers look on, unimpressed.

The amount of firepower at Harrah’s is staggering, with every soldier — and most cops — shouldering M-4 or M-16 rifles. Others, with agency names I’ve never heard of, carry shotguns and sniper rifles, along with a handgun strapped to their side. I notice the 82nd Airborne doesn’t have loaded magazines in their rifles, making them the notable exception to this locked and loaded crowd.

After the Picayune’s staff spreads out, the first order of business for Jeff and Steve is to go to the evacuee medical dropoff center, across from the Convention Center. Television has shown all of us that the Convention Center is, by any standard, an atrocity, and seeing it up close is even worse. A police car sits across the street, its windows smashed, its tires stolen, while mattresses are piled up outside a hotel down the block. The multiple mounds of garbage are astounding, and continue to fester, with no attempt to clean them up in sight. Across from this wreckage sits a small evacuee center, where the military brings in people that they have rescued or had to coax out of their dens. As soon as we’re out of the car, the TP reporters begin interviewing dazed survivors, who look unsure as to where they are, or even who they are. The reporters work the line for a few minutes, getting quotes and names, as a Japanese film crew shows up, conspicuous in their crisp khaki pants and matching blue shirts. A reporter has a microphone in her hand, but I don’t see them try to talk to anyone. They seem at sea, not knowing what to do.

We head back to Harrah’s, where Jeff and Steve interview various local cops and public officials until we break off to head over to the press briefing. It’s there that I meet another Picayune staffer, Trymaine Lee, a police beat reporter who was stuck at City Hall when the storm hit. He stands on the steps next to a downed tree, with about 20 other reporters, waiting for the briefing to begin. The hardest story he has had to report, he says, was an interview with a woman whose family escaped their flooded home by punching a hole in the roof. Once they achieved that perch, they could hear their next-door neighbors making a failed attempt to do the same. The neighbors didn’t made it, and the woman told Lee that when her own family was rescued they had to use sticks to push bodies away from the boat.

After the press conference, we weave our way through the broken streets back to Harrah’s yet again, past more trash and fallen walls and looted stores. Once there, the Times-Picayune reporters set about another round of interviews. Jeff and Steve herd a couple of newly-rotated Picayune reporters into a car to show them the “hot spots,” while I stay behind and survey the scene.

Later in the afternoon, Anderson and a few others come back to the staging area, reporting that nothing happened while out on patrol. The weary staffers all nod in agreement to the notion that people really aren’t being pulled out alive anymore, and that the patrols are a disorganized mess.

The guys work angles on a couple more stories and continue to tirelessly work contacts before finally heading back to the house. The schedule seems to be this: Gather information all day before heading back to the house about 5 p.m. to write, and then try to file by 7. They share one land line to email their stories to Baton Rouge.

At the house, I rejoin them a little after 7, tempted by the promise of beer, and fans powered by their gasoline generator. Once there, I find the staff in the throes of finishing their dispatches, along with writers Gordon Russell and Gwen Filosa who have joined the group. Eight staffers sit on chairs and couches, tapping on their laptops in the thick air of the crowded room, the exhaustion of unrelieved days of work visible on their faces. The street they’re on, like every street, has some debris scattered here and there, but it is quiet; more important, it is passable. The only noise you can hear is the humming of the generator, and the thwack-thwack-thwack of Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters passing overhead. But a few houses down, there’s a blanketed body lying on a porch, its legs bent upward in rigor mortis, with a handwritten prayer tacked to the wall above it. It has been there since the staff had moved in on Sunday, and in a subsequent email with Duncan on Monday (the 12th) he told me it was still there.

It’s at the house that I meet Jim Varney, a distinguished Times-Picayune reporter who has been around the world on assignment, sitting on the stoop having a beer. Exhausted, between slugs of beer, Varney tells me “I’ve done Rwanda and Hurricane Mitch and I’ve been in Iraq twice so I’m used to it — but [until now] it’s never been home.”

Varney had been in the city since Tuesday, and at one point set up a makeshift newsroom in a Royal Street grocery in the French Quarter. “It was one of the only unlooted stores in the Quarter,” he explains. The store had a working phone and an owner with a couple guns, so, early on, for a while his quarters became the Times-Picayune’s New Orleans bureau, from which reporters called the Newhouse Washington bureau — the only place they could get through to — to dictate their dispatches.

“At night you’d hear the squishers,” Varney said — vagabonds and would-be looters walking around the mostly dry Quarter whose shoes squished because they had walked through water to get there.

To scare off the squishers, the reporters in the darkened store would wait until they pressed their faces against the window, then “shove a flashlight in their eyes, so we could see them, but they couldn’t see us.” They left the store the next day after the owner decided that he had to get his family out of the city.

As the night deepens, a former Picayune writer who is now with the Wall Street Journal shows up at the house with a photographer, and we all fish beers out of the cooler, smoke and pass a bottle of rum around. As we chat about various news reports, I learn just how out-on-their-own the Picayune crew really has been. Those of us from outside — me, the Journal reporter and my driving buddy with the National Geographic credential — feed the TP crew days-old news about what is happening in the outside world, and offer them an old New Yorker and the previous day’s New York Times, which are received like bars of gold. I fish in my bag and hand them a sheaf of articles written about the Picayune over the past week, which I had read on the plane ride down to Baton Rouge. These, again, are regarded with a certain wonderment, but I get the feeling they’ll be tossed aside the next morning, once the group suits up and heads back out on the streets.

After a while, some of the reporters head out to another house a few blocks away to spend the night, but as long as the beer holds out the talk continues. Their faces are etched with mental and physical exhaustion, but no one talks of feelings or the psychic toll the disaster has taken. At one point Anderson, the restaurant critic, finishes eating a military MRE and looks around for the bottle of rum. “I need a digestif!” he exclaims.

I spend much of the night listening to Varney and Chris Rose, a longtime Times-Picayune columnist, as they wonder if some of the places in New Orleans that they love so much even exist any more.

It strikes me again, as it had earlier, that the reporters are stunned by each others’ stories of what they had seen that day. Things in New Orleans are so bad that even journalists returning from the wretched trenches with horrific stories are themselves shocked by each successive story they hear from a colleague.

The talk veers wildly, from a funny story to which everyone listens, to small, quieter, one-on-one conversations. Helicopters still buzz overhead, sweeping the streets with searchlights, as mosquitoes bite our arms. At one point the generator sputters out, and it seems no one has the energy to fill it back up with gas. The silence, without the generator, is dense, and after a while someone gets around to starting it back up.

In the middle of all this, Rose remembers that he had heard that a local radio station, WWOZ, had fled the city and set up shop somewhere nearby in order to keep pumping jazz into the battered Crescent City.

Rose grabs his laptop (which has a wireless card) and tunes in. Bending over the computer, staring hazily at the screen (which reads “WWOZ in Exile”) he says, to no one in particular, “WWOZ is back! At least that’s something. WWOZ. At least that’s something, man.”

And for this group of weary reporters, dedicated for days on end to recounting to the world the struggle of their own embattled city to rise from its fetid, watery grave, that was something.

Tomorrow: The media circus in New Orleans.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.