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.)