Each day and every week, a great mass of print journalism is produced in this country — something all too easy to forget when reading a mere sliver of that output in your local paper or scanning the links on your favorite blog. From that mass, the work of the country’s Big Five dailies is usually more than enough to keep us occupied in our pursuit of lively, helpful and quick media criticism.
At the same time, each week smaller papers across the nation quietly publish compelling, thought-provoking pieces of journalism, stories that inform and illuminate. But it’s nearly impossible to catch it all; even for those of us who cover the reporters who cover the news, time is often short. And so, in keeping with the season, we give to you our countdown of five excellent newspaper stories of 2005 that you might have missed (as we did, until now) — our way of focusing some attention on outstanding work done this year that was largely overlooked on the national stage.
From a gripping series in the St. Petersburg Times on the fallout of a hit-and-run accident to vivid, blood-strewn portraits of four Iraq veterans recovering from their wounds in Ohio, from the hidden destruction wrought by Hurricane Rita in rural Louisiana to a comprehensive examination of global warming in the Seattle Times, these five stories caught our eye.
5) A quiet picture of catastrophe
While it was Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath that shocked the nation and rightly grabbed the lion’s share of headlines this year, Hurricane Rita also took its toll on the Gulf Coast. For residents of Terrebonne Parish in southern Louisiana, the Houma Courier recently noted, it is the less-famed Rita that is “the stand-out of the 2005 storm season” after it “crept south of the Louisiana coast for days, pushing water up Terrebonne’s five bayous, topping every levee on the parish’s southern end and flooding an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 homes and businesses.”
One of journalism’s tasks is to shine a light on the forgotten, and the Courier’s Kimberly Solet performed that job well with her Sept. 29 report, “Rita deals Pointe-aux-Chenes a catastrophic blow.” Nearly a week after the storm, when no relief agency or help had arrived for the remote villages of Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles, Solet published a subtly powerful story about the despair and destruction residents there faced.
“[S]tagnant water still sits in most yards on this finger of land,” wrote Solet, “and for most the tedious ritual of cleaning up has just begun.” “We feel like we’ve been forgotten down here,” said 27-year-old mother Sandy Chaisson, starting over amidst the muck after losing her second home in three years to hurricane flooding. An excerpt:
The flight from low-lying communities battered by storms almost annually is evident in Pointe-aux-Chenes and the island to its west. A drive down the road with Sandy Chaisson is like stepping back in time, as the 1997 South Terrebonne High graduate points out blown-out homes abandoned by families long ago. There’s a vacant gingerbread house left to rot in the mud a decade or so ago, an elevated trailer gutted by drug dealers and wasting away, a brick home on a concrete slab with the windows blown out and few signs of life.
On Island Road, the only way in and out of Isle de Jean Charles, the widespread destruction is breathtaking. On one section of the street once populated by American Indian families such as Sandy’s mother, Velma Naquin, and Johnny’s mother, Mary Danos, five homes in a row are vacant, as if the people who lived in them up and left and never looked back. The island where native families settled centuries ago to take advantage of once-lush forests full of mink and muskrat and water brimming with shrimp, crabs and oysters is surrounded on all sides by the Gulf of Mexico, which creeps ever closer.
Rita wreaked such misery on this island of about 30 families that even Sandy Chaisson could not help but gasp when she drove her truck onto the muddy road curving through the neighborhood. Only a bomb dropped from the sky could cause such total wreckage, she said. Houses were ripped in half and ceilings torn open. Rotting horses were sprawled sideways on the levee. Residents walked in a quiet daze, barefoot and somber.
4) Waltzing in Memphis