Over lunch on Wednesday at a restaurant in the eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge (a city of 277,000 whose population has swelled by 250,000 since the hurricane), Kovacs recounted how he and his staff escaped their office on Howard Avenue in New Orleans Tuesday morning, after a harrowing night during which the water slowly crept up the front steps of the building. After deciding early in the morning that the water was going to keep coming and that to stay was to put everyone in danger, management wrangled up newspaper delivery trucks to ferry reporters and editors from the loading docks to safety.
Leaving didn’t come without its own worries, according to Kovacs. He remembers thinking at the time that the decision to leave the city would “go down in history as either an act of genius or one of complete cowardice.”
We can answer that question. Since the entire staff made it out alive, since they are daily turning out top-notch journalism that is the envy of editors and reporters for far larger news outlets, and since readership numbers for the paper’s now-famous site, NOLA.com, have soared — Editor & Publisher reported on Friday that the Web site has received over 200 million page views over the past week and a half, or about 15 million a day, up from the 800,000 per day pre-Katrina — it seems safe to say that the decision to move to higher ground but keep publishing was indeed “an act of genius.”
Consider an excerpt from just one story from the Times-Picayune front page of last Thursday. And admire the density and intimacy of detail, not to mention the felicity of the telling:
Makeshift militia patrols Algiers neighborhood
Armed to the teeth, but they haven’t fired a shot
By Susan Langenhennig
Just after dusk on Tuesday night, with the rumble of helicopters and airplanes still overhead, Gareth Stubbs took his spot in a rocking chair on the balcony of an Algiers Point house, a shotgun, bottle of bug spray and a can of Pringles at his feet.
It was night No. 9 of his vigil, the balcony turned into a makeshift watch tower, with five borrowed shotguns, a pistol, a flare gun, an old AK-47 and loads of ammunition strategically placed next to the blankets and pillows where Stubbs, Vinnie Pervel and Gregg Harris have slept every night since Hurricane Katrina slammed into Southeast Louisiana.
When the Times-Picayune first decided to abandon its New Orleans building on that frantic morning of August 30, the initial plan was for everyone to be trucked a few miles out of the city to the paper’s West Bank office, but, like all emergency plans, there was a glitch. After bumping and sloshing through the deepening water to reach the far side, the convoy somehow got separated, (stories differ as to how, why and when), and in the end one group ended up in the town of Houma, with the rest going to LSU. At the same time, there were still reporters stuck inside the city who were unaccounted for. And, as soon as the main group got out, a small number of them decided to turn around and plunge back into the chaos for the simplest of reasons — to report to the outside world what was happening in a city become a watery graveyard.
It’s hard not to recognize this as pure journalistic instinct at its finest. At no point during this whole ordeal has the Picayune staff abandoned their posts. During the storm itself, the paper continued to post on its NOLA.com site right up until employees ran out of their office on Tuesday morning and piled into the backs of trucks that usually hold newspapers, not human beings. And as soon as they were out, they began strategizing about how to get their stories to the public. The edition planned for Wednesday was never printed (the presses were out and new ones hadn’t been found yet), but was posted on the paper’s site as a PDF, just as Thursday’s was.