“Prophet of Katrina” stays put

Times-Picayune’s ace environment reporter sticks with Nola Media Group

The man The New York Times called “a prophet of Katrina’s wrath” for his prescient coverage of New Orleans’ vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding has decided to stick with the city’s beleaguered newspaper.

On Tuesday, Mark Schleifstein, the Times-Picayune’s environment reporter for the last 28 years, accepted a job offer from the new Nola Media Group, which was formed in the wake a decision to cut the daily paper’s staff (by about 200 thus far) and reduce publication to three days a week. In an update on his Facebook page, Schleifstein wrote:

The decision to stay was difficult for many reasons, including my own anger at how the announcement was made (or not made) of the decision to move to 3-day-a-week publication of The Times-Picayune and the creation of the new/revised online presence, and my continuing concern about whether employees of the new entities will have any say in their direction, development.

That being said, however, at this time in my own career and in the post-daily paper life of New Orleans, I felt that I owe a responsibility to our community to attempt to continue to provide them with quality coverage of the environment, the area’s levee system and hurricanes.

The community should be happy about that. Three years before Katrina devastated the city, Schleifstein and his colleagues at the Times-Picayune tried to sound the alarm in a series called “Washing Away,” which warned:

It’s only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.

When the forecast proved correct, and the waters rose, Schleifstein was one of many fearless reporters who dug in to cover New Orleans’ plight and, eventually, its restoration. In 2006, he shared a Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news reporting and public service for the Katrina coverage (which New York University included in a list of the top ten works of journalism of the decade).

In the seven years since disaster struck, Schleifstein has continued to track the region’s turbulent recovery. In 2007 and 2008, he worked on two multimedia series about the fight to save Louisiana’s disappearing coast, and in 2010, he told me that there wasn’t a week that went by without a story about construction of The Crescent City’s $15 billion levee system, designed to protect the metropolitan area from storms that have a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.

The focus for the last two years has been the Times-Picayune’s award-winning coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, however, which released almost 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Tracking the aftermath of that catastrophe will continue to be a priority for Schleifstein.

“Most of my work will be oil spill stuff for quite awhile because of the upcoming trial, the damage assessment process, and the drip, drip, drip of research that keeps coming out about the effects of the spill,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

But the levee system, comprising over 130 miles of walls, gates, and pumping stations, is an ongoing concern. The Army Corps of Engineers recently installed the last blocks of the protective ring, which The New York Times called “a vast civil works project that gives every appearance of strength and permanence.”

Schleifstein agreed that the barrier is an “amazing” feat, but emphasized that it’s not a perfect shield. While the levees are more resilient than before, a big enough storm surge could still push water over the walls, and residents still might have to evacuate if a Category 3, or even Category 2, hurricane were bearing down on the city. More importantly, Schleifstein knows from experience, there’s the unexpected.

“When people ask me, ‘Didn’t you predict Katrina?’ I answer, ‘No, I didn’t. I predicted what could have happened if a catastrophic event had hit us. But Katrina was not a catastrophic hurricane the way it hit New Orleans,” with only Category 1 or 2 winds, Schleifstein said. “People are still at risk and somebody needs to be pointing that out on a routine basis.”

And that’s just he plans to do. From what Schleifstein understands of the chaotic situation, his assignment will remain basically the same, although he’ll probably have more to cover. Colleagues such as Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, who wrote about the chemical industry and covered fisheries in the Gulf, did not receive job offers from Nola Media Group.

“I just don’t understand a lot of these moves,” Schleifstein said. He added that he is entering the new venture with his “eyes open,” and hoping something good will come of the focus on online coverage. But his frustration was clear. In The Big Easy, this isn’t an easy time.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,