Mike Keller on Dancing With Katrina

When Mike Keller graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in May, he figured that, like most rookie reporters, he would have to start off covering mundane municipal meetings or arranging “grip ‘n grin” photos for the inside pages of a small newspaper. Maybe someday, if luck and talent coincided, he would move on to larger stories and a larger audience. It didn’t work out that way. Just six weeks after he started his first reporting job, at the Knight Ridder-owned Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi, Keller found himself, quite literally, in the eye of the storm. By choice, he was one of only four reporters at the Sun Herald who chose to ride out the storm in the newsroom, so that he could hit the ground and start reporting as soon as winds slackened. Keller, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was not unfamiliar with what a powerful storm could do. But he’d never had to cover one as a journalist.

Gal Beckerman: What kind of conversation was going on in the newsroom before the storm hit? You must have been nervous as a rookie reporter …

Mike Keller: They started doing emergency newsroom all-hands-type meetings. At the first one they were telling us to get prepared in the event that the hurricane comes ashore and that we had to figure out where we were going to go — this was the Saturday before the storm. The storm started coming ashore Sunday evening.

GB: What were the instructions to you as reporters? Was there a sense that you were going to try and continue business as usual or that this was going to shut you down?

MK: They made a plan — being in this area, they’ve had to deal with this before. They had an emergency office set up in Columbus, Georgia and they were intending to basically not stop producing papers and, of course, keep the online version going. By that Saturday meeting, the storm had turned into a category five. It was big and it was dangerous. That Saturday meeting was, “Everyone needs to consider their own safety first. We’re not going to tell you to stay around. If you need to go, you need to go. Because this is not going to be a safe place.”

GB: And what happened at that point? Did certain people take off?

MK: At that point, everybody took off. It wound up being me and another Columbia Journalism School graduate, and two other senior reporters who stayed. Everyone else left. We pretty much hunkered down in the newsroom.

GB: What made you decide to stay?

MK: The fact the once this thing came ashore, I knew what was going to happen afterwards. I knew that once that thing went through, if you could get [back] in a day or a day-and-a-half afterwards, you were lucky. So, it’s basically, we’ve got to cover the story.

GB: Was this also a chance for you to shine a little bit?

MK: Oh, absolutely.

GB: That sounds a little opportunistic the way I put it. But here you are, you’ve only been there for six weeks, and this is a chance to really sink your teeth into a [huge] story and you might be the only one around.

MK: I had always been drawn into journalism number one, to tell a story, telling a story to people who don’t have the information and don’t know the story, bringing them into it. But also, I always wanted to go into places where this type of stuff happens and report on it. Not as a parachute-in-type person. This was exactly how I wanted to do it. This was the chance to test my mettle. Whether I was full of shit, basically.

GB: Were you scared, though?

MK: It didn’t start really getting nerve-wracking until the full brunt started coming ashore.

GB: So you’re hunkered down in the newsroom. What was it like, physically?

MK: The newsroom is located about a quarter-mile [inland] from the Gulf. So we were basically looking down the pipe of it. This building was built after Camille, in 1969, and that was the biggest storm that this coast had seen. So they built it out of what I think is slab-concrete. Very bunkerish. But the [outside] air pressure was so low as the hurricane came over, you could feel it kind of sucking the roof up a little bit.

When they put these slab-concrete buildings together they put in expansion joints for humidity and high winds so that it gives a little bit. I went to sleep under my desk in the newsroom as the hurricane was coming ashore, and by about three, four in the morning, you could just hear the expansion joints just kind of expanding and contracting. And you could hear the changes in pressure above the roof going up and coming down. So there was a little bit of a thudding and popping. And then if you looked outside — we had these little slit windows — about seven, eight o’clock in the morning on Monday is when hurricane-force winds started. Up until that point we were going outside, venturing out a little bit. If you would have gone outside at this point and something would have hit you — with winds at about 130 miles per hour, sustained — it would have cut you right in half. As the hurricane was happening, it was just hunker down and hope to the gods that this roof sustains. …

GB: And when it did finally calm down enough to go outside, you were one of only four reporters in Biloxi.

MK: Yeah, the four of us, and this one Reuters photographer.

GB: Did the paper come out the next day?

MK: I don’t think we had a Monday paper — because there was no one to bring it to. At the point when the hurricane was kicking, you could feel that it was a survival moment. You were on your own. I went to sleep the night before with the police scanner on next to my head, listening to the people. And the cops and the firefighters were just tapering off. Every once in a while, a Gulfport police department guy on the road would call in when the wind was starting to come in, and they would report when the roads would start submerging — it would be like, “Highway 90 at Calamaran Road impassable. The ocean’s coming over the road now.” And then there would be no more sound. It would be just dead police scanner time. And you don’t usually hear dead police scanner time.

GB: So what did it look like when you started wandering around outside?

MK: A lot of the things reminded me of the pictures I would see of Sarajevo after World War II. Everything was just destroyed. Right across the street from us was the local broadcast station. Early on, when the winds started coming, I heard this crackling and these big sheets of tin start flying, high up in the air, and they basically started landing in our parking lot. And then this fuzzy yellow stuff starts flying across it at eighty miles an hour. … [I]t was the roof and the insulation of the TV station. The TV station was basically ripped in half. I could see across to the station and their broadcast antenna tower just crumbled to the ground. There was really not that much reporting to do initially. It was all kind of first-person.

GB: Because there was no one around?

MK: Exactly. And people that were around were, basically, looting.

GB: Was it just as bad in Biloxi as in New Orleans?

MK: People weren’t shooting each other. I walked over with another reporter to what used to be a strip mall, about a half-mile from here. Gale-force winds were still blowing. Power lines were down everywhere. There were trees down. There were roofs blown off. There were cars that had floated up and been deposited on train tracks. And people were already running back with bags of liquor. And some guy had six pairs of sneakers. It wasn’t like people were looking for trouble, they just saw an opportunity.

GB: What kind of stories did you write in the beginning? What did those stories look like? Just descriptions of what you were seeing?

MK: Exactly. Just first-person. We went to make sure our cars were okay. There was a curfew and we ran into a cop who didn’t seem concerned with the looting, but told us, “Everyone needs to get off the streets, now.” And that’s mainly what the first day of reporting was like. What we saw, what we were experiencing. And besides that, there was zero communication. Most of the police and fire departments lost all their communication.

GB: What did you feel about the kind of stuff you were producing once you were able to put it together?

MK: Once the emergency stage set in, it was search-and-rescue, the adrenaline of people needing to know the most basic information — this is where you get water, don’t drink the water or swim in the Gulf — all this basic community service. Is that the kind of stuff I aspired to write, trying to be an artist as a writer? No. But is it more important? I think five hundred percent more important than crafting a good story that people like. And the fact also was that when we could get on the Internet, I was putting stuff on the blog. [Fellow Columbia grad Josh Norman and I] started almost a diary of the event and a little bit of “let’s have an adventure.”

GB: And a chance to write stuff that couldn’t get in the paper?

MK: Exactly. And also stories that didn’t require reporting, that were just first-person. This is what I feel, this is what I see. But after the storm, [as] we started seeing posts of people looking for relatives or people who fled the area and wanted to see if their lives still existed down here, that blog took a whole different turn. We were also seeing complete and total destruction. So the adventure part is still there, but it was not appropriate to be talking about it.

They are talking now 200-plus dead in Mississippi. That number is nothing compared to what it’s going to be. I was looking for shrimpers and oystermen today who got hit by the hurricane and we were back in the bayous. The stink of rot was just overpowering, and it was not the stink of garbage …

My stories have not been focusing on the dead, though. Mine are providing for the living. Trying to give people information, telling them about their neighbors, letting them what’s going on a municipal, state, national level.

GB: I’m curious what you thought of how the national media covered the story?

MK: I’ve seen about five minutes of CNN since this all started. I know just from that, that for a little while they were down here, because the magnitude of the complete devastation was amazing. And then they all shifted to New Orleans. You could feel the change. The media can’t focus on the absolute width of this destruction, because it’s complete from west of New Orleans into Alabama. That’s a big swath of land. It’s a little sad, because here is not getting any coverage, and here is bad, too.

GB: Did J-School prepare you for this past week?

MK: I don’t know if I’m one of the few, but I had a great experience at J-School and I think it did prepare me. I’m the type of person who can thrive in this type of environment. Sick as it is to say, I enjoy this type of environment, where it’s just pure chaos all around and you are just trying to filter things out and make things logical. That’s my thing. J-School prepared me with the tools to be able to try and do that filtering as soon as my feet hit the ground and it was time to report. Those tools, I’m using. I don’t know if I’m using them effectively or successfully, but I’m applying them.

GB: But you probably didn’t anticipate, going to work at a small paper in Biloxi, that you were going to be in that kind of chaotic situation that you have to kind of suffer through.

MK: No … But this experience has sealed for me this idea of being not just an information gatherer and disseminator, but a storyteller. Because after a little while people don’t want to just know the numbers, they want a story about their neighbor, they want to feel it. …

GB: Has it changed your relationship with Biloxi itself? Because you came there as an outsider and now you experienced this with them.

MK: I would say it did. My typical greeting before this when I would meet somebody was, “Hey, how you doin’?” and within hours of seeing the total destruction it seemed like a stupid question. And these are my neighbors. Right now we’re all in the same boat, and I don’t ask that question any more. Right now it’s “How you holding up?” or “Do you need anything? What hurts?”

I’m fortunate. I don’t own anything — just my computer and my car and a few plastic seats that I sit on in my house. And there is the realization that I, who had nothing to lose, didn’t lose my house. And then there must be five or ten people in this newsroom, whose whole lives are here, and their houses are in the Gulf of Mexico. Everything that they own. They’ll walk in here after going back to where they used to live and they’ll have a single photograph, and I’ll ask if they need help picking up the other stuff and they’ll say, this is it.

GB: [I’m told] that’s you in the picture of someone mooning the hurricane. You know, that’s all over the Internet.

MK: I had friends call me from all over saying, “Number one, nice ass. Number two, nice gut; stop drinking beer.”

GB: Did you know your photo was taken?

MK: I had gone out there to do it for the blog. It came from this place of telling the hurricane, “You might kill me, but right now, fuck you. I laugh at your power.” But the problem was that I brought people out there to do it and to get everybody’s mind off things. I drop my pants. There is stuff flying everywhere. Hurricane winds are almost starting up. And I look over to the left and this Reuters photographer, who had been hunkering down with us, had snuck out in the loading bay where they keep the newspapers, and was taking shots. He didn’t have anything to put on the wires because there was nowhere to go at that point.

Before I knew it, he was captioning the picture and sending it out.

GB: What’s the situation at the paper now?

MK: Knight-Ridder has been doing a great job. Basically from the day after, they were ferrying stuff in. Things are starting to pick up now. There was no gas, there was no water, there was no food, so they brought that all in and also started bringing other news people in to pick up the slack. And now half the parking lot is closed off because Knight-Ridder has put fifteen RV’s there for people who lost their houses. It’s not great, but it’s shelter. So Knight Ridder gets mad props.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.