Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hurricane Media

December 13, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

It wasn't quite sunrise when I realized hundreds were here to write New Orleans' obituary.

That day, September 1, 2008, three hours until Hurricane Gustav was due, I slept little.

Outside, the wind blew back a reporter from the Weather Channel hoping for a live shot. Inside, I counted coins. Nickels first. I'd heard Katie Couric was staying in the same hotel. The only people in New Orleans, it seemed, were military and media. The military were necessary. The media, as I now reflect, I'm not so sure.

The previous 35 hours, we evacuated 18,000 New Orleanians on trains, planes and buses. Over 2 million fled the region. Officials estimated 5,000 people stayed in the City for Gustav. It's unclear whether they count about 1,000 media members.

They came from around the world. Reporters with notebooks. Cameras. Production teams. Microphones. As I watched them work, and read their words on blogs and websites-- while witnessing what they were witnessing--I wondered how many stared at hotel room walls, penciling out their yet to be printed versions of "Death of a City."

Most only knew two neighborhoods. The Lower 9th Ward and the French Quarter. Most tourists only know two neighborhoods too. Lakeview? Nah. Broadmoor? Forget about it. The difference between a breached levee and overtopping? Does it matter?

And, I guess, that's what bugged me most. Are journalists from New York or LA qualified to report events in unfamiliar territory? I went outside several times during Gustav. And I went back to my computer every time I came back inside.

And nearly every time, the national headlines read something entirely different than the reality I'd just experienced. But, I turned on the local radio and the local media and minus a few instances, I felt like they were getting it right.

There were not doomsday photos flying across the wire like the one of a nearly submerged stop sign near the industrial canal. If the photograph was taken by a local journalist, it would have been, with local knowledge, understood that the area off the St. Claude bridge floods with a hard rain.

I felt like the national media were willing a story that wasn't there.

At one point, however, in a sign of redemption, CNN actually started a live feed of a local television station. It seemed like a producer finally woke up and said you know what, somebody who lives in New Orleans should be our voice!

As it turns out, no obituary was written about New Orleans. In fact, I believe once the storm had passed and there was no turning back, the national media had to cover the positives of an historic and successful evacuation.

But I'll still remember feeling like a TV crew speaking Italian in a New Orleans bus depot as awkward and uncomfortable. So much so that I started taking pictures of the journalists. You see, the people who left with assistance have told their stories enough. They've spelled their names and the neighborhoods for the last three years.

Not much after one writer finished interviewing a man boarding a bus, I went up to him.

"What's your name," I said.

"Jerry," he said.

"Good luck."

Because sometimes, a notebook can be a scary thing.



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