Another New Orleans tragedy

by Brian Clarey

On Aug. 29, 2005, I came to work with a searing hangover. I started drinking the night before, a Sunday, after making some calls to friends down in New Orleans who were waiting for Hurricane Katrina to come smashing through the city. My friends were scared. Some had split for safe haven — Shreveport, Little Rock, Houston — but most chose to stand their ground. Before Katrina, New Orleanians never liked to leave town for hurricanes. It showed weakness, a lack of faith in the city to take care of its own. And usually some pretty great parties went down as the storms tore up the skies. But everyone down there knew that the city was just one good storm from extinction, that if a hurricane ever got into the mouth of the Mississippi River, storm surge would spill over the seawalls and levees, filling the city like a soup bowl. That’s not exactly what happened. Katrina never made it to the mouth of the river, and the levees were not topped but simply crumbled under the onslaught. But the end result was pretty much the same. Still, by the time I got to work early that Monday morning, sweating out whiskey and fear, things were okay. The storm has passed, and the few folks I had managed to get on the phone reported more damage than usual. They were tired, but relatively safe. Then the water started to rise. While Katrina still blew up in Slidell, water poured into New Orleans from breaches in the 9th Ward and out by Lake Pontchartrain. I had deadlines to meet that day, but I became frozen to my computer, following the latest reports from the streets, scrolling through pictures of flooded neighborhoods, places where I had lived, drank and loved. I saw a man using a big piece of Styrofoam to float down Canal Street. I saw inmates from Orleans Parish Prison cuffed together on a dry stretch of the elevated interstate. I saw refugees in the Superdome, floating bodies in the Lower 9th, looters and police on Tchoupitoulas Street. All of these images came courtesy of, the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and I looked at them for hours, with tears in my eyes as I watched my city drowning. I couldn’t reach any of my friends by telephone or e-mail — I didn’t yet know how to text; learning was one of the few positive things Katrina wrought — so at about 3 p.m. I left my office, drove home and went to bed. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’m going through a similar wave of despondency today as, down in New Orleans, another wave of destruction threatens the future of my favorite city. This time the information comes from the Gambit, the altweekly where I got my start in this business. Editor Kevin Allmann is chronicling the bloodbath that followed a decision by parent company, the newly formed NOLA Media Group, to cut the paper back to three days a week, trim staff and concentrate on the website — even though 36 percent of the city is without internet access. I never worked for the Pic during my time in New Orleans, knew very few of its reporters, but the paper was omnipresent, part of the fabric of the city, and I made sure to have copies laying around in the bars I tended, where barflies would pull it apart and digest its contents during afternoon drinking sessions. I’d read it in coffee shops, pick up spare sections on the streetcar on my way to the French Quarter, look over the Saints prospects for the following Sunday or brush up on the latest murder or scandal. The paper — and its reporters — were everywhere in that place. They laid off half the newsroom today, 84 of the 169 people who covered the most corrupt, crime-ridden, culturally rich and fascinating city in the country — hundreds of cumulative years of institutional knowledge unceremoniously wiped out like the St. Thomas Projects. Greed drove the decision, of that I’m sure. And the ham-fisted execution of the plan is not unlike the ineptitude displayed after Katrina, when the bodies piled up at the convention center and relief was nowhere in sight. Like the aftermath of Katrina, this is a man-made disaster, a short-sighted reaction to a very real problem; its victims include every New Orleanian who will not be able to keep tabs on their elected officials, learn about the wonderful events that happen just about every day, understand the different corners of the city or even keep tabs on their beloved Saints — the new paradigm cuts out the Monday paper, which during football season had a comprehensive breakdown of the previous day’s game. After Katrina hit, the band of reporters from the Times-Pic who stayed behind to cover the carnage became heroes in this industry, getting a paper out every day — albeit an electronic version for the first three days — and using the tools of journalism to help support a city that had been brought to its knees. Now it’s the Times-Pic itself that has been laid low. And I’ll say the same thing now as I said back when New Orleans nearly got wiped out by disaster and ineptitude: The city deserves better than it got.