Putting aside reporter’s notebook to help
The signs were foreboding enough.
One painted in colorful brush strokes designated the area a “media-free zone.” Another was spray-painted on the side of a house with the words “possible body” in the hasty code of the second responders who scoured New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in late 2005 as the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina receded.
When I visited Common Ground’s Blue House on the Lower Ninth Ward’s Derbigny Street in late May, the first person I met was Carol Campbell, the self-described “mother” of the relief camp where community members came to borrow tools for the long haul of rebuilding houses that sometimes resembled twisted heaps of matchsticks, and sometimes remained partially in the street after being set down by the flood surge after the breach in the nearby Industrial Canal.
As I stood with my notebook fumbling for words to ask how residents might rebound, Campbell rattled off a grievous narrative of devastation, betrayal and clenched resolve that was hard at times for me to follow. I doubt if I was the first parachute journalist who had heard this presentation. I didn’t get much of it down, and when she was finished I was still bewildered by the Byzantine rules governing who could rebuild, who would need flood insurance and how high the new houses would have to be raised to meet city building code.
Then she asked me if I’d gotten what I needed and invited me to put some money in a large coffee can inscribed with the words, “Solidarity Not Charity.” Grudgingly and against my principles I dropped a stingy dollar in the can. It was a moment brimming with absurdity. The very exchange seemed to call into question the validity of my role as a reporter, while the message on the can seemed to starkly contradict its function.
In a word, I felt like a parasite. A common disaster tourist feeding on the adrenaline of shocking imagery and voyeuristic trauma.
Later, I felt slightly guilty when I passed on a chance to help a gutting crew tear out sheetrock and insulation from mold-damaged homes so I could hang out at a Common Ground base camp and take advantage of a wireless connection to study the New Orleans municipal election returns.
When terrorist planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001, I covered Lower Manhattan on foot jotting down the details of that cataclysm in my notebook. It sounded silly to me when other journalists spoke of their desire to put aside their reporting and join the rescue effort. Journalism is our contribution, I reasoned. The firefighters, EMTs and cops are trained to crawl into the wreckage, save lives and recover the dead. It’s not as if they’re not trying to put together a story.
I’ve learned the roles are not always so neatly cleaved.
Four years later it should have been predictable that with news organizations defying local and federal authorities to get into the Katrina disaster zone in August 2005 the cameramen, photographers and writers would be some of the first people who encountered those stranded in their homes in New Orleans after the storm.
“So we were in our little boat and people were yelling, ‘Help us! Help us! Our grandparents are in here!'” NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado tells Douglas Brinkley in his formidable book The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Coast. “We went up to a house, we videotaped, and we helped the elderly into our boat. We were like, ‘Oh my God, now we’re caught up in rescuing.’ And I’m sitting in the boat thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I have to videotape or I have to rescue?'”
The choice could be especially tough when federal officials were denying the very chaos that Zumbado was witnessing firsthand.
Later in that first week Zumbado took his video camera to the Morial Convention Center and filmed elderly New Orleanians confined to wheelchairs gasping for oxygen from empty canisters, diabetics pleading for insulin, bathrooms overflowing with feces, bloodstained stairs and flies buzzing around babies. People at the Convention Center demanded to know why he was taking videotape instead of helping them.
It was an important record of an unfolding reality that sadly went unheeded for too long.
The next day Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told National Public Radio’s Robert Seigel: “Actually I have not heard a report of thousands of people at the Convention Center who don’t have food and water. I can tell you specifically the Superdome, which was the designated staging area for a large number of evacuees, does have food and water.”
Over the past three months of writing about the aftermath of Katrina and reading the accounts of many others, I have helplessly fallen for the communities of the Gulf Coast. I received a healthy chunk of extra cash from the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham for a freelance story I wrote about Katrina-related corporate profiteering (which you can read in this publication thanks to a salutary content sharing arrangement). It’s only natural that I’m trekking down to the Gulf Coast this week.
I’ll be spending 10 days at Camp Coast Care, a Lutheran and Episcopal relief camp in Long Beach, Miss. For me, putting away my notebook will be a much-needed break. It will be an honor to swing a hammer alongside the resilient people who have survived the storm and are still struggling to rebuild their homes a full year after Katrina arrived on our national doorstep.
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