Reporters dream about covering that really big story. And there can be no doubt that when it comes to big stories, Hurricane Katrina just may be the story of a lifetime for many journalists.
But especially for reporters on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, this big story is more nightmare than dream. Like everyone else on the Gulf Coast, where it is estimated that only one in ten homes escaped any damage from Hurricane Katrina, many reporters had flooding and/or lost their homes and automobiles.
Normally getting a ride in a helicopter as part of a story assignment would be considered a nice perk. But it didn’t work that way for the political editor of The Sun Herald, Geoff Pender, when he took a helicopter ride to survey damage after Katrina.
“I’ve flown in a helicopter from state line to state line, and those images will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Pender said in an article in The Sun Herald published September 6. I thought I was prepared. I was not. I broke down for a while when we hit the ground after the first trip. My mind couldn’t process the loss of life, the destruction.
“There are no words.”
In a piece published in her regular Sunday column space in The Sun Herald, city editor Kate McGandy said for the first 10 days after the storm, she stayed mostly in the office directing reporters and helping publish the paper each day since Hurricane Katrina hit. When she finally got out to see some of the damage, she was stunned.
“It just hurt my heart to see my hometown reduced to shattered lumber and shattered lives,” McGandy said. “Nothing can describe the heart-stopping realization that what you’re looking at was once a favorite restaurant, or a familiar route to the hair salon or even just the view of the beach. It’s all changed.
“And it will never look the same again. No amount of rebuilding, no amount of cleaning, can bring back the Coast to what it was before Katrina.
“ …seeing my home church reduced to some bent metal twisting in the warm Gulf breezes under a painfully blue sky is gut-wrenching. That pit-of-the-stomach sick feeling won’t go away.”
That inevitable fatigue
Another Sun Herald reporter, Joshua Norman, did a story, “Exhaustion puts all of us in peril,” that reflected what many people were feeling after two weeks of storm recovery work.
“I am exhausted and it shows,” Norman said. “There has been no moment since August 29 that I have not felt tired in some way. …My vision is sometimes blurry. I lose stuff while just sitting at my desk. I tell the same story twice.
“Worst of all, I have locked my keys in my car twice in the last five days, having never done so before. However, I discovered Thursday at the Gulfport Fire Station on 23rd Avenue that I am not alone.
“We’ve gotten more calls for people locking their keys in the car today than we’ve had in the last year,” said Kevin Bodiford, a Gulfport paramedic.
Norman went on to say that fatigue is inevitable after a major disaster, and gave recommendations from mental health professionals on how to deal with the stress.
‘Places I loved to go, are gone’
At The Mississippi Press, Gaylon Parker wrote a column about how he and his wife flew back from a trip to Chicago into the approaching hurricane in order to get home to their two children. It took them six hours to get from New Orleans to Ocean Springs, and then they went to Keesler Air Force Base where the roof was ripped off their shelter in places.
“Mine is just one of the thousands of stories you will hear for the next few years and thereafter,” Parker wrote. “My dad has encouraged me to catalog our experiences and keep them so Megan and Logan will know what we went through to be with them during North America’s worst natural disaster.”
Lance Davis, news editor at The Mississippi Press, wrote “An open letter to Hurricane Katrina” column where he said, “I hate you” to Hurricane Katrina five times.
“I hate you with every fiber of my body and ounce of my soul, you cold-hearted witch,” Davis wrote. “You have taken every good memory I have of the Gulf Coast and ripped them to shreds. You’ve turned all our lives upside down.
“…My childhood memories, the places I loved to go, are gone.”
Davis said that 13 of his fellow journalists at The Mississippi Press lost everything to the storm.
That, in a nutshell, says a lot about the local press coverage after Katrina. Many reporters and editors lost their homes and cars. But they still found a way to deliver the news, sharing their pain, anger and hope for the future rebuilding of their lives.
“Every year on August 29 we will remember you, Hurricane Katrina, but we will not pay tribute to you,” Davis wrote. “We will honor the courage, the determination and the spirit that makes us Mississippians, residents of the Gulf Coast, and survivors to the core.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.