By Michael Perlstein ’84, New Orleans Times-Picayune
As the body count rose with Katrina’s flood waters, each of us reached our own point of psychic overload, that inevitable moment when the ruination of our city became too much to bear.
Brian, the Times-Picayune’s hard-charging investigative reporter fresh from Iraq, broke down when a building collapsed in front of him as he took a cigarette break. Terri, our editorial page editor, cried quietly as we returned from the field with experiences that seemed too intimately tragic to reduce to standard news stories.
For me, the emotional needle jumped into the red when I bumped into New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass, a man I knew well, a friendly adversary for several years on my beat as the paper’s criminal justice reporter.
We were in front of the Convention Center, where more than 15,000 people plucked from rooftops and foul water endured a second round of hell waiting for water, food, and rescue buses. When I caught up to him, Compass was charging toward the valet parking apron in front of Harrah’s Casino, the makeshift command post established after police headquarters flooded.
I grabbed him by the shoulders: “Hey chief,” I said. The red-eyed, adrenalin-stoked police chief embraced me in a back-thumping hug. “It’s going to be all right, man,” he said. “We’ll get through this.” I’m not sure precisely which accumulated fears and sorrows triggered my reaction, but I began sobbing. He started crying too, and there we were, alpha dog of a gritty urban police department and veteran hard-news reporter, weeping openly in front of thousands.
Then I pulled out my notepad. My questions may not have been articulate, but I walked away with an exclusive interview of a key figure in the nation’s worst-ever natural disaster. (I would ride another twist in the roller coaster with Compass two weeks later, when the mayor unexpectedly forced him to resign.)