reed magazine logowinter2006

Covering Katrina

On Covering a Silent City...

By Robert Smith ’89, National Public Radio


new orleans resident
Robert Smith interviews a recently returned New Orleans resident several weeks after the storm.

When the water receded from the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, the searchers went in—National Guard units looking for the dead, and journalists like me looking for their stories.

The ground was still covered with tar-colored sludge, and I wore the uniform of the paranoid reporter: forest green waders, purple latex gloves, and a pink dust mask. I held my microphone up at shoulder level, away from the mud spray that my boots were kicking up, but I wasn’t recording anything. Gentilly was absolutely silent.

I waded for blocks before I saw any signs of life. On a median strip, two cops from New Jersey were shuffling a stack of computer printouts and pointing at the houses. Officers Rich Wheels and John Palasits were responding to 911 calls from the night the levees failed. Palasits ran his finger down the list. An elderly woman trapped in her attic; a mother with two kids; the Children’s Hospital reporting that looters had busted in. Now, three weeks late, help had arrived. Wheels said he knew he wasn’t going to find anyone alive. But he wanted to go home saying that he tried, that every call got answered—eventually.

As I sloshed away, I realized we were in the same business: searching for an end to the story. Not one of us was here in this neighborhood the night the waters rose. Not the police, not the federal government, not the network journalists. Now we were all just playing catch-up.

The day after New Orleans flooded, I was part of the NPR team dispatched to the Gulf Coast. My job was to wait in Houston for evacuees to trickle in. We couldn’t have imagined that more than a quarter of a million people from Louisiana would eventually move through the city. We didn’t even believe the stories when we heard them.

They began to arrive in the parking lot of the Astrodome in the dark, early-morning hours. A group of teenagers pulled up in a stolen school bus. Another family pushed a stroller filled with diapers and t-shirts. Some had driven out of New Orleans, others had hitch-hiked. As reporters, we would crowd around every new arrival to hear the details of their escape. A man told us how he put his three kids on an air mattress and pulled them through the murky water. A teenager with gold teeth and a do-rag told us about shoving two basketballs under his t-shirt so he could float away.

It seemed impossible. How could this many people have all had such heroic escapes from disaster? As reporters, we became skeptical. We’d grill the evacuees over and over, looking for details that changed. I would pull a father aside for an interview and a TV reporter would speak to his wife. Then we’d compare their stories. They always matched.

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