Friday, May 12, 2006

The True State of NOLA

As published in The Washington Post

By Howard Kurtz
Sunday, May 7, 2006; Page B01

NEW ORLEANS I walked down the street next to a failed levee here the other day and saw house after house that had been pulverized by Hurricane Katrina. Eight months after the storm, and nothing, not a single cinder block, had been touched. An exterior wall of one home had been ripped away, revealing, amid the rubble, a sneaker, some batteries and a cardboard box for an NFL football. A thriving family once lived here, and in the next house, and in the house after that.

But it's old news, this tableau of destruction. Even if a reporter could track down the families on this block and recount each tale of woe, the camera lens would still be too close; it simply could not capture the magnitude of what happened to New Orleans last summer. And if you pull back the camera too far, you get those aerial shots we've all seen so many times, which provide a sense of the hurricane's scale but not of the human misery that each ruined home represents.

President Bush, who vowed in that floodlit Jackson Square speech last September that "this great city will rise again," was here again during my visit. But this time, aside from an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, the president's trip drew only modest coverage.

I understand why. Bush made no new proposals. He visited with residents and volunteers, and spent a few minutes helping with the construction of new housing. With no drama and no controversy, it was easy for the media to dismiss the trip as a photo op. The next day, the nation's front pages focused instead on rising gasoline prices, economic growth figures, the movie about United Airlines Flight 93 and a Spanish-language version of the national anthem.

We are in a short-attention-span business, always chasing the Next Big Thing, whether it's the Duke rape case or Patrick Kennedy's car crash. And eight months after wind, rain and floodwaters devastated this city, the media -- and perhaps a good chunk of the country -- are suffering from Katrina Fatigue.

Like many Americans, I've followed the Katrina story closely, but then tuned out for days when other news or the daily strains of life intervened. After eight months you assume they must be making some progress. Downtown and the French Quarter basically look fine; the worst damage by now must be limited to a few of the hardest-hit areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

But then you come here and see the devastation up close, and discover that things are far worse than you imagined. And you realize that, despite the millions of words and pictures devoted to the hurricane's aftermath, the normal rules of writing, photography and broadcasting are just not equal to the task.

When Katrina struck, television thrived on the dramatic footage of attempts to rescue thousands overwhelmed by water and wind or suffering under horrid conditions in such places as the Superdome. But the painfully slow reconstruction of a city taking place today doesn't yield great video; the absence of progress is the story. The 250,000 people who have been unable to return -- more than half the city's population -- are not easily available for interviews. And even if they were, I don't imagine producers getting terribly excited over displaced folks talking about having to stay in motels or trailers or with relatives.

Most of those left behind in the storm were poor and black -- "A National Shame," a Newsweek cover story declared last fall -- and it seemed, briefly, that we were on the verge of a national conversation about race and poverty. But it never materialized. And even though middle-class whites may have had the wherewithal to evacuate, many of the houses I saw in ruins clearly belong to them. But who wants to rebuild in a city with such spotty basic services and so many unanswered questions? And how do you cover this diaspora without bumping up against the limits of journalism?

We all have defense mechanisms to shield ourselves against tragedy overload. From the Asian tsunami to the Pakistani earthquake to the latest Midwestern tornadoes, it can be a bit much. Perhaps I believed that New Orleans must be making modest progress because it was comforting to think so, and besides, if it was still a huge, stinking mess, the media would tell us, right? But then I came here and encountered Ruel Douvillier.

I met the Fire Department captain because he was being interviewed by NBC's Williams, who was making his eighth trip here for a story that has become his cause. Douvillier has perhaps the most unenviable job around: He heads the search-and-rescue teams that, with the aid of sniffer dogs, go house to house, looking for victims of the storm who somehow still have not been discovered.

Two weeks ago, Douvillier found two brothers in the same house, casualties forgotten by time. And he believes there are many more. A dog led one colleague to an attic in the Lower Ninth Ward that contained a large, rotting fish, a sign that some of the remains may simply have washed out to the Gulf.

"We can't just shove somebody's grandmother in an incinerator or landfill," the Army veteran told me. "We're not going to let it happen here. You remind yourself that this is somebody's mother, father, brother, sister, and this person is important to someone."

Ride around the area and you find yourself staring in disbelief. Houses dented and bent and smashed like papier-m√Ęche, many marked with the ubiquitous blue FEMA spray paint, destined for demolition. Massive trees, uprooted and lying in front yards. Cars caked with dirt, trunk lids open, many stripped of tires. And the tires -- piles of old tires everywhere -- and waist-high weeds covering the front yards are silent markers of abandonment.

I met people with varying accents who were desperate to share their misery, frustrated by the lack of progress and feeling ignored by the rest of the country. A spunky lady named Carmen Morial said she had lost her home, her clothes, her car. She is 91.

The day after my visit to Lakeview, the close-in neighborhood near the damaged levee, I went to St. Bernard Parish. The car ride there featured mile after mile of strip malls, their stores rendered useless hulks by the hurricane. You can still see the bright logos: Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Office Depot, laundromats and chicken joints, still standing like archaeological relics. The storm destroyed just enough of these buildings to make them uninhabitable, but not so much that you can't see that they were once busy little places of commerce.

And further out in St. Bernard, a jaw-dropping sight: a large white shrimp boat with blue trim, called the Dolphin, that sits smack in the middle of a suburban street, listing to one side. It is said to be three miles from the waterway where once it sailed, when it had sails. I cannot envision the kind of winds that deposited it among the brick split-levels. It was a vivid backdrop for Williams's newscast, but again, one image, one street, one snapshot, merely begins to hint at the larger picture. It is journalism by metaphor, the haunting shot that must stand for the vast, unseen reality.

Across St. Bernard you see houses that are collapsed like accordions. You see holes in the roofs, where perhaps the residents escaped by helicopter. You see seaweed clinging to other roofs and no water line along the windows, which tells you that these entire blocks, this entire neighborhood, was utterly submerged.

And then there is the unsettling quiet. There is no one for miles around -- no traffic, no children, no dogs. The front yards of these upscale houses are now piled high with rubble, from slabs of plywood to mildewed rugs. Wherever you look, normal life has been obliterated. How does journalism convey that? How do you communicate that so many months later, vast swaths of a major American city remain paralyzed?

It is a depressing story, hardly a ratings grabber. It is like Iraq, day after day of numbing sameness: violence and suicide bombs there, a frozen-in-time lack of recovery here. Reporters like to cover tangible issues -- the battle over small-business loans, the race to buttress the levees, the failures of FEMA, the campaign for mayor, the first post-storm Mardi Gras. Everyone knows what happened to New Orleans; it is not new news.

But it is still news, if news is defined as a catastrophic event that alters a community and a country forever. Williams, dismissing some viewer complaints and nasty e-mail saying that he devotes too much air time to this city's struggles, stays on the case, as do a handful of other television and print journalists.

CNN's Anderson Cooper has been here several times, and ABC maintains a bureau for rotating correspondents. Major newspapers have devoted plenty of resources to the region. Since Jan. 1, the New York Times has run more than 110 news stories on New Orleans, the Los Angeles Times about 90, The Washington Post about 75, dissecting the current state of hospitals, schools, housing, even Cajun cooking and jazz.

But can anyone really say that New Orleans remains an urgent, top-of-the-newscast issue, that the recent coverage captures the raw emotion of a crisis that continues unabated? By and large, the plight of this crippled city seems to have become background noise.

Reporters by trade parachute into disaster zones, steeling themselves against sadness. You start out as a young scribe chasing car accidents and then graduate to plane crashes. Later you might find yourself in Oklahoma City or in Lower Manhattan, trying to chronicle the aftermath of a terrorist attack, or in Bosnia or Baghdad, filing dispatches about military conflicts. Then the war ends, the community rebuilds, and you move on. Collectively, we all move on.

That is not possible in New Orleans. Yes, many people are tired of the Katrina saga. In a world filled with problems large and small, in a business that gravitates toward the latest buzz, the up-to-the-minute news flash, that's easy to grasp. If people saw what I saw, however, they would understand why journalism's work here is not done -- not by a long shot.

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