Blogging a disaster
Several bloggers have emailed me asking for advice on covering Katrina. Here are some things I've learned so far.
Click thumbnails to view full-sized images.
1. Press passes are golden. Do whatever you can to get credentials. These little pieces of plastic are the keys to the city. Our press passes not only got us into New Orleans, they also got us floor access Governor Kathleen Blanco's State of the State Address at the State Capitol.
If worse comes to worst, exercise your First Amendment right to self-credential. That's what we did before we got more official press passes.
2. Gear is key. You will need a laptop, a wifi card, a digital camera, and an adaptor that allows you to draw power from the cigarette lighter of your car. Bring a power strip so that you can charge multiple devices simultaneously. If you have a spare moment in an airport, a restaurant, or anywhere else with power, consider plugging in your gear for a quick top-up. I used non-rechargable batteries for my digital camera, which proved to be a big mistake. Next time, I'm going to make room for the charger and use rechargeable batteries.
3. Try to work with a team you trust. I was really lucky to be with Bob Brigham, Macon Philips, and Kyle Shank. We were all newbies, but our enthusiasm was tempered by a certain amount of common sense.
By contrast, Bob and I didn't know the person we were working with on our final visit to New Orleans. Everything was great until we started surveying flood damage in a recently drained residential neighborhood.
Kyle, Macon, Bob, and I had an ironclad agreement that none of us would ever enter a flood-damaged structure without permission. It's trespassing, for one thing. Furthermore these buildings should be assumed to be structurally unsound--many houses are missing walls, some have collapsed entirely, and foundations have been submerged in corrosive floodwater for weeks. As if that weren't reason enough to stay out, some of these dilapidated structures are still inhabited by residents who shoot looters on sight, not to mention feral dogs, poisonous snakes, and even alligators.
We got out of the car to photograph the search and rescue markings on a house where we'd seen a dead body floating near earlier in the week. Notice the open door in right side of the image.
I was stepping back for a wider shot when our companion (a NON-BLOGGER who shall remain nameless) announced that she was going inside. Bob and I tried to discourage her, but she ran in anyway.
"Spot me!" she yelled as she disappeared into the moldy gloom, "I'm moving furniture."
This put me in an very awkward position. I couldn't just leave her in there, but I really didn't want to go inside. I heard scraping and thumping. She really was moving furniture! It occurred to me that she was also wearing shorts. I tried to think if we had a snakebite kit in the car. Do flare guns scare alligators?
I stood on the threshold, peering into the house. This is what was sitting just inside the door:
At that point, I decided I had a moral obligation to go in and tell her that she was being a fucking idiot and that I was walking back out again in two seconds, with her or without her.
I wish I'd never gone in there. It was like the room had been randomized. The water must have poured in awfully fast to flip wing chairs and sofas. I took a few steps into the building hoping that my colleague had enough sense not to go into the basement. I passed a fully packed suitcase popped open on the living room floor. The flood water appeared to have dissolved the family computer. An armoire was listing heavily and I feared it might tip and break the window.
The smell was overwhelming and the carpet squished under my boots. More thumping and scraping.
"We've got to get out of here!" I yelled, unwilling to venture any further into this mess.
"What's the matter? Does it bother you to be in here? Is it the smell?"
"It's not safe in here. We could get arrested or shot."
Suddenly Bob started honking the horn furiously.
She sighed and said, "If you're not comfortable with this, I don't expect you to be here."
She didn't have to tell me twice. It was no longer my problem.
Now I just had to walk back through the house and out the door. I was scared because I couldn't figure out why Bob kept honking like that. Was he trying to warn us to stay out of sight? Were there cops or soldiers outside? I stood absolutely still in the foyer, trying to peer out the door without drawing attention to myself. After a few seconds, I made a break for it.
As soon as I got out the door, I saw what was worrying Bob. A huge feral dog was growling and circling erratically in the front yard. We'd seen this dog before, several blocks away and he seemed to have followed us here. Bob carefully drove between me and the dog so that I could jump into the passenger's seat.
When our colleague finally emerged smeared with green slime, she didn't share our sense of urgency with regard to the possibly mad dog. She wanted to take his picture.
I'm sure she got some good shots in that house, but I never want to see any of them.