Editors at APME Tour Katrina Devastation: Can’t Believe Eyes

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By: Joe Strupp

For most newspaper editors, the story of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath has been told via correspondents in the field, or Associated Press dispatches, with little first-hand experience of the devastation.

This week, as part of the Associated Press Managing Editors conference here, dozens of newsroom leaders from around the country have gotten their first looks at the still-recovering areas — from the shattered Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to the storm-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast ? via a series of bus tours sponsored by the Freedom Forum.

Utilizing the Newscapade coach bus, which former Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth made famous during his 2000 road tour to promote the Newseum exhibits, Freedom Forum hosts took groups of a dozen or so editors and others on four-hour tours each day this week through the most-damaged areas of southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

E&P tagged along on Friday?s tour, which for many in attendance was their first chance to look at the storm-ravaged areas that their newspapers have been covering for more than a year. With a heavy rain falling at some points, the tour took on a real storm-like image, offering at least a taste of what the mood must have been like on Aug. 29, 2005. One editor later said he was “totally blown away” by what he saw–pictures just don’t do it justice.

?I?m not sure people as far away as we are have grasped how little has changed, that this much devastation is still here,? said Judith Ettenhofer, managing editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis.

Loaded up bright and early at 8 a.m., the tour group included several Freedom Forum executives, as well as editors from Wisconsin to Utah. Fueled by coffee, muffins and assorted fruits in the camper-like coach, the group headed out north along Canal Street, just outside the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, which has hosted APME this week.

?I?ve seen Canal looking a lot better,? Tour guide and New Orleans native Sandra Epton told the editors as the coach rolled forward, passing several closed-up businesses and boarded-up buildings, just a few blocks from the French Quarter-based hotel. ?There is still a lot of work to be done. You could have waded through the water along Canal all the way to the [Mississippi] River.?

Water lines, many up to two and three feet high, were visible on passing buildings as the bus cruised north, then turned right on to Claiborne Ave., taking the group east toward the Upper Ninth Ward. Within just a few blocks, red X?s began to appear on buildings on both sides of the street, revealing the buildings had been searched. Dates also accompanied them, some as late as 9/11, or 9/12, indicating they had not been searched for up to two weeks after the storm.

The deeper the vehicle traveled into the poor residential areas, the more prominent the damage. Passing a closed donut shop and neighboring seafood place, the X?s and other spray-painted messages became more noticeable. Along with the dates were abbreviations ?TXO? and ?TFW? indicating some kind of search or inspection designation. Traveling on to North Robertson St., the first FEMA trailers appeared, many in the yards of still-damaged homes, while others were the only remnants of the buildings that were demolished.

?It goes on and on and on,? the guide said as the group passed some homes with ?For Sale? signs and leftover sprayed-painted messages indicating ?Food Drop? or ?Pet Drop.? Crossing railroad tracks that carry goods from the Port of New Orleans out to the nation, editors were fixed on both sides of the bus windows, as Epton described the neighborhood?s history dating back to the 1920s.

At one point, a positive sign emerged when the coach passed ?Musicians Village,” an eight-acre plot where some 60 new homes are being built by Habitat for Humanities. The houses, constructed on cinder blocks several feet off the ground, are being being in part with support from New Orleans? own Harry Connick, Jr, and Wynton Marsalis.

But, reality soon kicked in again as the group crossed the industrial canal bridge and, eventually, into the Lower Ninth Ward. Whole lots were empty, with just slabs of concrete where houses had been. On one spot, a wrought iron gate, mangled like a pretzel, is all that remains, while another lot has piles of debris.

?It is hard to process, a year later, that this was all a neighborhood,? said Rick Hall, managing editor for The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, who spoke while peering out the window to the Ninth Ward mess. ?The magnitude of the destruction and the difficulty of rebuilding, I don?t know how you capture that.?

Vernon Smith, deputy foreign editor for the Dallas Morning News, watched from the coach?s rear windows, with his eyes fixed on the passing, empty scene. He said nothing he has seen in the news in the past year compared with the upfront visual. ?All of the great photos that have been documenting the devastation just don?t do it justice,? he said. ?Seeing it for my own eyes just takes my breath away. That so much devastation could befall a city. I am totally blown away. I have a much better appreciation for the challenge.?

Smith said seeing how slowly the recovery has been, it is more important than ever that news organizations stay on the story. ?Our habit on a big story is to cover it intensely for a period, then move on,? he said of the news business in general. ?This is going to be a big story for the next decade.?

At one point, the bus rolled past music legend Fats Domino?s home and studio, where he had been unreachable in the first days after the hurricane. The yellow building, with ?FD? on front, appeared repaired, although a house next door had its roof collapsed.

Continuing onward, the group drove out of the Ninth Ward, through more streets with debris, lost buildings and garbage, and into Chalmette, La., where the guide claimed 99% of homes had been damaged. More FEMA trailers appeared, along with the first trailer parks comprised solely of the government-issued mobile homes.

?There was debris as high as this bus,? Epton revealed, noting that an oil spill during the aftermath added to the destruction. The group then crossed the five-mile bridge over Lake Ponchatrain and into Slidell, La., much of which was underwater post-hurricane after the lake overflowed, Epton said.

Once in Mississippi, specifically the gulf coast town of Pass Christian, the bus tour entered a more remote, wooded area where more FEMA trailers appeared and homes, many just smaller shocks, showed blown-off roofs, missing doors and, in some cases, completely lost structures. The Gulf of Mexico itself eventually appeared as the bus turned on to Highway 90, which took the editors through the towns of Long Beach and Gulfport, Miss.

Many of the beachfront mansions had lost roofs, missing columns and, in some cases, boarded-up windows. A long pier out in to the gulf had been partially swept away, while roadside businesses from a Rite Aid to a McDonalds were gone, leaving just signs and parking lots.

Ettenhofer, the managing editor of The Capital Times, spoke as she sipped bottled water and leaned on the bus?s leather sofa: ?It leaves you speechless. We all saw the photos, but to see how you go on with your life I can?t imagine.?

Terry Orme, managing editor for news at the Salt Lake Tribune, had a similar reaction. ?This gives me a perspective on what those people lost,? he said, noting his paper had done stories on about 200 refugees who had since settled in Salt Lake City. ?This is the other side of the story, where they came from.?

In Gulfport, the first signs of a truly recovering area along the tour appeared, with many vehicles traveling the downtown, pedestrians hustling and bustling, and numerous rebuilt homes and businesses. But, still, a number of boarded-up and trash-strewn sites also were included.

After three hours of travel, including a stop in the center of Pass Christian?s business district ? which included both a town hall and a bank located in trailers ? the bus headed back to New Orleans via I-10. Along the way, the guide played a video on the Newscapade monitor that offered images of the Mississippi gulf coast immediately after the storm, with accompanying jazz and other New Orleans music. For the next half hour or so, the group was nearly silent, as the images appeared, and the rolling highway outside passed by.

Re-entering New Orleans via I-10, the bus had one last passage through a storm-battered area of Chalmette, then North New Orleans, where boarded-up windows, battered fences and roofs, and debris appeared again. In one stretch, several entire shoppin centers sat closed or destroyed, including a large Wal-Mart.

?It is always better to have an eyewitness account,? Newseum Executive Director Joe Urschel said as the tour ended. ?It is more unsettling because it is real. It is not just a clip on television.?

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