From Baghdad to New Orleans

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By: Joe Strupp

Sig Christenson knew his many years covering floods and hurricanes would help him make sense of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, as he drove in a company-issued SUV from the San Antonio Express-News toward New Orleans with photographer John Davenport.

But when the veteran reporter arrived at The Big Easy on Aug. 31, two days after the storm ravaged the city, he soon realized the scene was more reminiscent of those he had covered in Iraq during three stints as a combat correspondent. “It was a war zone,” Christenson, who remains the paper’s military reporter, said a few days after returning home from the battered city. “The town was empty, there were buildings on fire and no civil authority ? and there was violence.”

Christenson, 48, gained prominence in the national news world as president of Military Reporters and Editors. Since 2002, the organization has made a name for itself as both a defender of Iraq war coverage and an advocate for better Pentagon-press relations.

During that time, Christenson traveled to Iraq three times ? first as a U.S. Army embed when the invasion began, then twice more in non-embed roles that took him from Baghdad to Tikrit over a total of five months. When he and Davenport drove into New Orleans on their second day in the area, the sights, sounds, and pleas for help mirrored Iraq all too closely.

“The first thing was, we attracted crowds, and that really reminded me of Iraq,” Christenson said, recalling the scene about a block north of the New Orleans convention center, where journalists were approached by those begging for everything from food to a ride out of town. Some even asked reporters to take their children to safety. “American reporters in Iraq always attracted a crowd.”

Christenson flashed back to the scene in 2003 when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell and locals gathered outside the Palestine Hotel, where many reporters still live. “There were thousands of Iraqis with no food, no power and no fuel,” he said. “They just wanted you to help them. The people in New Orleans were doing the same thing, wanting to survive.”

Spending most of his five days in the hurricane-damaged area near the convention center, Christenson found similarities to Iraq in everything from the lack of working toilets to the occasional dead body in the roadway. “There were no clouds in the sky, either. The only clouds were like those in Iraq ? clouds of smoke from fires,” he recalled. “We also had to watch our car very closely. A car was a ticket out of Baghdad ? and New Orleans.”

When the veteran war reporter found himself having to dictate stories over the phone due to a lack of a laptop on the flooded streets, it reminded him of having to file stories on the field of battle. But in Iraq, he often had a keyboard and better communication connections.

Christenson also was never physically attacked in Iraq ? unlike in his own country. On his third day in the Crescent City, as he was filing a story via cell phone from the front seat of the SUV, a man jumped in and demanded the vehicle. After wrestling with the man, and later helping police take him in, Christenson realized the dangers of New Orleans were almost as bad as the Middle East.

“In Iraq,” he explained, “we would go into a firefight and I was pretty nervous, but I could always seek protection behind a big vehicle, a protected position.” Christenson adds that New Orleans dangers appeared less controlled: “I had to fight back in New Orleans, and it was hand-to-hand.”

The multitude of personal weapons also prevailed in both locations. “It seemed like everyone had a weapon in New Orleans, just as everyone had a weapon in Iraq,” he observed. “A lot of the people in New Orleans had broken into gun shops and stolen guns or knives.” Christenson himself used a pipe wrench he had found on the street to battle back his would-be carjacker.

One slight difference, the reporter found, was in the reaction from people on the streets. Residents
in both locations ? forced into despair, violence, and neglect not of their own making ? understood why the journalists were there and appeared to want to let them cover the events. However, he noted, the New Orleans victims were much more upset. “We had to convince them that we were just trying to tell people what they were going through,” he said about those he found on Bourbon Street, Canal Street, and other famed arteries.

Overall, Christenson contends the New Orleans scene was worse than Baghdad. Why? “Because this was America,” he said. “The government of the United States should be on the job. This should not have happened.” Some might argue that this is also the case in Iraq.

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