Hard Truth in ‘The Big Easy’

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By: Joe Strupp

For most newspaper editors, the story of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath has been told via correspondents or Associated Press dispatches, with little firsthand experience of the devastation. But in late October, as part of the Associated Press Managing Editors conference, dozens of newsroom leaders got their first looks ? from New Orleans to the Mississippi Gulf Coast ? via a series of four-hour bus tours sponsored by the Freedom Forum.

For many, it was a chance to actually view the storm-ravaged areas about which their newspapers had been reporting for more than a year. “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 Judy Ettenhofer, managing editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis.

Loaded up bright and early at 8 a.m., the tour included several Freedom Forum executives, as well as editors from Wisconsin to Utah. Fueled by coffee and muffins in the camper-like coach, the group headed out north along Canal Street just outside the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, which hosted APME. “I’ve seen Canal looking a lot better,” tour guide and New Orleans native Sandra Epton told the editors as the coach rolled on, passing several closed 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.”

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, indicating the buildings had been searched. The deeper the group traveled into the poor residential areas, the more prominent the damage. Traveling on to North Robertson St., the first FEMA trailers appeared, many in the yards of still-damaged homes. At one point, a positive sign emerged when the coach passed “Musicians Village,” an eight-acre plot on which some 60 new homes are being built by Habitat for Humanity. But reality soon kicked in as the group crossed the industrial canal bridge and, eventually, into the Lower Ninth Ward. Whole lots sat empty, with mere slabs of concrete to testify where houses had been.

“It is hard to process, a year later, that this was all a neighborhood,” said Rick Hall, managing editor for The Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, who spoke while peering out the window at the Ninth Ward. “The magnitude of the destruction and the difficulty of rebuilding ? I don’t know how you capture that.”

Vernon Smith, deputy international editor for The Dallas Morning News, said “all of the great photos that have been documenting the devastation just don’t do it justice. Seeing it for my own eyes just takes my breath away. I’m blown away.”

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 the roof had collapsed on a house next door. Once in Mississippi’s Gulf coast towns of Pass Christian and Gulfport, the bus tour entered a more remote, wooded area where more FEMA trailers appeared and homes, many just smaller shacks, showed blown-off roofs and missing doors. Some houses were completely gone. Terry Orme, managing editor for news and business at The Salt Lake Tribune, said the experience “gives me a perspective on what those people lost.”

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. Upon re-entering the city, the bus had one last passage to make through a storm-battered area of Chalmette, and then through North New Orleans, where boarded-up windows, battered fences and roofs, and debris appeared again. In one stretch, several entire shopping centers were seen 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’s not just a clip on television.”

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