Hurricane Tests Two Recent J-School Grads in Biloxi

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By: Joe Strupp

Less than four months ago, Mike Keller and Joshua Norman were graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, hoping they were prepped and ready to put their new diplomas to the test.

Last week they got their chance covering Hurricane Katrina for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss. But more than report on the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, these rookies were right in the middle of it, serving among just four reporters who rode out the storm in the paper’s newsroom.

“I don’t think you could have gotten a better essence of what happened,” Norman, 27, said later. “I learned real quick.”

Having been at their first full-time reporting jobs for just a few weeks, the pair found themselves spending several nights in the Sun Herald last week, living on generator power, no phones, and initially with the destructive sounds and perils of a Category Five hurricane right outside. With little opportunity to get news stories out during the first 36 hours of the storm, the reporters spent time monitoring a police scanner, venturing out where possible, and even starting a brutally honest blog.

The newspaper said on Sunday, Aug. 28, “that everyone needs to take care of themselves and can leave, but if you wanted to stay here you are welcome to do it,” Keller, 29, recalled Tuesday. “We decided to ride it out.”

Keller, who joined the paper in early August, had come south for the job at the suggestion of his friend and former schoolmate, Norman, who had started just weeks earlier. A 1998 graduate of the University of Florida, Keller had spent several years as a geographic analyst before succumbing to the news bug in 2004, when he entered Columbia.

During his first weeks at the paper as an environmental reporter, Keller’s stories looked at typical coastal development issues and proposed natural gas expansion. “Very standard stuff,” he said.

So when the hurricane came barreling in, Keller and Norman saw the chance to be on top of the story. “Part of it was stupidity,” says Norman, who came to the paper after a stint in the Peace Corps and non-reporting jobs at other papers. “I had no understanding of how powerful the hurricane was. It was sheer force, the terror of the winds.”

By midday on Aug. 28, the Sun Herald newsroom was empty except for Norman, Keller, and fellow reporters Anita Lee and Margaret Baker, two veteran reporters who also took up the challenge. About eight other non-editorial staffers also worked through the storm.

Lee, who shares a house with Baker, has been at the paper since 1987. She said they chose to stay in the newsroom so that they could be on top of a major story. “I wanted to be able to hit the ground running as soon as I could,” she remembered. “If you left, you could not go back.”

Once the decisions to stay were made, preparations began that Sunday in and out of the newsroom. “It was just time to lock down my home, find a safe place for the car, and get everything in order,” Keller remembers. When some leaks began in the ceiling of the two-story newspaper building located about a quarter-mile from the gulf coast, the staffers covered computers and kept an ear on the police scanner.

“I only slept for about three hours that first night, in a sleeping bag under my desk and went to sleep to the sound of the police scanner,” Keller said. “It was creepy. They were calling in to the station with reports of each road as it submerged. The scanner was just cops and fireman calling each other for help.”

During that first night, as the hurricane grew, Keller said the reporters would venture outside occasionally, but could not go beyond the parking lot. “Pebbles were picking up that could come through your skin,” he said.

At one point, Norman went on a ride-along with a local fire official, which he said brought him closer to the people afflicted than anything else. “There was an old guy who dropped dead of a heart attack and they helped get the Red Cross to help his wife,” he remembers. “She did not want to be left alone.”

Having put out its Monday newspaper on Sunday, the Sun Herald did not publish again until late Tuesday. In between, Norman and Keller launched a blog of their own, unrelated to the newspaper, at www.dancingwithkatrina.blogspot.com. On it, they offered reporting, photos, and their own, often profanity-laced, comments.

“We’re holed up in a heavily concreted part of the building. Panic is in everyone’s eyes, but no one’s saying it. I’ve got my boots on, blue jeans, even though it’s hot. Mike suggested I do it in case we have to run, but I cannot imagine to where,” one blog insert by Norman reads just as the storm was hitting. “Firemen in Biloxi were trapped in a Firehouse and can’t get out. Trees are falling like dominoes. Casinos are underwater, some with roofs ripping off. …The water is rising, but it’s not at us yet. I wish I knew more,? the entry revealed.

“We knew that massive amounts of people wanted to know what was happening,” Norman said about the blog. “We did it both to kill time and keep a diary of it. I have gotten phone calls from people crying to me after reading it, reading about someone we just mentioned and knowing they were still alive.”

After the storm subsided, Keller and Norman went to their apartments in Gulfport and Biloxi respectively. Keller found his apartment in good shape, although he stayed at the paper for several more nights. “The roof got picked up a little bit,” he said of his apartment. “But it is still on.” Norman had less luck, saying his apartment building may be condemned and remains without power or running water.

“I am still staying there,” Norman says, noting his landlord continues to demand rent. “At least it is on the second floor.”

Today, Keller posted on the blog: “Just heard how a reporter here fared. He had to swim off his roof in the middle of the storm. He said that the top of his roof was almost exactly 60 feet above the river that his house used to be on.” Norman has posted many grim photos there.

The storm also meant the loss of Baker and Lee’s home. “It is a shell, gutted more than destroyed,” says Lee, who has been staying in one of the dozen or so recreational vehicles provided by Knight Ridder and parked outside the Sun Herald building. “I was used to interviewing distraught people and on that Monday I was a distraught person.”

For the recent graduates, the entire experience has meant an educational opportunity above and beyond what Columbia could ever give, they say. “I am now firmly in it for the long haul,” Keller said about his journalism future. “It backed up the fact that people need information. They want someone to tell them a story.”

But in Norman’s case, the reaction is somewhat mixed. Admittedly still worn down from the story, he says he is proud of his work, but unsure if he would want to cover that kind of event again. “There is no better way to learn,” said Norman, whose father is Michael Norman, a former New York Times reporter who now teaches journalism at New York University. “It has confirmed for me my desire never to be a war correspondent. Emotionally, it is too hard. I’ve seen more bodies than I want to see and talked to more people who have lost everything than I want to.”

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