Katrina Makes For Strange Bedfellows at Baton Rouge Paper

By: Joe Strupp

When it comes to covering Hurricane Katrina, The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., is not only deploying its own staffers to report on the post-storm devastation, it’s also playing host to several competitors.

Since the torrential storm slammed into New Orleans and other gulf cities over the weekend — leaving many uninhabitable — several news organizations have fled to the newspaper’s offices some 80 miles from The Big Easy to work. The latest contingent includes 65 employees of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans who arrived Tuesday in newspaper delivery trucks.

“They had some children with them and somebody brought their bulldog,” said Linda Lightfoot, Advocate executive editor. “Even the publisher [Ashton Phelps] was smashed in there with everyone.”

The Times-Picayune news crew joined about nine Associated Press reporters and editors, nearly all from AP’s New Orleans bureau, who relocated to the Baton Rouge paper on Tuesday. A few news staffers from The Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, and Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise also have utilized Advocate space to cover the post-hurricane story.

“We even have a Paris radio reporter roaming around, but I am not sure what he is doing,” Lightfoot said. “It is going to reach critical mass soon. We have only so many terminals and so many desks and we are doing the best we can.”

The Times-Picayune has set up its operation at an off-site technology services company, which contracts with The Advocate to provide back-up computer services, Lightfoot said. “They have a huge amount of computer capacity,” she said. Times-Picayune officials at that location did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Other Times-Picayune employees are operating out of The Courier in Houma, La. and were unreachable by phone. The paper has been posting only an online PDF edition for the past two-days, but many Web stories, as well.

For AP staffers from the New Orleans bureau, the Advocate is the third newsroom in which they have worked in less than a week. Bureau chief Charlotte Porter said her 14-person crew left their regular offices on Saturday in anticipation of the hurricane, with six of the news people moving to the Hammond Daily Star, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans. The remaining staffers went to various locations around New Orleans, with two at the Times-Picayune offices, one at the Louisiana Superdome, and two at a New Orleans hotel.

“As the storm passed over Hammond, we lost power, then the phones went out and the water started coming through the roof,” Porter recalls. “We had to work out of the hotel there in Hammond with no phones or power or hot water. We were able to transmit until the phone went out.”

On Monday, Porter sought help from The Advocate and moved her people to the Baton Rouge paper on Tuesday. “We still have people on the ground in New Orleans,” Porter said. “Five reporters are there and at least that many photographers.” She said two staffers remain at a New Orleans hotel, with several others staying at the New Orleans home of AP photographer Bill Haber.

“He has a house on higher ground, but with a foot of water in his basement and a generator running,” Porter added, “They are still getting the story out.”

The Advocate, which lost some power at its printing plant on Monday, has been able to operate pretty smoothly with newspapers being printed and delivered since the hurricane hit, Lightfoot said. The newsroom also remains operational with no power outages or other disruptions. About 25 staffers have been on the story, either in the newsroom or at points around the state.

Some Advocate employees, those still with power, have opened up their homes for the visiting journalists, Lightfoot said. The editor’s assistant, Madelyn Carroll, said she had an AP editor in from Houston stay with her Tuesday night and plans to have two Times-Picayune staffers as guests tonight.

“I have electricity, I have food, I have a roof,” she explained. “This is the south, we help do whatever.”

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