News media get past logistical hurdles to report on storm's aftermath

Times-Picayune is to resume print edition

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

As conditions in New Orleans continued to degenerate yesterday, the news media seemed to have overcome, for the most part, the worst of their logistical hurdles and confronted the harrowing spectacle before them with only occasional bouts of excess and hyperbole.

Radio, television and newspaper reporters, many freshly stocked and equipped, swarmed over the apparently lawless city as best they could, their reporting interrupted occasionally by breaks in cell phone connections and satellite transmissions.

Many focused on the sight of corpses on sidewalks and floating down the once-picturesque streets of the city. The phrase dead bodies could be heard again and again on CNN, Fox News and elsewhere.

The state's largest newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which had been producing its editions exclusively online since Monday, announced that it would resume publishing a print edition today from the presses of The Courier of Houma, La., 60 miles to the southwest, for distribution in Baton Rouge and areas of New Orleans that are not inundated.

But reporting in the city remained a treacherous endeavor. Yesterday afternoon, The Times-Picayune posted on its Web site a dispatch, headlined "City Not Safe for Anyone," about one of its reporters, Gordon Russell, who, traveling in a sport utility vehicle with a photographer from The New York Times, "feared for his life and felt his safety was threatened at nearly every turn."

`I'm scared'

Russell described "throngs of hungry and desperate people" displaced by the flood who overwhelmed law enforcement officers and military personnel. "There was no crowd control," Russell said. "People were swarming. It was a near riot situation."

Near the Convention Center, Russell and the photographer witnessed a shootout between police and refugees that left one man dead in a pool of blood. "Police, perhaps caught off guard by their sudden arrival on the scene, slammed Russell and the photographer against a wall and threw their gear on the ground as they exited their SUV to record the event," the Web site said. The two journalists retreated to Russell's home, "where they hid in fear," it said.

"I'm scared," Russell told his colleagues at the paper. "I'm not afraid to admit it. I'm getting out of here."

The Times-Picayune planned to print roughly 50,000 copies of today's edition and will continue to publish breaking news on its expanded electronic edition on www.nola.com. On Wednesday morning, the site began posting a missing-persons forum that, the paper said, had clocked more than 4,000 posts by the end of the day.

Web provides picture

In the absence of hard copies of newspapers and with near silence on the city's airwaves from flooded local television and radio stations, Web sites and bloggers provided much of the most vivid reporting about the trauma.

"It is a zoo out there," said a posting on a LiveJournal blog. "It's the wild kingdom. It's Lord of the Flies. That doesn't mean there's murder on every street corner. But what it does mean is that the rule of law has collapsed, that there is no order, and that property rights cannot and are not being enforced. Anyone who is on the streets is in immediate danger of being robbed and killed. It's that bad."

Also on LiveJournal, a blogger called The Interdictor said there were "dead bodies everywhere: convention center, down Camp Street, all over."

"National Guard shoving water off the backs of trucks," the writer said of the effort to get fresh water to victims. "They're just pushing it off without stopping, people don't even know it's there at first - they drop it on the side in debris, there's no sign or distribution point - people are scared to go near it at first, because the drop points are guarded by troops or federal agents with assault rifles who don't let people come near them, which scares people off. It is a mess."

Another blogger on LiveJournal said some police officers were looting stores, sometimes after expelling looters they had found there. "They have broken into ATMs and safes," the blogger wrote. "We have eyewitnesses to this. They have taken dozens of SUV's from dealerships, ostensibly for official use. They have also looted gun stores and pawn shops for all the small arms, supposedly to prevent `criminals' from doing so."

In a medium in which the news is only as good as its often-anonymous provider, none of these assertions could be confirmed because telephone service in the area is practically nonexistent. Mainstream media reporters, however, were also looking into allegations of illegal acts by police.

Still, it was clear from television pictures that the looters were predominantly residents. The images have come to define the aftermath of Katrina as much as the sight of miserable refugees in squalid sports arenas and convention centers.

Meanwhile, news organizations were trying to relieve their personnel in New Orleans and elsewhere along the devastated Gulf Coast. Some reporters - exhausted, emotionally drained and showing signs of illness along with many refugees - decided to leave on their own.

Donny Pearce, a cameraman for the Fox affiliate in New Orleans, WVUE, told colleagues he was shaken up by a "horrifying escape" from the city on his way to his parents' house in Shreveport, when refugees swarmed his truck and hung onto its sides, begging for help, food and money.

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