Jumping into city's biggest story

An art critic joined colleagues to cover Katrina's aftermath in New Orleans

August 29, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

As the art critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Doug MacCash spent years cruising amiably through the rarified world of galleries, exhibitions, painters and sculptors. He described himself as "the guy with the plastic glass of wine, stroking my chin."

Hurricane Katrina changed all that. The soft-spoken MacCash, a former museum curator who had never covered a breaking news story, found himself a year ago volunteering to venture out into the devastated city and report on what had happened.

"I'm not a bungee jumper, but I never thought I was going to come to any harm," said MacCash, who turns 50 on Friday and is a 28-year resident of New Orleans. "This is my town. It was not a time when you wanted to be left on the sidelines."

The day after the storm, when it was still unclear that New Orleans was flooding, MacCash and his boss, features editor James O'Byrne, were apparently the first journalists to discover that the crucial 17th Street Canal levee had breached.

As the magnitude of the disaster began to sink in, O'Byrne and MacCash, sometimes wading in water up to their waists, managed to gather material for a gripping story about the area's helpless residents and the often desperate attempts to reach them.

For hundreds of journalists, those from New Orleans and those sent from elsewhere, Katrina was a defining moment.

For even battle-hardened reporters, the kind whose job entails covering places like Iraq and Somalia, the sheer scale of the Katrina disaster posed agonizing challenges: bloated bodies floating in putrid water 8 feet deep; nervous police officers, some of whom joined in the looting, threatening journalists at gunpoint; huge swaths of New Orleans inaccessible except by boat or helicopter; the degrading conditions in the Superdome and the breathtaking delays in federal aid; the nightmarish logistics of functioning professionally in an environment in which every social order had broken down; and, for some, the decision to lay down pens and cameras to help marooned residents.

Although Katrina coverage earned The Times-Picayune two Pulitzer Prizes, the storm and its aftermath were ordeals that some New Orleans journalists could not endure. Their houses destroyed, their social connections splintered, several were so profoundly affected that they quit their jobs. Some who evacuated never returned. Others moved away when family members found jobs in other cities. And several of the Times-Picayune reporters who excelled in their coverage of Katrina were hired by other newspapers.

One staff photographer was so despondent that he recently became embroiled in a confrontation with police officers and begged them to kill him. His colleagues have rallied to his aid, raising money for his care, but he still faces charges in connection with the incident.

In all, the Times-Picayune news department, which numbered about 270 before the storm, is down more than 40 people, said reporter Mark Schleifstein, the co-author, with John McQuaid, of a five-part series in the paper in 2002 that described in chilling detail the vulnerability of the region to "a direct hit from a major hurricane."

After helping to cover the destruction they had predicted, Schleifstein and McQuaid wrote a book, now on the shelves, called Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms (Little, Brown). Schleifstein said the Times-Picayune had a responsibility to "represent the people of New Orleans in asking the questions that needed to be asked."

"My concern now continues to be that after this first anniversary, the rest of the media will move on to find something else to pay attention to, like JonBenet Ramsey," he said, referring to the recent arrest of a suspect in the 1996 killing of the 6-year-old Colorado girl.

Schleifstein, a 22-year resident of New Orleans whose house in Lakeview was under 12 feet of water after the levees broke, said he and other staff members of the Times-Picayune are "still walking the thin line between burnout and being highly enthused and aggressive about what's become the story of our lives."

After contributing to MacCash and O'Byrne's first-day story about the levee breach, Schleifstein spent the ensuing days in the paper's makeshift headquarters at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, taking dictation from harried reporters in New Orleans. One was Brian Thevenot, a seasoned Times-Picayune reporter who had earlier worked in Baghdad.

"The horrors of Katrina trumped anything we'd seen overseas," Thevenot wrote in the current issue of American Journalism Review. Thevenot, who was covering education before Katrina hit, was part of the small crew -- about a dozen writers, editors and photographers -- who volunteered to stay behind as the rest of the newspaper's editorial staff evacuated to safer ground during what became the biggest story in the paper's 168-year history.

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