Times-Picayune staff recall reporting on Katrina and its aftermath

Monday, October 2, 2006

Pulitzer Prize-winners Peter Kovacs ’78 P’10 and Stephanie Grace ’87 of the New Orleans Times-Picayune recounted how Hurricane Katrina affected their city and its relationship with the newspaper Friday afternoon in Leung Gallery.

After winning Pulitzers this spring for public service and breaking news coverage during and after Katrina, Kovacs and Grace – managing editor and political columnist, respectively – accepted the Brown Alumni Association’s John Hope Award this weekend. Named for black educator and activist John Hope, who graduated from Brown in 1894, the award honors alums who demonstrate leadership through a commitment to public service.

Though local news reporter Audrey Laganas ’85 praised the perseverance of Kovacs and Grace, Kovacs, who serves on The Herald’s board of directors, expressed discomfort receiving an award for public service.

“I can’t help but wonder whether what we do really constitutes community service,” he said, adding that though past recipients include nonprofit workers and community volunteers, he works for a large company owned by billionaires.

As they described life in New Orleans during and after Katrina, Kovacs and Grace recalled where they were when the storm hit.

Kovacs and the paper’s staff waited out the storm in the Times-Picayune’s offices. After sleeping on the floor to avoid blasted windows during the hurricane, Kovacs and the paper’s staff left the next morning to investigate its impact. Most “declared (New Orleans) unflooded,” he said, until one group of staff members made it to a place where the levies had failed.

“That’s when we realized the whole city would flood,” he said.

The next day, Kovacs and his staff left New Orleans in the newspaper’s circulation trucks, taking with them “whatever belongings you could fit in a sack on your lap,” and headed to their suburban bureau outside the city.

Nearly 250 people set up camp at the bureau, which housed staff members necessary to put together the paper and the family members they brought with them. With a generator and an Internet connection, Kovacs and the staff posted news online as the disaster unfolded.

Meanwhile, Grace was 80 miles north in Baton Rouge, La. She began writing columns again a few days after Katrina hit but stayed in Baton Rouge, running into National Guardsmen by the local Wal-Mart and watching the nearby disaster unfold on national television. Six weeks later, her return to New Orleans was marked by the discovery of a loved one’s dead body.

Though news media coverage has focused on how the storm affected black neighborhoods, Grace said Katrina hit everybody, including musicians, Times-Picayune staff members, former mayors and President George W. Bush’s biggest contributor in Louisiana.

But despite the effect on the entire city, she said the storm and its aftermath have amplified distrust, particularly among blacks, of the local and national leadership that built the levees to begin with.

“There (are) certainly a lot of people who believe that this is all a conspiracy to drive people out of the city,” she said. “The distrust is just palpable.”

Kovacs and Grace screened a short film in which Times-Picayune staff recalled experiences such as photographing despairing New Orleans natives and receiving weapons from a SWAT team that urged them to arm. Those in the video described the impact of being emotionally involved in a story that affected all New Orleanians, journalists included.

Laganas asked Kovacs whether he worried as an editor that the impact of Katrina on the Times-Picayune staff members might compromise their reporting.

“There were bigger concerns than that,” Kovacs said, as he described the moral dilemma facing photographers in rescue boats as they occupied seats that could be filled by survivors.

In the days after the storm, Grace said she wondered how she could fit the enormity of the experience into her 20-inch column. Only one week before New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin became a household name across America, Grace said she had sat in the mayor’s office as he excitedly discussed Donald Trump’s new building planned for the city.

“I just kept thinking, ‘How can this world be that world?'” she said.

In fact, the post-Katrina New Orleans portrayed by news media all over the world was at times inaccurate, Grace and Kovacs said. As the mayor and police chief gave public statements without knowing all the facts, Kovacs said exaggerated rumors of violence and bad behavior spread.

The Times-Picayune took caution in reporting accounts of rape and looting, even as it endured criticism. An online debate continues over what looting and crime may or may not have occurred in Katrina’s wake.

One year later, Kovacs said depression and fatigue linger in New Orleans as some residents debate whether they can stay in a recovering city and others, in Houston and elsewhere, wonder whether they can return.

Still, Grace said there have been moments of hope.

A new sense of activism and community engagement has emerged in the formerly laissez-faire city, she said, pointing to stories of ex-convicts rebuilding health clinics and wealthy women staying up all night lobbying the legislature.

New Orleans natives are celebrating the return of landmarks ranging from the Superdome to a neighborhood bakery the re-opening of which spurred dozens of locals to wait hours in line for cannoli.

“But just as often we get word that treasured institutions are not going to come back, and each piece of news feels like a kick in the gut – one more loss in this progression of losses that never seems to stop,” she said.

In a city long full of storytellers, Katrina has left each resident a real-life tale of hardship and destruction to recount, Grace said.

“They want you to hear about it, how hard it is, how no other city has ever been slammed like this,” she said.

That shared pain has underscored the community’s connection to its newspaper, Grace said. “It’s created this bond between the paper and its readers that I’ve never seen anywhere else,” she said. “We know it won’t last, it’s really a golden moment.”

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