‘A Story Worth Telling’
Newspaper Staffers Discuss Updates From New Orleans
James O’Byrne, features editor for The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), was among those from the Gulf Coast city who noticed an omission in President Bush’s State of the Union address last week — there was no mention of Hurricane Katrina. To O’Byrne, who covered and lived through the destruction caused by the hurricane, it appears that many already have forgotten one of the worst disasters to hit the United States.
“It wasn’t surprising for many,” O’Byrne said. “But it was profoundly disappointing.” [IMGCAP(1)]
In a briefing with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Congressional staffers on Friday, O’Byrne and Mark Schleifstein, an environmental correspondent for the paper, discussed the persisting needs and problems in New Orleans.
“This is a story worth telling, and it will be told for decades to come, not just the next few months,” Landrieu said.
O’Byrne and Schleifstein highlighted the funding and housing needs in the Big Easy. Many residents are still under financial strain, they said, explaining that some are forced to pay mortgages for destroyed homes, many have little help from insurance companies, and a long bureaucratic process prevents some from applying for federal grants.
For example, Schleifstein said, assistance from the Road to Home program, which provides grants to Katrina victims, has been sparse. Out of 100,000 people who have applied, only 228 have received checks, he said.
Both O’Byrne and Schleifstein also spoke positively about the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild the levee systems, which failed in the hurricane. But O’Byrne said response from other federal government branches has been slow.
“We are not OK. We still struggle every day,” O’Byrne said. “The federal response has not been proportional to the disaster.”
Rebuilding public housing in the city also has been difficult, he said, adding that as the Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to tear down old and damaged buildings, residents have been resistant since they fear losing the only housing they know.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency “continues to promise money,” O’Byrne said. “They decided to give the money, but the checks haven’t arrived.”
Both O’Byrne and Schleifstein stressed that Members of Congress should see the region firsthand to fully comprehend what more needs to be done. According to Susan Feeney, from the assistance group Friends of The Times-Picayune, only 52 Senators and 112 House Members have visited New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit.
Journalists from The Times-Picayune lead visitors in what they call the “misery tour,” showing them the damage in New Orleans. The tour consists of driving for as many hours as requested to see houses that are still unlivable, 17 months after the hurricane.
“Ideally, I’d like to get [everyone] to come down for the misery tour,” O’Byrne said. “No one comes away from that tour unaffected. You can’t really imagine this much of an American city this low and still this low after the event.”
Stephanie Allen, press secretary for Landrieu, whose office hosted the briefing, said many lessons could be learned on how to handle the aftermath of a disaster like Katrina.
“There was no precedent to the storm, no precedent on how to cover a catastrophe like this,” Allen said.
The briefing was held in conjunction with the fundraising event on Jan. 25 held by Friends of The Times-Picayune. The group, founded by Feeney and other former Times-Picayune staff members, raises money for newspaper employees who are in financial need. The group has raised more than $260,000 for about 200 families in need.
“There were so many people who just wanted to help the folks in the Picayune, who continued coverage despite extreme personal hardship.” Feeney said.
At the time when the hurricane hit the city, O’Byrne, Schleifstein and hundreds of others from the newspaper continued coverage even as they had to evacuate. The staff set up newsrooms in Baton Rouge and other locations in Louisiana, and they were able to publish a print version five days after the storm. Their Web site and the newspaper became a resource for many both inside and outside the region.
Feeney said the group continues to receive notes from those who have applied for assistance from the fund about the continuing problems they face.
“There have been many notes to us about the bureaucracy, trailers that didn’t materialize and stories of personal hardship,” Feeney said.