Katrina, the Big One


Storm refugees, nearly all of them black, are on the move throughout the city. And they are refugees, as in, people fleeing misfortune and seeking refuge. NPR and other news organizations caved to pressure from critics who did not like the word. We substituted "evacuees." Some listeners thought "refugee" carried a pejorative foreign connotation, something that happens in Sudan or Somalia but never the United States. That’s precisely why I preferred the term. I hoped it would shock people into realizing that an American city had sunk to Third World conditions.

Hawke and I hop out of the truck to interview a ragged string of refugees walking up Howard on the way to the Superdome, trailed by an obese woman in stretch shorts. "I got a bad heart. I ain’t got no business travelin’ like this," she says.

A woman with matted hair in a Tweety Bird T-shirt says, "We slept all night on the bridge. They say go across the river and the buses will pick us up. Now they’re turnin’ us all around. We need somebody who knows what’s goin’ on!"

I ask more questions, but they want answers. Where to get a meal? Where to find a bus?

"Tell the truth," a young man in a Bob Marley T-shirt asks in exasperation. "Y’all care about us?"

"Of course we do," Hawke replies.

"Well, help us," he says sharply. "They got people layin’ up there on the bridge dyin’ . . . I know y’all want our story, but we need help!"

We don’t know where they should go, either. And we’re worried that if we hand out the little food and water we have in the truck, we’ll cause a scene. Still, he makes a powerful point: We need a story; he needs a rescue.

A couple of weeks later, a listener will e-mail NPR and ask, "What about the demands of suffering humanity? Do you ever feel that journalism is an inadequate response to the tragedies you report on?" Other listeners suggest we should have turned our sat phone over to the cops after they lost communication.

The role of journalist as detached chronicler or part-time rescuer will be discussed intensely after Katrina. Purists argue that journalists should never participate in a story — period. We bear witness to history; we don’t step into it. But it’s not that simple. We don’t leave our humanity at home when we cover a disaster. Anytime I, as a journalist, record a person in misery and then walk away, I feel like the photographer who queasily described his role, saying, "We came to take our trophies and left." There’s something unbecoming about that behavior, particularly if we can offer a small kindness without neglecting our job.

Later in the week, Hawke and I hand out water and snacks to individual refugees we encounter, and the NPR crew gives four desperate Canadian tourists a ride to Baton Rouge. I heard of other journalists using their news boats to rescue people. I believe you do what you can, but you never let go of the story. And on this story, in particular, journalists will perform a service by being on the ground and in the water to show the world and our own government the terrible conditions in New Orleans.

The unrelenting sun turns the morning into a sauna. I crank up the Ford’s A/C and think sadly about the people stuck in the sweltering Superdome or sitting on their rooftops. This is the same heat wave that warmed the gulf and created the monster hurricane. Our world is heating up. There could well be more Katrinas in future summers. But at the moment, they’ve got to fix this one.

In the Rose Garden, President Bush ticks off all the federal aid bound for New Orleans: 400 trucks transporting 5.4 million meals, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 135,000 blankets. It probably sounds reassuring to people everywhere but here, where they know the truth. The relief effort — if there is one — has fallen into chaos. No one is in charge. Storm survivors are adrift in the gulf of New Orleans. The city needs every thing — food, water, buses, boats, doctors, soldiers, ice, and body bags. And what does Governor Blanco do? She calls for a statewide Day of Prayer.

I zigzag through fallen limbs along St. Charles Avenue, famed for its Mardi Gras parades and formerly shady oaks. When I spot more refugees wading up the street, I pull onto the streetcar tracks and kill the engine. We climb out and introduce ourselves to Latoya Solomon, a 24-year-old hotel employee who’s walking with 12 members of her family, from a tot happily splashing along the pavement to a grim old woman in an orange life vest. As soon as my first question is out, Solomon starts to rant. "The water’s off, the light’s off, everything’s flooded, everything’s soakin’ wet, we can’t eat, we can’t cook, stores ain’t open. We thirsty. What? What? I don’t see nobody tryin’ to help us. Everybody just walkin’ around lookin’ lonesome. This ain’t gonna work," she says. I wish I could put her on live with the president.

JOHN F. BURNETT has been in the midst of the biggest news stories of our age, and 2005 marked his 20th year reporting for National Public Radio. He is the recipient of a 2004 Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and a 2003 National Headliner Award for Investigative Reporting. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Reprinted from: Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent by John F Burnett © 2006 John F Burnett. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.


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