Tuesday, September 06, 2005

One Journalist's Perspective

Jodhpur, India

This is a message received back when New Orleans was still spiraling down through the circles of hell. I think it's still relevant because of the question asked at the end about the place of journalists in the disaster.

From this distant side of the globe, I'd have to say that the images they captured and the stories they sent out have made a difference. If it weren't for journalists, who knows how many more days it would have taken for the authorities to become aware of the people massing at the New Orleans Convention Center. When we (in India) first heard about the people gathering there on BBC World, the numbers were still only 2000-3000. Not the 20,000 they would become by the time help finally arrived.

This is the hardest thing I have ever covered. Maybe it's because I love New Orleans and have so many friends here and I see they are suffering. Maybe it's the horrible things I've seen in the past few days. I'm not just talking about dead bodies. I've seen plenty of dead people in my career as a crime reporter. It's the pain, the pain that is everywhere. I talked to so many people today, and I would guess 3/4 of them were 1) crying 2) had been crying or 3) teary eyed. I was interviewing one man today when another woman walked up to me, in tears, and said, "Can you write down my name? Because I don't think I'm going to make it." She had been waiting at the Convention Center to be evacuated, waiting for about a day. No food. No water. Then, she said, "I don't know where my husband and kids are. They went to a hotel for the storm but now people tell me the hotel is empty." So I wrote down her name and gave her a hug and tried to comfort her. But what could I do? It's making me cry just writing this.)

For me, this is worse than Iraq. Because there, the language barrier meant I was always a little bit separate. But I can understand every word people here say to me and it's killing me. Strangers come up to you and beg for water. They want to know where you're staying and if they can stay with you. Like the woman above, they want you to put their names in the paper so their loved ones can find out they're alive. And I feel helpless because I can't help them. One person was yelling at a photographer friend of mine the other day, saying he was exploiting people in pain, and he said, "Ma'am, this picture is going to go out to thousands of people and they need to know what you're going through. That's the only way you're going to get the help you need." Is that true? I like to think it is, but I don't know.

And let me wrap myself in the American flag but this is America and I expected Iraq to be primitive and tough but I did not expect this from the United States. Those tshirts they have -- Louisiana: Third World and Proud. -- should be burned after this. People keep asking, "Where was the National Guard? They always shore up the levees. Why aren't they here now, helping keep things calm?" Well, the answer is the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq. According to a recent news story, they were helping rebuild the wetlands there. Meanwhile, the Louisiana wetlands are disappearing rapidly and provide no protection for the coast. A federal bill to get the state more money to fix that failed.

Another thing that makes this job hard: No electricity, which means no a/c and no computers. Cell phones are useless inside the city but I can sometimes text. Landlines are sporadic at best. So there's no communication. I can't just call someone and get a quote, can't call one of my colleagues to find out where they are. The water in most of NO was turned off today, meaning no flushing toilets.

And it's getting very dangerous here. The looting is out of control. People are hot and angry and it's only going to get worse.

It's funny: tonight, for the first time, I saw some of the national news coverage of this. And I had no idea. I've never seen any of the photos and I'm so far from the big, overseeing picture.


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