Editor's Note: Cory Haik shared in two Pulitzer Prizes — public service and breaking news — for coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and its Web site. Haik was the online managing producer when the storm hit and went on to become the site's managing editor before joining The Seattle Times in April as senior producer for interactivity at seattletimes.com.
Katrina, two years later | The view from Seattle is heartbreaking
Seattle Times staff
Growing up in the Gulf South, I learned to follow storms like others follow their high-school football team.
The Atlantic hurricane season is, after all, a season. You buy supplies, develop a following for forecasters and talk to neighbors for hours about the glory days of a Betsy or a Camille. More times than not, the season passes without much action, and you feel a little deflated but move on.
Then sometimes it's not like that at all.
When Katrina struck, I was lying on the floor of my in-laws' home in Baton Rouge, where I had evacuated with my family, nursing my 6-month-old. I had just finished a long news shift for NOLA.com, the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.
That ominous pea-green sky and the sound of tree branches snapping every three seconds as I lay holding my daughter brought back memories of a hallway in Texas during Hurricane Alicia. I wanted my mother.
All day I had been reporting the news of the Superdome being stuffed full of people seeking refuge, and the tales of folks who refused to leave their homes. If the headline the day before was "Evacuation," today's was "Get the hell out." Katrina had reached Category 5 status and had its sights on my home.
The director of the National Hurricane Center phoned the Times-Picayune to report the severity of the storm. My second-hand report of that call was that he "had never seen anything like this in his time," and that he was warning staffers to get out. I asked my editor via instant messenger what this meant.
"What is going to happen to all those people who don't get out?" I messaged. I will never forget that blinky-light response: "Thousands of body bags."
That's what makes looking back so exasperating. This wasn't an earthquake hitting an impoverished Third World city. We had notice. We had years and years of notice. No one should have been in that city. But the approximately 1,400 people who died found that out too late.
Cries for help
As bad as Katrina was, its aftermath was unbelievably worse. The story changed from a city "dodging a bullet" to one that was drowning. I didn't sleep more than a couple of hours a night as I worked around the clock with my colleagues posting catastrophic news and "Cries for help," a blog that had morphed into a virtual experience of impending death. People trapped in attics with rising water sent text messages to friends, pleading for help, who in turn sent desperate e-mails to us begging for rescuers.
Months later, the Coast Guard and others let us know that many of their rescues were made from the list of names and locations we posted. I often think about those pleas that found their way to my inbox:
"Name: Hong Nguyen
"Story: I have called SEARCH & RESCUE at 1pm-aug31. My brother (Huyen) and his family (with 4 young kids under 7) and my mom may still be trapped in their home at 5121 Willobrook. Water is now neck high. They must be on the 2nd floor and not at the church. Please forward this story and verify if they are safe."
We were cutting and pasting to beat the water. And when I force myself to think about the faces behind those messages, I still break down.
Hard to stay, hard to go
It's been two years since "the worst natural disaster in U.S. history" made landfall just southeast of New Orleans. I, like nearly all my colleagues, operated out of temporary bureaus or commuted to the city for months before I could return to the place that I was determined to make work.
Dealing with a post-Katrina world became everything: my job, my home life, my kids' schools, conversations with neighbors, pillow talk with my husband. It was relentless and, ultimately, exhausting. Rising insurance costs paralleled the violence. And in the end, with much pain, I turned in my Katrina Survivor badge, left The City That Care Forgot and moved to Seattle with my husband and two children.
The view from here is particularly heartbreaking.
In Seattle, my kids play on a pristine sidewalk in front of my house. People have jobs (and benefits). The schools are healthy.
The week Seattle was railing about a single shooting downtown, my former home had just counted its 100th homicide of the year.
But New Orleans is a place that had been suffering long before Katrina. In the past decade, I had dreamed up several book titles to tell the stories of the city: "Why New Orleans' Education System Has Failed Us All," "Race and 'Its Place' in the Deep South," "Handguns: The Big Easy."
In New Orleans, my husband had to mow the park across the street from our house lest the weeds — and thugs — take it over. My elder daughter almost stepped on a hypodermic needle last fall. And that same week, gunshots thundered from the park at 9 on a Thursday night.
When people ask me now if I think the federal government failed the city of New Orleans after Katrina, I have a very hard time articulating my thoughts. Not because I am angry, but because I am just not sure exactly where to place the blame, or really even how far back to go. "It's so complicated," I say, or "There are so many layers."
The truth is, I just don't know.
I still own a house in New Orleans. It's for sale, if anyone wants to buy it, though there is a huge part of me that wants to return to it someday — or even now. The slow and easy way of life that is really not slow and easy calls to me like a cup of chicory coffee. It's still a beautiful life there for some.
It's the middle of hurricane season now, and not a soul can predict with confidence what the future of the city will be. More than 200,000 people are still displaced, and some neighborhoods are gone for good. People with really good intentions are working to help residents return and rebuild. But many of us have found opportunity outside and have chosen just to move on.
In another two years, the story may change completely and New Orleans, that magical place of stoop-sitting, may rise to meet the challenge. I am pulling for it.
In between there will be two more seasons.
Cory Tolbert Haik: 206-464-3327 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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