Article from iframagazine.com
Interview with New Orleans editor Jim Amoss
Running a daily newspaper under ideal circumstances can be a frantic and strenuous job. Running one during a natural disaster is a task that few adjectives can begin to describe, yet it is one that editors in coastal cities face again and again during storm season.
Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive and deadliest storms to ever hit the United States. It killed at least 1577 people (the official death toll as of May) in the state of Louisiana and radically altered the lives of every resident of New Orleans, where hangers-on to struggle to rebuild both the city and their lives 10 months after the hurricane struck.
Earlier this year, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of Katrina. Below, Jim Amoss, its editor, and a New Orleans native, tells newspaper techniques correspondent Adam B. Kushner, himself a New Orleans native, how the newspaper and its staff responded to the hurricane and its aftermath. Due to space limitations, we were able to print only about half of this interview in the magazine, but we are publishing it here in its entirety.
newspaper techniques: What happened to the Times-Picayune when Hurricane Katrina hit?
Jim Amos: The time sequence probably begins the Friday before the storm hit (on Monday, August 29). Friday was the first inkling any of us had that the hurricane, which was crossing the Florida panhandle at that point, would pose any danger to Louisiana and to New Orleans. Until Friday afternoon, all of the forecasts had the cone of the hurricane [the projected path] directed at the Florida panhandle – and unwaveringly so – so that, really, no one was paying attention, assuming that this was well out of our orbit.
On Friday afternoon, I was standing around the newsroom and happened to have a casual conversation with our hurricane reporter. I was talking about the uneventful weekend ahead, and he looked at me strangely and motioned me over to his computer, which was opened to the Hurricane Center’s webpage. There, to my amazement, the cone had shifted dramatically to the west and was now encompassing Louisiana and New Orleans.
That afternoon, our publisher and some of our people in the executive office got together, the people who needed to sound the alarm and start hurricane preparations that we accustomed to (getting the cafeteria ready, some safety precautions, and just readying the building for the possibility that a lot of people might be spending the night here). And that was not easy to do because you really had to switch over into a different mode, psychologically, because everybody was coasting into the weekend. All of a sudden, to be told that there’s a danger out there after all really required a course correction.
Saturday morning, everybody woke up and checked immediately to see if things had shifted further, and this thing was still aimed directly at New Orleans. And not only that, but it had gathered strength and was becoming a huge storm, eventually blossoming into a Category Five.
The thing that really got my attention on Saturday was a conversation that [hurricane reporter] Mark Schlefstein had with Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center. Max called him – he’d been a source for many years, so they knew each other pretty well – and said, ‘Mark, I’m concerned about you. Can you tell me how high the third floor of the Times-Picayune building is?’
And that got everybody’s attention – the notion that we might not be safe in our own building, which is kind of a fortress-like structure. We started preparing for real, and, on Saturday afternoon, the mayor went on the air and said he couldn’t yet order a mandatory evacuation, but he was telling everybody to leave the city. And, at that point, all of the journalists at the Times-Picayune were taking this very seriously and also beginning the personal tasks you need to do if you, personally, were going to come weather the storm at the newspaper building.
A lot of people got into big debates with their spouses, because it’s just not what New Orleanians do easily – just leave and abandon their houses. Certainly that was true at my house. We argued well into the night Saturday night about whether my son and my wife would leave. But it was always assumed in the argument that I would be weathering the storm in the Times-Picayune building.
All that resolved itself for most people sometime Saturday night – in my case about midnight – and we started packing our cars with valuables. My son and my wife left about 6:00 a.m. Sunday, which is the morning the mayor declared the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history.
Many of the Times-Picayune journalists started traipsing down to the newsroom with their sleeping bags and ice chests and ways to weather what most people assumed would be a three-day holing up in the building and then emerging and resuming normal life.
The newsroom on Sunday was a scene of all these belongings being carted in so that people could be comfortable here for a while. And Sunday night I put my sleeping bag just outside my office – we were told to avoid the perimeter of the building, which has these floor-to-ceiling glass windows – and we closed off all those office doors. We put the paper to bed pretty early that night, printed it, and ended up stacking it in a warehouse.
It never really got distributed because of what happened that night. The wind started howling around midnight and just got stronger and stronger. At about 2:00 a.m. or thereabouts, we just lost all power in the building, which magnified the sound of the wind.
We had prepared for all of this by setting up a bank of computers in the core of the building that were powered by generators, so as soon as the power was lost, we cranked up the generators and continued blogging and doing whatever reporting they could from this bunker with generator-powered computers. At about 4:00 a.m., there was a loud crashing sound, and the window of our general manager’s office had blown in, sheer across the room. That gave us a real indication of how violent things were outside.
That kind of unbelievable wind sound continued into the morning, and, when it got lighter, we stood on the front atrium of the building and looked out to see horizontal sheets of rain, with billboards and roofs being blown off. It was quite a spectacle. That lasted until about 10:30 a.m. and it gradually began to subside.
The first reporting on our part was from some pretty daredevil photographers of ours who ventured along the river toward the eastern part of the city and got as far as the St. Claude Avenue Bridge over the Industrial Canal. As soon as they got the top of the bridge, they could see that the other side was this lake, just a churning sea that was being filled deeper and deeper from a big breach in the Industrial Canal Levee. And it was clear that the Lower Ninth Ward and Arabi and St. Bernard were going under. But the rest of the city west of the Industrial Canal, as far as we knew at that point – 11:00 a.m. – was still unscathed, except for whatever the horrific windstorm had done.
For most of the afternoon, we were operating under that assumption and trying to construct a news report and a page that had this duality to it: the Lower Ninth Ward had been destroyed but the city had made it through reasonably OK. At about 1 p.m., two of our journalists – our features editor and our art critic – had bicycles at the newsroom and decided to take their bikes and ride toward Lake Pontchartrain and investigate that part of the city.
They rode on a railroad trestle that is a naturally elevated area, since there was already beginning to be some water in the streets. It was a manmade dike that they pedaled along. And, when they got to where the railroad crosses Canal Boulevard, they looked down from the bridge and saw a river rushing from the Lake toward downtown.
That’s when it dawned on them that something catastrophic had happened. They’d heard a report through Schlefstein that a levee on one of the drainage canals may have breached, and now they were seeing confirmation with their own eyes.
There are a bunch of people gathered on the bridge and [one reporter] pulls out his camera to take a photo and starts scribbling in a notebook that his own house was underwater and he wouldn’t be going home. He starts to shoot a picture and the low battery light goes on and he can’t take a picture of the damn thing. So he turns to the people assembled on the bridge and says, ‘Does anybody have a couple of AAA batteries.’ One man says, ‘Yeah, I got some.’ And before [the reporter] could do anything, the man jumps off the bridge into the water, swims 50 yards to his house on Canal Boulevard, which was under about eight feet of water already.
He opens the door, swims in, closes the door behind – which is a special comic touch [laughs] – and, about five minutes later, emerges with a plastic bag in his mouth that contains batteries. He swims toward the bridge, and tosses the bag up to [the reporter] so he could take photographs.
They keep on pedaling and, getting closer to the Lake, they come across the Southern Yacht Club in flames burning to the ground. This goes on for hours. They come to the Fillmore Avenue Bridge on the edge of Lakeview, where, already, there are about 30 people who have been rescued by Wildlife and Fisheries agents or police officers or both, in boats, who plucked them from their roofs.
When they find out that these two bicyclists are newspaper reporters, they’re overjoyed. Even though they’re not being rescued from this bridge, the idea that the newspaper has arrived to hear their story just makes them happy – and it’s a very gratifying feeling for the journalists, too. They keep on pedaling and get close to the 17th Street Canal breach, and, by then, night is beginning to fall.
nt: Were they in contact with you at all?
J. Amoss: No! Cell phones were completely kaput; we were completely incommunicado. There was no way to get any information to us. During this time – and I’ve looked at some of the transcripts of the national news broadcasts, from FOX News to CNN to NPR – [national reporters] all down in the French Quarter on Canal Street proclaiming that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet.” And [our reporters] were really the first to learn otherwise. It begins to get dark, and they have only one thought: ‘We have to get back to the newspaper and tell them the story.’
They eventually have to get off the railroad trestle, and it’s pitch black by now. There’s no power in the city, nothing illuminating anything, so all they have is this little LED light on one bicycle as they ford various streams to get back to the paper. Finally, about 9.30 p.m., we were in the middle of a news meeting by flashlight, and here these two guys caked in mud and floodwater come bursting into the huddle and say, ‘The real story is that the city is going under. There’s a breach in the canals and the water is filling the bowl.’
So we immediately put that up on our website, and, within an hour, we had an electronic version of page one of the Times-Picayune that we put on nola.com, and that’s how my family and I’m sure thousands of other first learned that night when they got on their computer that, contrary to what was being reporter by the national media, the city was being inundated. We blogged all through that night.
nt: What were you blogging?
J. Amoss: We still had reporters out there; we had photographers in various places.
nt: How were they filing stories and pictures?
J. Amoss: In some cases, they had satellite phones. Some had aircards that did work. And through various means. But there was also a fair amount of just physically coming and going. When we went to bed, the water in front of our building was beginning to pool in our parking lot, and I wasn’t really connecting that to the levee breach.
The idea that water from the lake could come as far as our building didn’t really compute in my brain, but then the next morning, when we woke and it was a beautiful day – not even wind rustling the leaves – the water had risen to the third step of building, and it was gaining about an inch every five minutes.
At the same time – and this is about 9:00 a.m. – we got reports that there had been a prison break at Orleans Parish Prison, which is just across the Interstate from us, that people had escaped. And a team of photographers and reporters had come across a mass of looters of a wholesale store near our building and had been chased away by the looters.
The thin veneer of civilization was just evaporating and the water was rising higher by the minute so that whatever cars we had left in our parking lot were completely flooded and all we had left were these diesel newspaper delivery trucks that had water up the headlights. But we knew we had a chance to get out on them, and so that’s about the time that we decided we needed to evacuate, because we knew were trapped there, and if we waited any longer, people could no longer come and go and who knows how long we would be there.
So we herded everybody to our loading dock, pulled up about a dozen newspaper delivery trucks, and just funneled people into the backs of these trucks, sitting down where, normally, pallets of newspapers go. We had about 240 people that we had to herd in there from the publisher on down. And, one by one, the trucks pulled away onto this service road on our building, which was already under about three feet of water.
We were trying to get to the Interstate, which is right in front of our building, but, in order to get there, you have to go down about a mile of service road all the way to Jeff Davis overpass, where Xavier [University] begins. And the water on the service road kept getting deeper. As this caravan is proceeding, one by one, the dashboard on the trucks would show warning lights that said “water in the fuel.”
At that point, I really did not know if were going to make it. We had not only the journalists and other people (circulation, advertising), but also other people that we’d allowed to stay in the building – relatives, old people, small children three and six months old. We get the Jeff Davis overpass and there’s a truck just stalled in the middle of that road, so we had to around into even deeper water, go the wrong way up the Howard Avenue exit ramp, and I remember the first truck made it onto that dry Interstate, and the people were cheering.
And, amazingly, one by one, all of the trucks made it onto the Interstate and made a U-turn headed toward the Crescent City Connection [bridge over the Mississippi River]. We really didn’t know where we were going at that point. We knew vaguely that we needed to go to a bigger city – probably Baton Rouge – and here we were crossing the bridge, passing people carrying belongings on their backs, people with children on their arms, and we headed to our West Bank bureau in Gretna, which was on dry land but was completely devoid of power.
We got there and just unloaded in the parking lot debating what to do next, gathering our wits. And that’s when we made some very important decisions. One, we decided we needed to get to Baton Rouge and set up a temporary newsroom. Two, we needed to have a place where, as soon as possible, we could start printing and producing a physical newspaper. That was Houma, Louisiana, we decided, where we had a good relationship with the local paper. Perhaps most importantly, we decided we needed to send one of the trucks back into New Orleans with a team of reporters, photographers, and a leader to set up a base and continue reporting from the city.
nt: So nobody had stayed behind at the Times-Picayune. You sent everyone away to regroup, and then you sent a team back?
J. Amoss: Not entirely true. We had photographers who were still in the city roaming around, and who hadn’t come out with us. And we had people in some suburban locations – we had our St. Tammany staff in St. Tammany, and we had a few people in East Jefferson. But the core of the journalistic group had evacuated the building, and we were at that moment completely without a reporting staff in the city of New Orleans, where the story was. So we had to get back in.
Almost immediately, about 16 people, from various walks of the newsroom, volunteered to be on that truck – people as diverse as the sports editor, the editorial page editor, the art critic, the popular music critic, and various city reporters as you might expect. So they commandeered one of the trucks and went back to the city, and the first thing they came across was the Wal-Mart on Tchopitoulas Street, which had a huge crowd gathered around it, which they assumed was some kind of relief operation, because they could see policemen. And they pulled in to get some supplies for wherever their base was going to be only to discover that it was a scene of mass looting and that many of the police offers were participating in the looting – several photos of which we shot.
The rest of us went on to Houma, where we dropped off a team of people at the Houma Courrier, which just couldn’t have been more hospitable – welcomed us and put everything in their plant at our disposal. And the biggest group of remaining people – about 140 – went along Bayou LaForche north to Baton Rouge, where I’d managed to contact the dean of the [Louisiana State University] journalism school, who is a friend of mine, and who welcomed us and just turned over all their classrooms and all their state-of-the-art computer equipment to us.
We sat down and immediately started putting out a newspaper, the Tuesday-for-Wednesday edition, and we were beginning already to get dispatches from the team we’d sent back into the city, which found a working land line at the house of some elderly people across the street from the editorial page editor’s house. So all of these little, wonderful, serendipitous things fell into place and allowed us to publish without interruption, though we weren’t producing a print paper that night.
nt: I heard that some of the New Orleans staff hunkered down and made a war room in the Uptown home of a columnist.
J. Amoss: Where they ended up was the house of the mother of a photographer, on the West Bank. Then, later on, two days later, they found the house of a political columnist of ours, Stephanie Grace in Uptown, because they really needed to be on the East Bank to do their reporting.
nt: And so that’s where the New Orleans team was sleeping and working?
J. Amoss: Yep, on Laurel Street.
nt: How many was she hosting there?
J. Amoss: Well, she wasn’t physically there [laughs], but she was allowing at various times about a dozen people living in that house. Eventually, we were able to get a generator to them, and supplies of diesel fuel for their trucks. But communication out was such a changeable and tricky thing.
For a while, the land line of that elderly couple was working, but then there were days when they had to bring the news physically to Houma, Louisiana, or call in by phone and dictate it. Really, you have to be a genius when you’re in those situations.
One reporter told me he got a story dictated because he could call to non-Louisiana locations from several phones. So he called his son in Washington and dictated his story to the son, who in turn called it back into us in Baton Rouge. Just all sorts of circuitous ways to get it out, and people are just very resourceful in those situations.
nt: After the flood began, sending reporters back into New Orleans meant you were exposing them to physical danger. What was that like for you, as an editor?
J. Amoss: People are just driven to report, and unstoppable in those situations. And several reckless maneuvers happened that I just didn’t learn about until they were history. The sports editor kayaking into Lakeview – when the water was still rising – and going into his house to rescue his dog. And a photographer in a canoe who watched us evacuate in our trucks and hid on a flooded street on his boat because he didn’t want us to see him, lest we compel him to evacuate – he wanted to stay and report.
At one point, several reporters were driving one of the delivery trucks and the police pulled them over, hauled them out of the truck, and put guns to their heads because they assumed they were looters going around town. It was an utterly lawless, chaotic place to be in, and yes, it was extremely dangerous.
David Meeks, the sports editor, became the de fact leader of the New Orleans team, and, about three days into their reporting, the cops come to the door of this columnist’s house, and David answers, and the cops ask who they are – because they’re supposed to be in evacuation – and the guy says, ‘Are you armed?’David assumes that they’ve come to take weapons away, and David says, ‘No, of course not, we’re reporters.’ And the cops say, ‘Well, can you make yourselves armed?’ Which is an amazing question from a police officer. And about an hour later, a SWAT team comes back and delivers to our reporters an AK-47 and a shotgun and gives them instructions on how to use them. So that is a measure of the danger and the recognition on the part of law enforcement that they really couldn’t ensure anybody’s safety.
nt: So did anything catastrophic happen to any of the reporters or photographers?
J. Amoss: No, amazingly not. We had sent a reporter to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in advance of the storm to hunker down there, since that was his home territory – he’s from Bay St. Louis. So the storm passes through and we didn’t hear a word from our reporter, Leslie Williams. Not on day one, not on day two, not on day three. This goes on for a week. Not a peep. Nobody can find him, and eventually I assume that he has perished.
We were very slow to learn what had happened on the Gulf Coast, but eventually we learned it was just destroyed, and I assumed that he was just washed away in it. On about day eight, I got a telephone call from Leslie Williams, who had been totally stranded in this no-man’s land of wreckage and finally had found his way to someplace where there was communication out. In my mind, I had written his obituary until I found out that he had survived.
nt: When did you start delivering the paper to doorsteps again?
J. Amoss: The first print edition of the Times-Picayune we produced on Thursday night in Houma. We had been three nights with electronic editions only. We printed about 50,000 copies of that paper – our normal circulation is about 270,000 – and distributed them mainly to shelters in various parts of Louisiana (Baton Rouge, et cetera), just handing them out free. But, very rapidly, the circulation grew. I think, within a week, we were up to 80,000 or 90,000, and at the end of the week people had returned to the suburbs, especially St. Tammany, Covington, Mandeville, and eventually parts of Slidell, where we first started delivering papers again.
It continues to be a huge challenge for our circulation department – really to start from scratch. You don’t know where people are, who has returned. Our various carriers and dealers have evacuated themselves, and so we had circulation department executives manning the trucks, delivering papers.
They say that when you pass a house at about 3:00 a.m., you can always tell whether it’s inhabited or not, and that was kind of their way of reconnoitering – if there were cars at that point or a sign of electricity here or there, then you knew somebody was back at that house.
nt: So they were just throwing papers to any house that looked inhabited?
J. Amoss: Yes, or jotting down the address and trying to make telephone contact, which of course was made difficult by land lines being almost nonexistent. But, in the first couple of months, we desperately needed people to man the phones in circulation to start making contact with readers who had returned, and several newsroom people were drafted to go down to circulation to help man the phones and build up our readership.
nt: And now you have routes again, and trucks, and everything else?
J. Amoss: Yeah, the most problematic areas are Orleans Parish and St. Bernard, especially in the flooded areas. So we have one house on one block, then you have to go another two blocks to find another house – pretty far-flung newspaper routes.
nt: With New Orleans refugees scattered around the state and the country, is the Times-Picayune now a Baton Rouge paper, also? Are you delivering copies to Houston, Atlanta, or any of the other cities known to have accommodated the refugees?
J. Amoss: Yes and no. At first, our Baton Rouge circulation went up considerably – probably around 5,000 or 6,000. But then, as people started drifting back into New Orleans, it – it’s still higher than it ever was, but nowhere near those numbers.
Our metro New Orleans circulation is far more robust than I would have predicted last September. It’s now at around 200,000. And advertising is pretty robust in the paper.
nt: Does that mean you’re on sure enough footing to be financially sustainable?
J. Amoss: Oh yeah, we’re back in business. New Orleans is going to be a very jittery place all through this hurricane season, and people are going to evacuate with the drop of a hat, and there’s going to be a lot of interruption of business if that happens.
And if, God forbid, the city is inundated again, that would be terrible for everybody. But we’re quite hopeful both about the city’s economy and about our own prospects.
nt: Which brings up another issue. New Orleans, essentially, is being remade from something near scratch. Obviously, as the daily, the Times-Picayune can shape that – and maybe you should. How do you balance the need to report the news against the need to prevent the city from recreating some of the same problems that made it such a famously strange place to live?
J. Amoss: How do you keep from being a naked advocate in the news columns? That’s not easy. It’s both the virtue and the vice of these times. The virtue – in the passion that we, as New Orleans, bring to these stories fuels our best work.
On the other hand, there’s the danger that your own emotions about the story or about the political situation will blur into the news columns, and the only way to do it is to be very vigilant about it. The other week, the [Army] Corps of Engineers [who built the levee that broke and flooded the city] – who, as you know, are not the most popular folks around this town – had asked to come over and have a meeting with our editorial board and other editors.
This one editor whose house was lost in the storm came to me and said, “Please, please do not invite me to this meeting. I do not think I’ll be able to sit there and not lunge across the table at these people.” And, to me, that was a real wakeup call about what we need to guard against. I’m glad he brought it to me, but it showed a kind of raw emotion that could easily spill into the news columns.
nt: The population is so different from what it was before. What do the new demographics of New Orleans mean for the Times-Picayune?
J. Amoss: It changes from week to week. Probably the biggest demographic shift is from people mostly in Orleans and St. Bernard resettling on the North Shore in St. Tammany Parish. It’s visible in traffic jams and overcrowded schools there, which is quite a phenomenon. It means for us that we have to cover that area more intensely, though we were covering it very intensely before.
There has been a large influx of mostly Hispanic workers and construction crews; you see them riding in the backs of pickup trucks or waiting at various temporary employment places. It’s quite a significant phenomenon, and it’s still too early to tell how many are transitory and how many may actually stay here and change the face of the city in that regard.
The African-American population is somewhat diminished, although not as drastically as some of the national reports were predicting in the winter, and I think the reelection of [Mayor] Ray Nagin testifies to that.
Page first published: 28.06.2006
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