As America faces the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – for those who lived through it, the scale and complexity of the disaster remain beyond words. Living it is one thing, understanding it is another. And reporting it, is yet another.
And as Spike Lee has discovered along with a myriad of other filmmakers, producers and writers – documenting the process of recovery is an ominous endeavor. There is no definitive story to tell. It is ongoing, dynamic, tragic and hopeful at the same time. But even more challenging is communicating to the rest of the nation the meaning and dynamics of recovery, and how our nation learns from the past and prepares for future disasters.
I traveled twice to the region since Katrina as an independent journalist and filmmaker. The first time was in July of 2007 to South Mississippi. And I returned last October, spending most of my time in New Orleans. Immediately following my return last fall, I wrote two multi-media pieces for Truthout. The first, “N.O. Sanity, No Peace: New Orleans and the Mental Health Care Crisis,” and the second “Reinventing Paradise: New Orleans and the Invisible Coast.”
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Both stories became more essays than news pieces because it’s truly impossible to be objective about what has happened and continues to happen there. My experience with the people with whom I worked and interviewed has impacted my life in a deep and meaningful way. What I came away with and what continues to resonate with me today is that the psychological impact of the disaster far exceeds the physical damage. And that the national news media and its “star” oriented journalism corrupts the essence of every story they attempt to report.
One of the most uplifting revelations that came out of my time on the Gulf Coast was that there are many dedicated local journalists who have done tremendous work informing and helping citizens to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, much of their work is lost in the gaggle that is the national media. One such outstanding journalist that I met and who graciously invited me into his home to be interviewed is Jarvis DeBerry of the Times Picayune. His soft-spoken and articulate recollections covering Katrina were emotional and insightful with a twist of humor thrown in.
Tracie L. Washington, the irascible and eloquent civil rights attorney and director of the Louisiana Justice Institute, has been a force of nature in defense of workers rights since Katrina. She has also been fully engage in a myriad of issues facing New Orleanians, from health care to environmental justice in the rebuilding of neighborhoods to the right of return for internally displaced people
For years yet to come, the lessons of Katrina will ebb and flow, compounded by new challenges and cataclysms such as the BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. But unfortunately, modern day America, led by a grotesque, narcissistic and delusional national media, is about forgetting all that is uncomfortable, and deflecting calls for meaningful accountability when man-made disasters strike such as the flood that followed the storm in New Orleans. But my sense is that vital lessons are missed and the most relevant questions go unasked such as, is redemption really possible in the midst of such chaos, greed and corruption?
The answer to this question came to me as we arrived at a Thursday night, curbside church service in the Lower Ninth Ward on St. Claude Street sponsored by an amazing array of people from the St. Paul Church of God in Christ homeless shelter. This inspiring moment brought tears to my eyes as I began filming at dusk – there is an indomitable spirit that comes out of suffering if you allow it.
The rebuilding of infrastructure is a straightforward matter – the resurrection of human spirit is another. And although so many believed that the triumph of the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl heralded a new beginning for the Crescent City, who knew that just two months later BP’s Deepwater Horizon would blow, poisoning the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in unimaginable ways? The psychological temperature of the region continues to rise, and the infrastructure to deal with many human needs remains fragile.
Officer Cecile Tebo of the New Orleans Police Department’s crisis intervention unit has had a busy couple of years since Katrina. Her mandate is to intervene on behalf of disturbed citizens on the streets who become a danger to themselves and others around them. She has been called to literally thousands of cases and has become a local hero for her work and commitment to those suffering throughout New Orleans.
Many have described Katrina as a single storm that generated two very different disasters. Although clearly New Orleans is the highest profile city in the region – the devastation that struck South Mississippi was vast and profoundly shocking. Another strange phenomenon that is difficult to get one’s head around is how news coverage of Katrina’s equal opportunity devastation from the Texas border all the way to the Florida Pan Handle could be supplanted by a myopic focus on New Orleans in the national media.
The story of South Mississippi’s plight never really broke through to the national media. And to this day, five years after the storm, scanning the national news, barely a word has been devoted to Mississippi’s recovery.
In July of 2007, seeing this clear lack of attention on Mississippi and at the urging of a former colleague working and living in the region, I took aim at the regional newspaper as a source of information and insight. When I arrived in Gulfport, what we found at the Sun Herald was a team of dedicated, old school journalists, lead by publisher Ricky Matthews. Following the storm, the paper was up and running after only a week. And although it was being printed in Ohio and shipped to Gulfport – the Sun Herald was one of the most important institutions to stabilize the entire region in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and throughout the entire reconstruction process.
Real journalists avoid making themselves part of the story and pursue a noble cause of informing their readership. But in this case, the Sun Herald and its staff deserves recognition for what they did for their communities, fulfilling the unstated role as the fourth branch of government in such a time of extreme crisis as Hurricane Katrina.
But for Mathews and others on his staff, including Stan Tiner his executive editor, their candor was remarkable when I met and interviewed them on camera in July of 2007. Their struggle and commitment to reporting facts, especially when it came to recognizing the role that the unlikely mix of illegal immigrant labor, casinos and Christian volunteer relief workers played in the reconstruction of the entire region, represents the brand of journalism that a functional democracy demands.
Video Pods produced and directed by Robert Corsini. More video viewable at www.aboriginalmedia.net. Co-Producer, Natalie Noel.