Column: Harvey brings back memories of Katrina

Twelve years later, the headline still stands out in my mind. I’ve read thousands of newspaper headlines since, written hundreds more, most of them easily forgettable.

The Aug. 28, 2005, edition of the Times-Picayune, though, featured three bold words in all caps across page 1, an ominous delectation of what was to come: “KATRINA TAKES AIM.” A drophead under the main headline issued a dire warning: “Levees could be topped in the entire metro area.” In the days that followed in New Orleans, crumpled copies of the paper could be found along deserted streets amid the debris of a city besieged by water.

It would be several days before another issue of the Times-Picayune was printed. The staff had no choice but to flee its office as rising waters put everyone in harm’s way. Still, the reporters, photographers, editors and other staff pushed forward, continuing to publish news online. Headlines of the paper published online progressed from “Ground Zero” (Aug. 29, 2005) to “Catastrophic” (Aug. 30, 2005) and eventually back to a printed edition with “Help Us, Please” (Sept. 2, 2005).

As many people have this week, I’ve thought back to the disaster in New Orleans just over a decade ago as Harvey unleashed similar destruction to the Texas coast, Houston and parts of Louisiana. Images of people stranded on their roofs; elderly people in wheelchairs soaked in rising water; boats cruising down city streets past submerged cars; and heroic people risking their lives to rescue fellow citizens.

Crises like what’s unfolding in Texas reminds me of the power of journalism. Just like in New Orleans a decade ago, journalists are risking their lives to cover a story, to provide real-time information to desperate residents. I’m always drawn to the behind-the-scenes stories of journalists who must put their own lives on hold to continue doing the job. In an era of “fake news,” it’s more important than ever to remember the courageous work so many in the areas affected by Harvey are doing.

In Victoria, Texas, staff members at the community paper, the Victoria Advocate, showed up at the office last Friday with non-perishables, air mattresses and clothes. Backup generators powered a few computers when the power went out. They also lost water.

Poytner, a nonprofit school for journalism, has published several accounts in the past week of journalists in Texas, including the story of the Victoria Advocate. The reporters have published stories online, through Facebook Live and an e-edition of the paper.

“About 11 people are still staying at the office,” Poytner writer Kristen Hare reported. “Two reporters sleep under their desks. One found a fainting couch in the women’s bathroom. A few waiting room couches are makeshift beds, too.”

In Houston, at TV station KHOU 11 News, floodwaters quickly began to creep into the station’s building Sunday, forcing the crew to create a makeshift studio on the second floor. A video posted on Twitter soon showed water rushing through the front door. The water came in so fast that the crew quickly realized an evacuation was necessary.

“KHOU reporter Brandi Smith and photographer Mario Sandoval remained out in the field, transmitting live feeds from near Beltway 8 and Hardy Toll Road on the north side of Houston,” the Washington Post’s Amy Wang reported. “For about half an hour, Smith and Sandoval were the only ones holding down the broadcast for one of Houston’s major news stations.”

The New York Times published a story written by Clifford Krauss from Bellaire, Texas, titled “A Reporter’s Tale in Houston: When a Story Becomes Your Own Disaster.” Mr. Krauss published the firsthand account from his home as the street outside was transformed into a raging river, pushing water into his house.

As a senior in college, my thesis centered on media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, specifically on local papers like the Times-Picayune and national papers like The New York Times. I reread hundreds of stories beginning from before the storm even formed up through the initial recovery efforts.

What always struck me what was the depth of reporting from several publications in the years leading up to Katrina that detailed how destructive a hurricane directly hitting New Orleans could be. Both the Times-Picayune and National Geographic had published multi-part series that read like an exact play-by-play of what eventually unfolded in New Orleans in late August 2005. Perhaps it was too late by then for significant changes to be made in the city before Katrina eventually did hit. But it provided lessons that remain today.

Consider the reporting on the dangers of climate change. And then think how climate change may have contributed to Harvey’s destruction. Last winter, the Gulf of Mexico never dropped below 73 degrees — the first time that’s happened, the New York Times reported. Warmer waters create more moisture in the air and the potential for more rain.

The National Weather Service described the storm as “unprecedented … and beyond anything experienced.” There might be a reason for that.

Photo caption: A U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer walks toward an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter at Air Station Houston Aug. 27. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki)

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].