The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sept. 4, 2005
NEW ORLEANS –My beautiful city is gone.
I call it “my” city because I lived here for almost six years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life.
This is a city that got into my blood, as anyone who has seen my Philadelphia home – decorated with memories from my time here – can testify. Some of my dearest friends live here. Some of my best times were had here.
And last week, I watched New Orleans die.
My friends are alive, but many of them have lost something: their homes or belongings, maybe their jobs.
This is a city of celebration, and now there is only sorrow. The flooding throughout the city, they say, can be blamed on Hurricane Katrina.
But I honestly believe that tears – so many tears shed by so many people in the last few days – have added to the problem.
This is worse than my time in Iraq. There, the language barrier meant I was always a little bit separate. Here, I can understand every word people say to me, and it’s killing me. This is the hardest thing I have ever covered.
Maybe it’s so hard because I love this city and my friends and I see them all falling apart. Maybe it’s the horrible things I’ve seen in the last few days.
There have been so many “worst moments.”
I was interviewing a man when a woman walked up to me, weeping, and said: “Can you write down my name? Because I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
She had waited at the convention center to be evacuated for about a day without food or water.
“I don’t know where my husband and kids are,” she said. “They went to a hotel for the storm, but now people tell me the hotel is empty.”
I wrote down her name – later lost when the notebook got wet and pages ripped out – and gave her a hug. I tried to comfort her. But what could I do?
There are dogs,dozens, loose on the streets and highways. I have yet to meet a bad one. I pet every dog, diseases be damned, and am always rewarded with wags. The ones that have collars, I try to see where they’re from. Some tags have addresses, and the addresses are inevitably underwater. There’s no way I can make a call.
Strangers begfor water. They want to know where you’re staying and if they can stay with you. They want you to put their names in the paper so their loved ones can find them.
I feelthat I’ve met people who are going to die very soon. They are old and frail and unable or unwilling to evacuate. Some are resigned. Others are angry.
I have seen dead bodiesbefore, many times, in my work as a police reporter. Never have I seen so many at once, and so many treated so callously. In actuality, it’s a practicality now as the focus here is not on preserving the dead but saving the still-living.
For the last few days,I haven’t been just a reporter and writer. I’ve been a counselor, a consoler, listener, friend. I start my day with a wad of tissues in my pocket and by the end of the day, there are none.
I have flagged down help for sick people and helped carry them to resting places.
I’ve tried to coax smiles and laughs from sad-eyed children, succeeding every time I sketch a Snoopy in my reporter’s notebook and give it to them.
I wonder, sometimes, if that’s crossing some journalistic line. Then I think I really don’t care.
I feel bad that I can leave this. I feel bad that I feel bad about losing some of my own belongings in the flood. People have lost their lives or their homes, and I’m upset about a few rings?
I started one story with an anecdote about an elderly man who died while being evacuated, and how his body was propped in a lawn chair in a busy area, covered with a yellow blanket. His wife was sitting next to him.
A National Guardsman said his men could take the wife but would have to send someone back for the man. The soldier asked me whether I could get someone to keep a watch over the body so no one “did something” to it.
Before the Guard drove off, the soldier and I looked at each other. We both had tears in our eyes.
The next day, when I was back in that area with other reporters. I said, “Oh, this is near where Booker T. Harris died, the man I wrote about.” And I looked and there he was, still in his chair.
That man had lived for 91 years and this is how it ended.