Anyone hungry for the big news story might be underwhelmed by a newspaper announcing that it was restoring the ratings for restaurant reviews.
But that was “a big deal” for The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans daily paper, according to its editor Jim Amoss. “It signalled a degree of return to normality and recovery that everyone here understood immediately. We had stopped reviewing restaurants critically since Hurricane Katrina because we felt it was impossible for the restaurants with their staff shortages and limited facilities to achieve the standards our critic would apply. Now we have decided that the restaurant scene is robust enough to withstand critiquing. The New York Times wrote a piece about it which shows they understood how much a bread and butter issue like that means to the city.”
Very few outsiders understand how enduring are the effects of Katrina – which swept through the city three years ago this Thursday (28 August), flooding 80 per cent of New Orleans and killing almost 1,500 people. Very few observers write about it. One of the world’s most cataclysmic natural disasters, one made worse by official incompetence and corruption, is almost forgotten.
The visitor to the rackety bars of the French Quarter and restaurants such as Brennan’s, Mother’s and Bayona would have no idea that, even now, there is mile after mile of blighted housing a few minutes from the commotion of Bourbon Street. One third of the city’s population has yet to return, their homes wrecked or demolished, thousands still live in trailers, thousands more are waiting to be paid their rehousing allowance or insurance money. A recent survey published by The Times-Picayune showed that increasing numbers were thinking of leaving the city for good, citing increasing stress, poor health facilities, crime and corruption.
Just imagine how newspapers in this country would have reacted if 160,000 people – about the population of Brighton – had been homeless for three years, forced to find lodging in distant towns or to survive in trailer parks. Instead, coverage by the international and national news media in the run-up to the anniversary is negligible, with only a report by the news agency Reuters contrasting the elegant streets of the French Quarter with areas like New Orleans East, where “many houses slowly rot, still bearing on their walls the painted marks left by the US military to show whether corpses were inside”.
Amoss, 61, the paper’s editor for 18 years, takes a wry view: “I don’t think we are on people’s minds. We have to contend with those voices, particularly on pop radio, which say ‘New Orleanians with their eternal whining – why don’t they pull themselves up by their boot straps?’ It cuts both ways. We are regarded with distrust because we do these strange things like Mardi Gras, and we have far too much fun, which seems un-American, and that produces resentment. There is also a deep well of affection for the place, as we see from the volunteers who have come here in their thousands to help the rebuilding.”
Two years ago, Amoss told the American Bar Association, “Katrina is and will be a defining moment of our lives. A story we’ll be telling till the day we die...” Now he says: “I wondered a year-and-a-half ago whether there would ever come a time when the word hurricane or Katrina would not appear on, or near, page one. There have been some days when there hasn’t been a single story on page one [mentioning Katrina], but that is still a rarity because it is the fabric of our life. When we first started reporting Katrina we sent a reporter and photographer to visit the scenes of other natural disasters.
“The two themes we heard were: be patient and do not expect too much for several years, and the other was: don’t expect government to be the generator of your recovery because you will be disappointed. The progress will come from the grass roots, from people who just roll up their sleeves and go about their individual lives, pitching in.
“That’s been true of the federal government which, although it did provide quite a bit of funds, was deplorable in getting them to the people; and it was right about the amount of volunteerism – which one would normally discount as nice but insufficient, but has proved tremendous.”
A picayune was a Spanish coin, equivalent to three pence, and the name of another city paper which merged with The Times in 1914. The modern paper prides itself on tapping into the grass roots – covering everything from the Pothole Patrol, which monitors municipal problems, to the opening of a new school.
Above all it has campaigned against corruption, “playing to the hilt” the alleged misappropriation of hurricane rehousing funds by a department supervised and financed by Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration. Combined with its fearless examination of racism and crime, the formula has helped keep the circulation hovering at the 180,000 mark for the past year, which, in the context of the American newspaper industry is “not a bad result”, says Amoss.
“We have not so much changed in the degree of our localness, but [the paper] has changed in intensity and relevance because so much was at stake – the very survival of the community was hanging in the balance.”
What has altered has been the use of the website – Nola.com. When the storm struck, most of the staff evacuated to Baton Rouge – one hour west – where for three days the paper relied solely on the website to report the story.
“That absolutely changed our perception of journalism,” says New Orleans-born Amoss, who spent the night of the storm in his sleeping bag in the office opposite the ill-fated Superdome, where thousands of evacuees were trapped. “Before Katrina, there were colleagues in the newsroom who were sceptical of the value of the internet, but then even the most dinosaurish realised this was the only way to reach scattered readers. It changed our owner’s view of the website, too, because suddenly we went from 700,000 page views to 30 million over night. It was a sea change for us.”
Maybe the tragedy of New Orleans is largely ignored by the rest of the world because the sea change that took place in the newsroom is not reflected on the streets of the city. “Everything happens on a micro scale of thousands of little decisions with each one having a thousand little ingredients. Can I afford it? What is my insurance going to be? Can I find a contractor to help me? Will I be all alone in a block without neighbours?,” he observes.
“We are part of the plot and that’s deeply unsettling. It’s the story of our lives – the paper’s and the city’s – and we must both live and chronicle it.”