Posted on Sat, Sep. 24, 2005 Covering Hurricane Katrina A reporter's view: Adrenaline and willingness take over By Kymberli Hagelberg Beacon Journal staff writer On Aug. 31, two days after one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history made landfall on the Gulf Coast, I was driving toward the bayou from Jackson, Miss. in a rented SUV. Beacon Journal photographer Mike Cardew and I were headed for our Knight Ridder sister paper in Biloxi, the Sun Herald, guided by only the vague e-mail, ``Send Cardew and Hagelberg. They should know housing and gasoline are uncertain.'' Electronics of all kinds were hit and miss after the storm, so it took another 24 hours to find a bank that could give cash advances on our credit cards and a grocery where we could stock up on water, canned foods, first-aid supplies and antibiotic baby wipes -- crucial for life without running water. We bought four large gas cans in a darkened hardware store, where the owner made change from a coffee can. That night, we slept in our twin gas hogs, third in line at the pumps in Hattiesburg, waiting for morning and our share of rationed fuel. The people stuck with us in that five-mile-long gas line were the subject of our first story. Since there was no way to contact the Biloxi paper, our Akron night desk reporter, Sandra Klepach, took dictation from me on a pay phone, then forwarded the story to our Washington bureau. Cardew got his pictures out by persuading the night clerk at the sold-out hotel next door to let him use a fax line to send photos. We finally reached the Sun Herald parking lot just before noon Thursday. All along the route, the mark of Katrina's embrace was clear in cities with musical names like Waveland, Pass Christian and Pascagoula. Antebellum mansions, nouveau riche condos and blue-collar shacks across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were wiped from time -- crushed to splinters and jagged metal. Above the rubble, the sweet, odd smell of decomposition, gas and human waste hung in the air. Sun Herald Executive Editor Stan Tiner described Biloxi's piece of the coast this way in a recent essay about life B.K. (Before Katrina) and A.K. (After Katrina). ``Before Katrina, the beachfront drive down Highway 90 was the most beautiful 26 miles in America. ``After Katrina, there is no Highway 90.''
Survivor accounts were unimaginable. Houses along the beach floated away with their owners on the hurricane's 30-foot tidal surge and were slammed to pieces on the shore by 145-mph winds. Those who were young or strong or lucky enough swam for their lives. Those who weren't found their graves in the debris and the high branches of beachfront trees. What was left stunned those who had ridden out previous storms. ``I took a walk on the beach and it was filled with all kinds of personal things,'' said Biloxi-born Gary Eriksen. ``There were clothes and furniture and toys and bicycles.... I kept thinking, `Where are the people who need these clothes? Where is the kid who is supposed to ride that bike?' '' I walked along that same beach alone on my first day in Biloxi, trying to get my bearings where landmarks had vanished and street signs had washed away. Nothing I had read or watched to prepare myself even touched the reality of the devastation people were suffering on the Gulf Coast. But what the newspaper needed was people -- adrenaline, and my willingness, soon took over. For eight days, the Sun Herald was our MASH unit where we worked, socialized, ate, rested and fussed with each other. Teams of reporters covered storm recovery efforts, public health dangers, the economy, breaking news, national issues, faith and coping in the Sun Herald's six-county area. Everyone in the building came back with small bits of information for a daily blog that was printed in the newspaper and posted on the Internet. Line after line of lists -- telling who was lost, who survived, which roads and homes were damaged and how to get medicine, food and home repairs -- became a lifeline for South Mississippians without power. People who had fuel often used it to drive to the Sun Herald each day to pick up newspapers they would share with neighbors. Others left lines for food and water to get free copies we passed out in the community each day. Long before the feds and big charities came to the central Gulf Coast, small churches, civic organizations and fire departments from across the country headed south. Many called the Sun Herald to find out where aid was needed most. It was my first experience living the story I was covering, and my first work without the emotional distance journalists are taught to guard. We ``loaners'' moved into the newspaper building we all knew had recently been ``Category 4 Certified.'' We slept on cots in the circulation conference room, made flashlight-toting midnight runs to port-o-potties that lined the edge of the parking lot, ate hot and cold canned everything, and, after five sweltering days, showered outdoors in a tent stocked with bottled water. On the fourth or fifth day after the storm, a nearby shelter was evacuated because health authorities worried that conditions for cholera and typhoid were present. A volunteer doctor lined us all up for tetanus shots and set up bleach and water stations where we sprayed off our boots before entering the building. Compared to the people beyond our guarded compound, we volunteers lived well. Out in the cities, residents still fought traffic jams, the Mississippi heat and interminable lines. Some rolled their possessions through town in shopping carts packed with donated ice that would melt into memory before they reached their destinations. Every day I was there, Mississippians who seemed to need catharsis more than privacy trusted us to tell their stories and answer their questions. Almost to a person, Southerners who had lost everything offered up what little hospitality they had left. Now that I'm home, I remember the funny times. A Biloxi editor's close encounter with a port-o-potty and a forklift has become Knight Ridder legend. I was there for only a short time, but the heroes of the Sun Herald staff are still meeting their deadlines. Most never stopped working, though the smallest details of their own lives lay in shambles. I feel a little guilty -- and relieved -- to be safe at home as we all go forward after Katrina, and to know that everyone I love is well and safe.
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