Before it became every awful thing its name evokes today, Hurricane Katrina was a Category 1 storm that killed seven people while swamping southern Florida. As the eye headed into the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters predicted Katrina would make landfall again somewhere from the Florida Panhandle to southern Alabama as a Category 4 — with sustained winds faster than 130 mph.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles away in Little Rock, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newsroom managers were deciding where to send a couple of reporting teams. The paper covered hurricanes first-hand as a matter of course.
Managing Editor David Bailey wanted to place staff members close to the story but not into it, not in harm’s way. Late Aug. 26, a Friday, with the storm expected to hit Monday, he bracketed the danger zone by assigning Jill Zeman and Michelle Posey to Pensacola, Fla., and Michelle Hillen and Stephen B. Thornton to New Orleans.
The teams rented two SUVs — “We got the full insurance,” Assistant Managing Editor Barry Arthur recalls — and strapped 10-gallon spare gas tanks to the roofs. They loaded the newsroom’s “hit kits” into the back. These kits were tubs or coolers packed with pillows and blankets, satellite modems and phones, a snakebite kit, MREs, Vienna sausages, water — gear for rough camping.
As the forecast changed, Bailey redirected Zeman and Posey to Mobile, Ala. They rode out a bad Sunday night in a hotel two miles from the coast before making their perilous way to Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss.
Zeman would recall seeing dogs stained emerald green by chemicals from a demolished store’s fishing-net dye vats. The smell of death was overpowering.
Bailey was familiar with a theory that New Orleans’ levees could fail under direct pressure from a storm and so, just in case, he told Thornton and Hillen to find a hotel in the French Quarter, which is high ground. Also, they should park their Durango on the second level of a parking deck or higher. They did neither of those things, Bailey says.
Hundreds of thousands evacuated New Orleans on Sunday as Katrina, ballooning to Category 5, aimed for the Louisiana coast. This Page 1 of the Aug. 30, 2005, Democrat-Gazette reported that the storm was Category 4 at landfall. Its storm surge was hellacious. Levees did fail. The swamping of one rented Dodge Durango on Canal Street was nothing, not even trivia, in an enormous panorama of death, misery, darkness and violence. In the aftermath, 400,000 people were displaced, with about 75,000 refugees coming to Arkansas.
Reporter Amy Upshaw coordinated the teams’ dispatches and compiled them into front-page stories. Over the coming month, Bailey says, the paper sent 13 reporters and photographers to cover the aftermath. The paper still had hands on the coast in mid-September when Hurricane Rita dumped itself on top of the devastation.
— Celia Storey
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