[JPL] How we forgot the city of jazz and jambalaya

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Aug 25 16:32:57 EDT 2008

  How we forgot the city of jazz and jambalaya

Three years after Hurricane Katrina, the world's media has lost sight of 
the ongoing misery in New Orleans. Richard Holledge picks up the story

/Monday, 25 August 2008/

Anyone hungry for the big news story might be underwhelmed by a 
newspaper announcing that it was restoring the ratings for restaurant 

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 

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."


Dr. Jazz
Dr. Jazz Operations
24270 Eastwood
Oak Park, MI  48237
(248) 542-7888
SKYPE:  drjazz99

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