[JPL] How we forgot the city of jazz and jambalaya
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
Dr. Jazz Operations
Oak Park, MI 48237
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