Calling Katrina

New Orleans Times-Picayune’s 2005 hurricane coverage included in NYU’s “Top 10 Works of the Decade”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina from August to December 2005 has been named one of the top ten works of journalism of the decade in the United States.

With less than two months until the start of this year’s tropical storm season in the Atlantic, the honor is also a timely reminder of the paper’s ongoing coverage of efforts to shore up the system of levees meant to protect New Orleans from storm surges and floods.

The faculty of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, together with a group of distinguished outside judges, ranked the Times-Picayune eighth on the list, which is topped by The New York Times’s coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the fall of 2001 and otherwise dominated by war and economics reporting.

It’s not the first commendation that the Times-Picayune has received for this particular body of work. In 2006, the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting and for Public Service, “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper’s resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.” In 2005, it won the George Polk Award for Metropolitan Reporting. In its announcement of the prize, the Polk committee noted that:

With only a skeleton staff whose members themselves were displaced from their homes, the paper persevered, covering the disaster and serving as a critical and accurate source of information for the battered New Orleans community and the world. Although the paper’s offices were forced to move from its headquarters in the flooded city, its reporters remained on the streets working. Without access to its printing presses, the nearly 170-year-old paper stepped up its online editions and blogs, generating more than 30 million hits a day. When operations resumed four days after the storm, the paper’s first headline read: “Help Us, Please”.

Dan Fagin, the director of NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP), was “proud to say” that the Times-Picayune’s work had made the university’s top-ten-of-the-decade list, which he helped judge.

“The Times-Picayune’s coverage was heroic in every sense. The content was fearless, and the fact that there was any coverage at all in those initial days borders on the miraculous,” Fagin wrote in an e-mail. “All the prep work that Mark Schleifstein had done beforehand in exposing the vulnerabilities of the levee system and the likelihood of a major strike meant that the newspaper was a trusted source — really, THE trusted source — for the entire region when The Big One finally came. Mark’s work also helped ensure that the subsequent coverage was rigorous and science-based, as well as compassionate.”

Schleifstein, the Times-Picayune’s environment reporter, who has been the point-man for much of the paper’s hurricane coverage, was credited in a 2008 New York Times article as “the man who predicted the flood”:

In 2002, Mr. Schleifstein and his colleagues published “Washing Away,” a five-day report about the vulnerabilities Louisiana would face if a major hurricane hit. “It’s only a matter of time,” the report declared. And three years later, the time came.

In an interview, Schleifstein said that now, almost five years after Katrina, being included on NYU’s Top Ten list reassures him that there is still broad concern for the residents of New Orleans.

“I see that as a positive sign—not necessarily for the newspaper, but for the community itself—that we haven’t left the page yet despite everything else that’s happened since,” he said. “One of the crazy things about Katrina—well, the frustration there is that you really do want to win prizes, but at the same time, to win recognition for your coverage of a disaster of this type is problematic, obviously. We see our role as being part of the community, so we did what needed to be done, and it’s nice to be honored for that, but it’s more important that the community be honored for everything that it’s done in the past five years to move forward from that disaster.”

Schleifstein can share plenty of examples of how the Times-Picayune’s coverage has helped the community move forward and held authorities accountable for improving hurricane preparedness and response, however—from articles that led to changes in the Road Home program to others that highlighted delay and mismanagement at the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with managing and maintaining the levee system around New Orleans.

The Times-Picayune has also devoted considerable resources to covering the coastal restoration efforts all along Louisiana’s Gulf coast. In 2007, it won Columbia University’s Oakes Award for environmental reporting for its multimedia series, “Last Chance: The fight to save a disappearing coast.” A year and half later, the paper followed up with a similar multimedia series, “Losing Louisiana,” about ongoing efforts to address erosion, subsidence, and other issues.

Tough, public-service reporting about progress and lapses in coastal restoration, hurricane recovery, and levee reconstruction efforts continues at the Times-Picayune. The Army Corps of Engineers has promised to meet a June 1, 2011 deadline for constructing a levee system capable of protecting the New Orleans metropolitan area against storms that have a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year, often referred to as a “100-year storm.” Such a storm would be a Category 2 or small Category 3 hurricane, Schleifstein said, and the Corps eventually wants to provide Category 5—the highest category of tropical storm— protection (Katrina made its Louisiana landfall as a strong Category 3).

“There’s literally not a week now that goes by without a story about some piece of the levee system because it’s, you know, $15 billion being spent over the next four years – it’s a helluva lot of different projects to say the least, and three of these are in the context of the largest-ever kind of projects,” Schleifstein said.

Nonetheless, despite the approval of some flood control projects, Schleifstein reported last week that delays in others have caused some concern that the Corps will not be able to meet next year’s deadline. In the meantime, the paper is planning a “big package of stories” for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in August.

“I think our coverage has certainly made a difference,” says Schleifstein. “In terms of hurricanes, I think that we’ve been helpful in continuing to emphasize the reality of living in an area of risk—that we will actually be at more risk than we were prior to Katrina until perhaps next year, because the levee system is not yet reconstructed.”

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November 30. The 2009 season was relatively mild, but 2010 is expected to be “somewhat more active” than average, according to early predictions from a team of meteorologists at Colorado State University.

The Environment News Service reported last week that, “According to two new studies by an Louisiana State University team, 80 percent of Louisiana coastal families have a well-developed hurricane response plan of their own but have little faith in the preparation developed at higher government levels.”

Hopefully, they have some faith in the Times-Picayune, which provides a plethora of well-organized resources, including a dedicated Hurricane News and Storm Tracking page on its Web site. (According to an article in the Houston Chroicle, forecasters have improved their ability to predict the tracks of hurricanes—setting accuracy records last season for the one-, two-, and three-day forecasts of a storm’s location—but not changes in their intensity.) There are also helpful topic pages that aggregate the paper’s coverage of hurricane recovery, hurricane protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, levees, and coastal restoration.

Finally, historians will smile on the fact that the paper collected its award winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and 2006 into a single archive. Spend half an hour there and you will see why NYU called it some of the best journalism of the decade.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.