By Brian Allen
Working in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina was both the best and worst experience of my professional life.
It was the best because it was journalism under real world, ever changing conditions.
It was the worst because of the devastation and carnage that led to the coverage in the first place.
It’s tough for me to say this - as I work in TV news - but seeing the aftermath of Katrina on TV simply did not do it justice. To fully experience this, you had to smell it and feel it and taste it.
And I did.
For two weeks.
I was dispatched to New Orleans by the TV station I was working for at the time; KLAS in Las Vegas. As the crow flies, Las Vegas and New Orleans are a little more than 1,800 miles apart. But after my time there, it felt a world away.
I have never worked on a story that I so closely associated with a smell. It may sound crass or sarcastic, but I am telling you the truth when I say that for much of my work in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the area smelled like a skunk had just received a perm. There was a pungent odor in the air that was always there. It just did not go away. And that odor would be exacerbated by the heat and humidity the area is famous for. I assume the smell came from stagnant water and chemicals. I tried to tell myself that I was not smelling death. But I am sure I was. Though it is not something I like to think about.
The physical damage was unlike anything I have ever seen. I am a Midwest boy. I know my way around tornadoes and tornado damage. The aftermath of a hurricane like Katrina shamed any images of tornado damage I had in my head. Homes in the area weren’t just damaged by Katrina; they were erased. The only sign they had even been there being a concrete slab of foundation. And in some cases, even that was gone.
What struck me the most is how the victims of all this weren’t bitter. They were mad that it happened. They were upset with what they thought was a lackluster federal response to their pain. But they were not bitter. And I tried to find out why. One woman told me that she couldn’t be bitter, that for better or worse this was home. Another man stopped me in my tracks when I asked him what the lesson was from all of this. He paused and said “Don’t let Katrina steal your soul." Those are words you would expect from a seasoned church pastor. They came from a man who was cleaning up damage and just wanted his old life back.
I will keep my Katrina experiences with me until I am old and grey. I have been a reporter in one form or another for 25 years now. The best work I have done to date was in New Orleans after Katrina. And it’s not my best work because of anything I did. It’s my best work because it was the most raw and the most real story I have ever been immersed in.