Friday, September 30, 2005

See your damaged home from the air NOW

Check out aerial photos of your Southeast Texas neighborhood at the NOAA's Hurricane Rita images.

NOAA has posted more than 1,100 aerial images of the U.S. Gulf Coast areas in the path of Hurricane Rita. Right now, the bulk of Beaumont is not pictured, but many other areas are. [UPDATE: More photos are being added daily, so if you don't see your neighborhood, visit again tomorrow.]

The region was photographed last Sunday, the day after the center of Rita made landfall at about 2:30 a.m. CDT on the extreme southwest coast of Louisiana between Sabine Pass, Texas, and Johnson's Bayou in Louisiana. NOAA used an Emerge/Applanix Digital Sensor System, or DSS, at an altitude of 7,500 feet. The equipment was mounted on NOAA’s Cessna Citation, a twin-engine jet modified for such jobs.

How fine is the picture? Every file is about 50MB and each pixel represents about 1.2 feet.

Quick bytes of Rita

Beaumont and Port Arthur are allowing citizens to return today, albeit reluctantly. Authorities in both cities would like for returnees to secure their homes, gather or refresh their necessaries, then leave again. They worry that returnees will make streets harder to travel for recovery crews and over tax critical-but-crippled infrastructure. I reckon we could start a pool now on how many roof-falls, chainsaw-wounds, double-pane glass slices, and heat strokes will wander into our short-staffed emergency rooms by Monday. Pick a high number and you'll win this here small can of Vienna Sausages that will never expire ...

We're seeing lights in some parts of town, but the vast majority of the city is powerless, literally. Among the first things to be illuminated? The world's third-largest fire hydrant at the Fire Museum of Texas, and the former red-light district-turned-uptown fun spot, Crockett Street ...

Another really dazzling light show could be seen last night in the night sky, a meteor shower. If you simply looked up, past all the wreckage of this temporary settlement of Beaumont, you might have caught an ancient spectacle of heavenly light. From this safer distance, it was a beautiful reminder of the same natural chaos that we saw last Saturday ...

The stench of rotting food is starting to drift through the neighborhoods as returnees clean out their freezers and fridges. The city tells us not to watch for the garbageman anytime soon, and has set up some drop-off points for decaying meat, pizzas, etc. ...

Fun with rubble! I patched a broken window this morning with a piece of my demolished fence, and used the remnant chlorinated water in my pool to soak plastic food-storage containers from my unexpectedly thawed freezer. It occurs to me that a resourceful bubba might be able to build a really opulent hunting cabin from Rita's debris ...

Hey, today it's official: Only two more months in the hurricane season!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Rita Media: Storm porn, fast-food news & the blogosphere

In his "Six Lessons from Online Coverage of Hurricane Rita," columnist Mark Glaser of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication has written eloquently and deeply about how bloggers "helped Big Media get beyond the cliched wind shots on TV" ... or "storm porn," as Houston blogger Laurence Simon called it.

Among his most pertinent points: Bloggers made storm coverage more personal, and went well beyond loop after loop after loop after loop of pictures of the same traffic signs whizzing down the same stormy street. If you read his article, you'll probably be surprised by some things, and not so much by others (such as our simultaneous fascination and fear of Mother Nature's worst behavior.)

From a newspaperman-blogger's perspective, posting allowed me to present -- in real time -- a more intimate view than a reporter's obligations generally allow. As much as bloggers would like to think, that's no substitute for the news reporting, merely a complement to the bigger story. Bloggers would be Category 5 narcissists to claim that they somehow got it right when the sum-total of MSM got it wrong, that they "scooped" the MSM, or that their view was factually superior. What bloggers did was add a precious and intimate perspective.

And here's a frightening thought: How do you know I am where or who I say I am at this moment? You don't. Cyberspace has more than its share of snake-oil peddlers, swindlers, fakers, liars and cheaters. Many are bloggers. If the New York Times' Jayson Blair can sit in his New York apartment and file stolen or contrived stories from around America for the world's most respected newspaper, why couldn't some wildly imaginative blogger sit alone in his dark Detroit apartment and spin hairy tales of riding out a storm 1,000 miles away? Such mendacity plagues blogging and cyber-communications, and will for the foreseeable future.

One of the blogs Glaser cites was a reporter's notebook by James Zambroski, a TV journalist:

"Every single building has some sort of damage," he wrote of the scene along Highway 27 south of Lake Charles. "The ones standing look like cantaloupes with the seeds scooped out: you see right through them. Cars and pickups flipped and twisted, their tires sticking out of the water. Graves washed open, the famed above-ground burial crypts of Louisiana smashed apart, the slabs now scattered apart like a deck of cards tossed by a loser."

Glaser also repeats a marvelous word our headline writers will kick themselves for not thinking of first. To describe the massive evacuation of more than a million people, a flight that was ultimately fatal for some and frustrating for all, one blogger used the word: Texodus


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Postcards from the edge

As reporters in this thrashed landscape, we function essentially as the senses of our readers. Not every story is a press-con, a collection of data, an interview with a bureaucrat or a politician (whom very few people see as humans like those who live down the street.)

Instead, we are also absorbing sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. On a less primal but still visceral level, we are aware of irony all around us, like the fake tree I saw on the first morning after the storm, snapped in half just like the real ones it imitated. And finally, we can't help but glimpse moments that maybe nobody was intended to see, simple sweetnesses in a maelstrom.

Over the past few days, all around us here, life has proven itself extraordinarily resilient in a thousand moments and scenes. Some were little stories played on a grand stage; others were little more than snapshots through a moving car's window:

A young woman stopped outside our building Monday evening, where some rescuer-friends were tending a barbecue grill for some hotdogs. She handed them a large brisket and told its story: Her wedding had been scheduled in Beaumont on the very day Rita struck. Grand plans were abandoned as she and her fiance evacuated to Arkansas -- where they got married anyway. But food for the big party was thawing in a freezer back home, so they returned as quickly as they could, emptied the fridge and freezer, with the intention of taking it to Houston for a family gathering. Alas, at the last minute, she was called into work and since the meat would otherwise go to waste, she gave it to our shocked chefs. She left before any of them got her name. The brisket fed us all the next night and, personally, I'd love to thank her for her kindness.


Raymond Clark is an elderly man who lives down in Beaumont's "Avenues," a working-class neighborhood. On Monday, he drove himself through still-treacherous streets to our office and came through our front door into the disarray and mayhem of a newspaper-turned-bomb shelter. "I came to get my paper," he said. There hadn't been a paper in three days, but he expected us to have one. God bless him. He's why we stayed ... because somebody would expect us to tell the story. I wished we had a paper to give him (it had moved entirely online at that point) but I was just glad to know he expected something from us, and a little sorry we couldn't give it to him right then. I guess he was, too ... he came back the next morning.


I just realized: I haven't heard music in 6 days. But I heard a bird this morning, and that's even better.


When the power goes out for a while here, you'll see a lot of pickup trucks with deep-freezers in the back. Why take the thawing stuff out when you can just tie the old Frigidaire itself into the back like a big ol' cooler?


As Rita's hurricane force winds ramped up, we watched from the bunker-like safety of our concrete parking garage, riveted by the awesome power of Nature. Suddenly, we saw two lanky figures wing-walking from parking meter to parking meter against the wind. Battered, soaked and beaming, two teenage boys stumbled into the garage. They stood there dripping, not bothering to shake off the storm. They had a question: "How far is it to New Orleans?"


A huge tree in one backyard falls across the back fence into the yard next door. The newly horizontal fence lets two neighbors meet for the first time.


The deprivations of a holed-up life require experience. Thriving in high heat, eating food more for survival than pleasure, moments of inward journey, an otherworldly landscape, uncomfortable itches because you haven't thought enough about spots on your body you'd rather not think about, seeing things you never expected to see, the realization that you, in fact, reek ... sounds like Burning Man! I covered the vast, illusive counterculture festival where anything goes in the Nevada desert in 2001, literally days before Sept. 11, which changed my ideas about the nature of survival. I found myself thinking about Burning Man's deprivations (and depravations) this week.

"This is just like Burning Man," I told a young, shell-shocked reporter. "Except for the sex, drugs and nakedness."


As more and more Enterprise photojournalism appears at our Beaumont Enterprise Web site, we'll be posting photographs taken by citizens at my RitaImages blog.

What are we looking for? Images that illustrate the impacts on humans and our landscape. Trust us, we've seen our fill of snapped-off trees, so it would have to be a really remarkable broken-tree photo for us to post it. We'd rather see the more unusual storm-impacts that each of you is seeing where you are. To be most helpful to your fellow readers, your best photos should convey some sense of the moment and the situation where you are.We'll choose the most telling photos from among the submissions (sorry, we simply can't post them all.)

It is absolutely imperative: Do nothing to put your safety in jeopardy merely to take a photograph.

Send your Rita photos to:

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Portraits of Rita: Images from a storm

I have created an album of images by Beaumont Enterprise photographers in and around Beaumont, Texas, in the two days since Rita struck. I'll post more as they become available.

To see Rita images:

All images copyrighted by Beaumont Enterprise
Not for commercial reproduction or publication

Monday, September 26, 2005

Flirting with Rita

This morning, a pair of amiable reporters from NBC Nightly News dropped in to chat about the day ahead. Their bosses in New York had ordered them to stay another day or two, and they were clearly miffed because, for them, stories about rebuilding, recovery and restoration were merely a local news story. As one of them grumbled, Rita had devolved into a "power outage story." No bleeding, no leading in the TV biz.

But he's right about one thing: It's a local story. The havoc that Rita wreaked is of most concern to our local readers, not Manhattanites. The nation probably already knows all they want or need to know about Hurricane Rita and her swath of damage. They can get on to their own lives, perhaps even appreciating their untumbled homes and lives slightly more. People who look to the major national media -- CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News et al -- can expect the immediate developments while the story is fresh, but those outlets have a world to cover. Their attention will soon shift away because, face it, their readers/viewers are overwhelmingly uninterested in the local aftermath. As humans, we simply cannot devote the same attention to events on the other side of the globe that we do to events in our own neighborhood.

As much as I care about the uprooted lives in my community, I cannot expect NBC, CNN, Fox, major American newspapers and wire services -- or even bloggers -- to keep their focus on us. Their tastes, which mirror the public's tastes, are generally for fast-food, quick-hit news ... the high points in a news-filled world, not stories that will unfold for years. Today, less than three days after Rita struck, the top news stories in most other media include the arrest of Cindy Sheehan and the death of Don "Maxwell Smart" Adams.

In a politico-media world, the attention of the national media might serve to keep the focus of federal authorities. Rightly or wrongly, FEMA has been castigated roundly here for its slow response -- again -- but some national stories clearly dismiss the complaints of local authorities and reassure the rest of the nation that FEMA is on the ball this time.

The long-term task of telling a year-long -- or longer -- story falls to local media. That's what we do. The national media, by its nature, bungee-jumps into a situation and out again. While their work is generally laudable, the dirtier work is left to somebody else.

Some remarkable reporting has been done, particularly by newspapermen and -women on the ground here, many of whom bunked with us during the worst of the storm (by the way, if anyone knows the origins of the term "hunker down," please post!) I've had a chance to scan the major coverage and saw some outstanding work done under the same austere, rigorous conditions we face. The LA Times' Scott Gold had a marvelous piece, "Welcome to Hackberry: Population 0." From my "alma mater" paper, The Denver Post, John Ingold wrote about a twice-battered family in a very well done story.

But they'll all be gone next week, if not sooner. The tough work of reporting the recovery falls to us. And that's fine with me. We know these people, and hold them dearer. Not just as customers and sources, but as neighbors. That means we're better equipped to reflect their triumphs, heartbreaks and frailties.


President Bush arrives tomorrow for a look-see. I bet I know where our national colleagues will be, as they should. But we'll be there, too. Me personally? Nope. I'll be in my own neighborhood for a couple hours, as I was today, checking on friends' houses, hauling branches, sweeping up broken glass, and listening to my neighbors' stories ... taking the first steps forward, toward the way it was.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

In Rita's wake

Not much time here. Power is still out and every crucial piece of equipment is on priceless battery power.

We survived, battered and a little dazed. Our third-floor newsroom is a shambles. The ceiling caved in as Rita ramped up and, at about 3 a.m., we quickly removed everything that could help sustain us in the next few hours and days. The greater fear was that the rushing water would naturally migrate into the second floor, where most of us were bivouacked. By 5 a.m., it started to cascade throught the elevator shaft and from several spots in the second-floor ceiling. We were faced with a decision: Move people through the storm to the emergency command center across the street, or hope that the storm would pass over us before the situation became truly desperate.

Everybody with a cellphone called anybody we knew -- anywhere in the country -- to ask: Where's the eye, how fast is it traveling, and how far out are the hurricane-force winds? The answers, frustratingly, were all different, so we essentially triangulated the responses and determined that it was likely -- at that moment -- the storm would pass us in another two hours, shortly after daylight.

It did. At that moment, we hit the streets en masse to view the damage and start reporting. I drove north toward Jasper, Texas, where the eye had apparently passed and done some of the most grievous damage. The road was treacherous and the damage extensive. Nothing was untouched. Stray dogs roamed the highway, dozens of abandoned cars from the mass exodus sat silent, huge trees were snapped in half or uprooted entirely. The few people I saw were traumatized, carrying debris from one spot to another. Rearranging rubble.

Throughout the region, the damage is serious and extensive, but not what could have been. We saw the pictures after Katrina and they turned the landscape into something that loked like God's game of Pick-up Stix. That's probably the image we feared most. It's horrible here, but not that bad. I'll post photos when we get power.

More details will come later, but I want to close this way: Last night around midnight some of us sat on a park bench and had a surreptitious sip of whiskey to toast our survival. I looked up to see the stars as clouds broke apart.

Seeing the stars didn't make everything all right, but they looked like hope. We'll be OK.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Hurricane Rita: So it begins

The squalls have arrived. Winds are steadily increasing, the lights flicker occasionally, rain drums an incessant bass line against the masonry skin of our building, the windows bulge with every gust, a transformer on the corner detonates in a shower of sparks ... and we're only in the tune-up. The prelude comes in a few hours, and the violent first movement a few hours after that.

We have taken a head count and everyone is safe. Now that night has fallen, we can take stock and plan, to some degree, the next move. As stories are filed, they are edited and quickly posted at our Web site and sent to our shadow desk in Houston for the paper-newspaper that will come out tomorrow just hours after Rita makes landfall. We shifted our normal morning cycle to midday so the newspaper could contain some of the first daylight images of Rita's wrath.

Galveston's electricity has been dead more than an hour, but we're still on here. We've adopted the rhythms of impending calamity, like a guy with exactly 12 minutes to live. We get a series of little shots to get this right, and each one presents a new challenge. We are one a short runway and there's no scrubbing the take-off.

Tonight, a Time Magazine reporter asked me if I was afraid. I am, a little. But it's more a tool than a handicap. It's how I know I haven't lapsed into a mechanical existence. It's the pulse of my survival instinct. And it's not always a fear of the things I can't control; it is also a fear of failing at the things I can control.

On a newsroom bulletin board -- the old-fashioned kind made of cork -- somebody posted an advisory note that ran on the New York Times news wire tonight: Editors, we commend to your attention storm coverage from New York Times News Service partner news organizations, including Hearst Newspapers and Cox News Service, but especially articles from The Houston Chronicle and The Beaumont Enterprise, two Hearst papers in the path of Hurricane Rita. Their unique perspectives lend an authenticity to storm stories that cannot be matched.

Spirits rose. Somebody is seeing. Still, I'm not sure why we think we might deflect a 500-mile wide hurricane by throwing a scrap of paper worth 50 cents at it. Maybe it's like some many things we do in life: It just makes us feel that we did something.

I'm not inclined to give it too much thought tonight. Maybe another time, after the pieces are picked up.
The lights went out in Galveston an hour ago, but they're still on here, so there's a precious moment to do one more thing. Post a blog entry. Visit one of the frightened dogs somebody bivouacked in the darkroom. Answer an e-mail from a concerned friend. Call my son in Wyoming and reassure him that we'll be OK. The hard work will be sleeping.

Hurricane Rita Watch: D-Day ... midday

The sky has darkened. A brisk east wind is cutting through. NOAA reports Rita is starting to show some signs of fatigue, becoming slightly less organized. Such news has a context: It only gives hope that the deepness and severity of the impact could lose a bit of its edge, like a pulled punch. By Mike Tyson. Any tender mercy would be appreciated, but this will be anything but a gentle afternoon rain.

We're enjoying what will likely be the last few hours of electricity. Rather than drinking the cold sodas, I'm drinking the warm bottled water, thinking I might appreciate the remnant coolness of a soda in the dark, un-cooled bowels of the newspaper building tomorrow. In the books behind my desk, I came across a bit of pretty good Hemingway advice: Always describe the weather. I laugh. Small comforts.

We're continuing to gather information throughout the region, before we batten down the hatches. We're also getting calls from other reporters, editors and producers. I'm doing a live TV news show by phone to Moscow, Russia, in a few minutes. CBS called to confirm a report that we had an editor planning to ride out Rita in a bank vault. Not true, although one of our reporters will be among our emergency first-responders aboard a cargo ship in the Port of Beaumont when the storm hits. A wild ride with the people who'll deal first with the aftermath. The bank vault idea sounds a little Geraldo-esque ... maybe he can do it.

We are all girding ourselves for the job ahead. Katrina taught us many lessons. One was to be prepared to see something you never expected to see. Your workplace under water, your supermarket turned to twisted metal and rotting meat, your neighborhood reduced to scrap lumber, six feet of water in your bedroom, your barber's bloated corpse floating down Main Street. If it happens the way it happened three weeks ago, it's all possible and I wonder how we'll deal with it. Not in print, but in our hearts.

That's why we seek small comforts. A tiring storm. The promise of a cool (if not cold) soda in the dark. The possibility that after all the sound and fury, the place and the people will still be mostly whole, and we'll get back to telling stories a little more prosaic, a little more mundane than a Category 4 hurricane's first-degree rape of our place and lives.

Hurricane Rita Watch: D-Day, before dawn

We preside over a ghost town.

After midnight last night, I drove through the city's west side neighborhoods, to sweep through my house one last time, to find a safe spot for a few last, probably inconsequential things. The city-scape is barren. Distant headlights down boulevards and back streets dart like the illuminated eyes of nervous rats, too far away and too fleeting to offer any comfort that we are in this together. Each of us is, truly, on his own.

We know humans have clustered together in small groups and hidden spaces, hunkered down for what's coming. We know a few civilians have postponed their evacuation until today, in hopes traffic congestion will have eased. We know some won't leave. We know some first-responders -- mainly police and firefighters -- will ride out the storm aboard a ship in the Port of Beaumont. We know there are people in some local hotels, many of them reporters from as far away as the Los Angeles Times. We know that later today, after the sun has risen and set, some will seek sanctuary here. But none display themselves casually within the city now.

We see reports of people handing out water and gasoline along the evacuation routes. We also get tiny glimpses from the road: 10 hours to go 20 miles; women holding bedsheets at the roadside so desperate other women can get out of nearly-stalled traffic to relieve themselves semi-privately in front of hundreds of motorists; anxiety crackling over cellphones over how far will be far enough. We also heard stories -- maybe apocryphal -- of people traveling down back roads for hours only to be turned around and sent back.

We sent a handful of editors to Houston late last night. They'll not only provide support from the shelter of the Houston Chronicle, their evacuation reduces the number of our people here who must face the storm eye-to-eye. For me, that's a comfort.

The sun will rise in the next hour or so. Rita's vanguard -- bands of rain and squalls spinning ahead -- haven't begun, but they're coming. A fellow editor went for a pre-dawn jog, maybe the last chance he'll get to stretch his legs for a few days. We've begun stashing some food, bedding and other necessaries deep within our own building, away from windows and above the wildest flood stage, where we'll likely spend tonight. Right now, Rita is expected to make landfall around the small coastal town of High Island then rumble north over us. At this time tomorrow morning, we expect to be under fire from Rita. When we can safely venture out to see what she wrought, I don't know, but it will be as soon as we feel we can do it safely.

Before Rita, our Features staff had planned a story for today about what appears to be an unusually busy hummingbird migration across Southeast Texas. Earlier this week, a reporter and photographer went to visit one birdlover's small farm, where literally dozens of hummingbirds had been coming and going all the time. When they arrived, the lady apologized that their numbers had mysteriously dwindled. So the reporter called a Texas expert on hummingbirds, and he wasn't surprised.

Even hummingbirds, he said in so many words, are smart enough to flee ahead of a hurricane.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Hurricane Rita Watch: Day Four ... Nightfall

I walked out on the roof of our parking garage around sunset. It wasn't really a twinkling of reflection, a quiet moment, a last sweet breath before the storm ... I wanted only to call my daughter on a cell phone and, for some reason, I believed the air between us would be clearest at that moment, at that height. It's a thousand miles from here to Utah, but tonight it seems much farther.

The daylight passed without offering much hope that Rita would either dissipate harmlessly or go someplace else. We made plans, re-made plans, made new plans and then threw them out in favor of other plans. The cruelty of a hurricane is not just the havoc it wreaks, but also the time it gives you to think about it ... which is simultaneously too much and not enough. We've committed to a special storm edition of our paper for Friday, and hope to keep publishing paper-newspapers off-site through the weekend. Time will tell. We don't know if The Beaumont Enterprise has ever missed a day's publication in its 125 years, and it leaves a sour taste in a newspaperman's mouth just to consider it.

The Web reassures us that we can publish effectively without a printing press. With a thimbleful of electrons and a creative arrangement of pixels, we can now publish anytime ... just like this blog. But the clicking of the keyboard somehow doesn't arouse the ink in my blood in the same way as hearing the rumble of the presses down below.

We continue to pare our staff down to a minimum, and are considering sending a team off-site to process stories, photos and pages safely away from the storm. I'll feel better when they are safe, and we are modestly more assured of making a paper.

I've been hearing from old friends and colleagues all day. That's comforting to know they're watching and worrying, too.

And the unsettled air between Beaumont and Salt Lake City lets my call through. Ashley is a photojournalist at the Salt Lake Tribune and she's covering a volleyball match when she picks up my call. She might have talked longer, but I know how it is: The story needs her attention at the moment, and we can talk later, when it's quiet and completely dark. I tell her all is well, don't worry, we're fine. It's the connection that mattered.

Hurricane Rita Watch: Day Four ... Daybreak

Some 40 hours from now, Hurricane Rita will plow ashore somewhere less than one hour's drive from where I sit. We're unlikely to dodge this 500-mile-wide bullet, but in the peculiar counter-clockwise morphology of hurricanes, one might pray for a few miles of wobble. Why? Because one side (the east) tends to be more destructive than the other (the west), and the leading edge (the so-called "right-front") packs the most lethal impact. So, when expecting the company of hurricanes, try to sit on the left.

The NOAA's 10 a.m. Central forecast moved "Ground Zero" slightly east from the Bolivar Peninsula -- only a half-hour southwest of us -- toward Port Arthur, the port and petrochemical complex due south of Beaumont. It is a major component of our coverage area, a working-class city with some of the same socio-economic fragility that was exposed in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. In real time, only a few minutes would separate the bang-bang impacts on Port Arthur and Beaumont. That's how close we are.

If Rita continues to track eastward -- likely falling into the draft behind the protective high-pressure system now moving out of here -- Beaumont and Southeast Texas might find itself sitting on Rita's left. Or Rita might stay the course and plow into Port Arthur. Or she might back-track toward Galveston again. The only true prediction can be that CNN's intrepid storm-chasers will be on the move through Friday night.

So we're caught up in the swirling crosswinds of uncertainty, too. We are now under a mandatory evacuation, so we have no readers waiting home for our carriers, at least not in any dependable pattern. We have too few pressmen to run the press, too few mailroom personnel to manage the inserting and distribution, no carriers (even if we'd send them into a storm with a scrap of paper that's worth 50 cents.) So we have determined that for the next few days, our newspaper will be online exclusively. [UPDATE 6:35 p.m.: We will print an 8-page storm special later tonight, probably by sending pages to our sister paper, the San Antonio Express-News, where they'll be printed. They'll be taken to appropriate shelters immediately and held for our returning subscribers. The urge to create a historical record of the single biggest news event in our paper's 125-year history is strong. All those pages will also be available online.]

Whether we'll decamp to Lake Charles, La., or hunker down here, we haven't made a final decision. In the wee hours of Saturday, Lake Charles might be closer to Ground Zero than we are. Or not. Lake Charles is also under and evacuation order, we're told. So are the rather remote inland towns of Jasper and Newton, north of us. We've tried to scatter our limited reporting resources around the region to anticipate the many stories the Rita is spawning -- evacuees, the people who provide them sanctuary, the useful information they might need, and a view of the homeland they'll want.

This morning, I rose an hour before dawn to check the storm track. The skies here were clear and warm, and utterly still. Not eerily, but ominously. I knew that within 48 hours, the dawn would turn to a boil, slicing through us. In the dark, I lowered the pool level, took down a few wind bells from Paolo Soleri's commune in Arizona, and stowed anything that might be swept up by wind as a lethal projectile. I put some canned food in a box and took a couple books I'd hate to lose. And I threw in two extras, for perverse writerly reasons: "Flood" by Robert Penn Warren and "Sudden Times" by a friend, Irish novelist Dermot Healy. Glancing through the titles on the shelf, I remembered planting potatoes at Dermot's western Ireland cottage on St. Patrick's Day 2000, a different kind of morning. I wanted to keep the thought.

Keep a good thought for us, too. Come Monday, all might be different.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hurricane Rita Watch: Day Three

Rita has morphed in the past 24 hours from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane .. and is expected to swell into a Category 5 later today as it barrels across the warm, energizing Gulf of Mexico. It remains aimed at Texas' mid-coast, but moments ago Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for the voluntary evacuation of coastal areas from Beaumont to Corpus Christi; our own county and municipal authorities have also called for voluntary evacuation, with the option to make it mandatory in the next 24 hours.

Our protector at the moment is a high-pressure cell that's acting as a shield, driving Rita more southerly. If the high-pressure system passes through too quickly, our shield disappears and Rita can detour sharply north toward the Texas-Louisiana line ... us. Our best-case scenario, it seems, is that we'll endure Rita's outer bands of tropical storm-force winds and rain; worst-case is that she turns directly at us.

Relentless Rita churns ahead. One hurricane guru called the devastating difference between a Category 4 and 5 as the difference between being run over by an 18-wheeler or a freight train. One might be slightly less powerful than the other, but either way you're gonna have a really bad day.

The scenario we face now, to extend the analogy, is a freight train heading at you with a 400-mile running start.

Gas stations in some surrounding communities have already sold out. I saw long lines at bank ATMs this morning. If you're looking for a small generator, plywood to board your windows, lumber to buttress your home or other structures, bottled water, a hotel room within 100 miles ... you're already out of luck here.

The mood around the newsroom is a slightly more nervous than yesterday, but certainly not disabling. We've begun to see how our focus might shift from our traditional paper-newspaper to our web site as a way to keep generating fresh, relevant news for readers who aren't here -- both local evacuees and curious outlanders who want to see what we're seeing. Our preparations are a mix of journalistic forethinking, gut reaction, and planning for the safety and comfort of our people who stay. We discuss how to power computers in a blackout, keys to the company snack bar, porta-johns in the warehouse, flexible and dynamic graphics that can be adjusted at the latest moment, who must stay and who can go ... if nothing else, we get a crash course -- on a very small scale -- of the difficulty of responding wisely, quickly and perfectly to a storm that could change course in the next hour and hit anywhere within about 500 miles.

Perhaps FEMA should be smarter about such things than a bunch of Texas newspaper wretches, but until you're casually chatting about life and death in the maw of a killer hurricane, you don't really understand how the processes become more urgent, confusing and haphazard. Many questions go unasked, leaving holes in our foresight and uneasy feelings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

TS Rita Watch: Day Two

Forecasters this morning believe TS Rita will dip slightly to the south of Galveston, making landfall between Galveston and Corpus Christi overnight Friday-Saturday. That's slightly better news for us, but as Katrina proved, these beasts are unpredictable. A wobble here or wobble there can send it where you didn't expect. Beaumont remains conspicuously in the "cone of possibility." Voluntary evacuations have been announced in some neighboring counties, and a local decision is expected today or tomorrow. Rita's southerly drift invites a sigh of relief, but none here will turn their backs on her yet.

Mother Nature is perverse, isn't she? At the paper, we want to be neither alarmist nor sanguine. This is an odd moment, this calm before the storm. Everything is a portent of some kind: 100-plus degrees is forecast on Wednesday (warmer Gulf waters will energize the storm); a cold front has dropped down from Canada (if it bumps our current high-pressure system out of the way, the hurricane could slip past its flank and smack us) ... and so on.

I'm a Rocky Mountain kid. Changing climate and weather seem to be a part of every decision, unlike the lion's share of days on the Gulf Coast. But hurricanes are different animals altogether. They focus you. I'm alternately fascinated and awed by their power. In the Western interior, a drought, a wildfire, a blizzard, a flooded river, or a series of tornadoes are the most common menaces; a killer earthquake is possible, but rare. Here on the Gulf Coast, we follow one or two dozen tropical storms and/or hurricanes every year. The people of the Gulf are more resigned to the inevitability of being hit eventually; they even reckon there's a time when good luck has run out, and it's utterly natural to expect a big blow. Excepting cyclical droughts and heavy spring snows, I didn't grow up with any similar resignation that I'd eventually be touched by a major disaster.

Some of the older hands around here approach the tasks with that certain resignation; others are more anxious. I suspect what we're seeing will only get more amplified as both we and the storm near the end of the week. The Lake Charles (La.) American-Press has generously opened his newsroom to us, should we need it (and ours is open to Lake Charles.) I called Managing Editor Bobby Dower this morning, just to introduce myself, so it wouldn't be a stranger calling under fire later this week if we needed to move our newsroom operations. Bobby said: "At times like this, ever since Katrina, nobody's a stranger."

The likelihood that we'll be covering the aftermath of a hurricane here or nearby remains high. It can drain energy and wisdom. Being in the midst of any dangerous situation can challenge your emotional equilibrium, so it's not too soon to begin the process of girding yourself for long, arduous hours, dealing with people in extreme circumstances, and seeing things that maybe you've never seen before. If none of that happens, it doesn't hurt to have prepared yourself for it. With luck, life will proceed -- at least within our view -- as normal.

But preparation is wise. I live in a flood zone, so last night I moved some books, artwork and other valuables upstairs from my ground floor. I collected the hard-copy file boxes for two unpublished books, backed up (again) computer files containing books I've written or imagined-on-paper, family photos and the entire cerebral cortex of my computer life, in case I need to make a quick getaway. Rita can take the DVD player, the sofa, the cheap pots and pans -- although I'm certain my insurance agent would prefer for me to move it all to the attic! I brought my laptop, digital camera, bedding and sleeping bags, a couple cases of water, some cereal and peanut butter to the office.

Most of us didn't get into newspapering to write about teddy-bear collectors and humorous high school mascots. We didn't hire on at a newspaper simply to show how many colors and shapes we could fit on a fresh sheet of newsprint. We became newspapermen and -women so we could tell the right story at exactly the right moment and somehow everything after would be better for it.

For myself, I don't wish devastation to happen anywhere. I'd be exceedingly pleased if Rita dissipated into nothingness in the middle of the Gulf. There'll be other moments for stories. But if she hits here or nearby, we'll do what we're meant to do: Tell the story the best we can. All in all, I'd rather be the one telling than hearing. I trust that.

Monday, September 19, 2005

TS Rita Watch: Day One

This morning, Tropical Storm Rita is lining up to shoot the gap between Cuba and Florida, and should become a full-fledged hurricane later today. In the National Hurricane Center's five-day forecast, Galveston is the bull's-eye, a scant 70 crow-miles southwest of us here in Beaumont. But it's possible for the storm to veer widely, from Brownsville, Texas (the very southern tip of our spade-shaped state) to New Orleans -- an almost unimaginable scenario three weeks after Katrina.

The Gulf Coast is jittery, as you might imagine. The storm is still distant, but nobody is waiting until the last minute. People are already talking -- quietly, for now -- about evacuation plans, hurricane survival kits, boarding windows. Here at the paper, we've already taken steps to print our paper in a nearby city -- or to print that city's paper should the storm hit there. Today, we begin girding for the possibility of a catastrophic event that affects our readers, preparing to provide as much information as we can in creative ways while also taking steps to prepare ourselves and our families for the coming storm. Already, we see how online information could play a huge role in keeping readers up-to-date in the midst of a hurricane. A hard-copy paper would be just a scrap in the wind. Today, we begin building a list of who will stay to face the storm; tomorrow, we'll bring what we might need to survive here for a few days. We even talk about bringing a couple boats, just in case.

Katrina is still front-page news here, a testament to the storm's devastation. Many of Katrina's survivors still live among us. I imagine that while we anxiously watch Rita's slow roll across the Gulf, these people must be horrified. The most salient solace anyone can offer? The storm is still far away, moving at 12 miles an hour, which seems somehow comforting.

A storm needn't score a direct hit to disrupt lives. A Category 4 hurricane the size of Katrina -- which covered half the Gulf of Mexico at one point -- cuts a destructive swath 200 miles wide. A hurricane tends to be more vicious on its northeastern edge, bad news for us if it does hit Galveston dead-on. So even if we are spared a direct hit, the likelihood of tragedy here is high. At any rate, if Rita hits with significant force anywhere between New Orleans and Corpus Christi, we must tell the story first-hand.

Right now, we can only wait and prepare. Stay tuned ...

Volkswagens, herbs and kayaks

Two new TV commercials bollux me.

In the first, Volkswagen makes light of the word "herb," defining it as an adjective. Then they use it in a sentence ... as a noun. Lucky for us, most American students don't know the difference between an adjective and a noun (or an adjective and a chainsaw, for that matter) so they won't be grotesquely scarred by this experience.

The other TV commercial -- from Southwest Airlines -- shows a fellow kayaking in wild whitewater rapids. It says: "Four hours ago, he was clearing a paper jam." Presumably, he left his banjaxed printer, drove to the airport, parked in the short-term lot, checked in at least 60 minutes before his flight, checked his luggage (which might or might not include a kayak), passed through three levels of security, caught his Southwest Airlines flight (let's say it's an hour flight with no delays), claimed his luggage (which still might or might not include a kayak), rented a car or hired a wilderness taxi, traveled to some pristine wild river which probably doesn't run anywhere near the airport, changed into his wetgear, and finally launched his kayak. In four hours?

OK, it seems unlikely, but maybe his name is Herb and he drives a Volkswagen. Apparently, anything is possible in a Volkswagen.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Bloggers vs MSM

I've been a newspaperman since I co-founded my junior high paper at the tender age of 12, about 36 years ago. My final decision to become an ink-stained wretch was made in the heady post-Watergate days, the apex of journalism's nobility and the calm before the anti-"Media" storm. Back then, it was still possible for a young reporter to think of himself as a kind of knight who could change the world with his typewriter.

Clearly, things have changed. The idealism of young journalists has lost its edge, the world doesn't care too much what we say anymore, and the typewriter is a dusty decoration on my credenza.

And now I -- and many like me -- have been demoted from "knight" to "MSM." This blogging acronym for "mainstream media" oozes a certain flippant disrespect, as if a life in journalism is not merely the least qualification for a blogger, but might even connote to Blogospherians an intolerable cowardice, arrogance or treachery. Many -- maybe most -- bloggers might just as well hang out a sign: "We don't want your kind 'round here."

Today at, I see the equivalent of 'yo mama" cyber-tagging: "The MSM is crowing that it, not the blogosphere, had the upper hand in Katrina coverage. There’s only one problem with that: The MSM got the story—It was all Bush’s fault!—wrong. Should it count if people believe you, but you’re lying? Unlike in Rathergate, where bloggers were read and right, history will repudiate MSM coverage of Katrina. "

Maybe I'm too new at blogging to understand the nuances. The blogosphere is certainly not a utopian society, free of prejudice, deception, crime, or other sins. It's merely an extension of the old-model society, like a neighborhood on the other side of the Monorail tracks. So I'm not particularly surprised that the "Old Guard" of the Information Age (the so-called MSMers) are held suspect by the New Guard (bloggers.)

But I'm curious about why. I hear regularly how the MSM lacks fairness (OK, and balance) but increasingly I believe that aggressive news-consumers aren't truly seeking reporting without bias ... they want reporting that reflects their own bias. "Fair" is a report that generally supports the reader/viewer's established opinions ... "unfair" is a report that allows for divergent viewpoints. Thus, the mainstream media, in striving to allow for differing views, cannot avoid being labeled as "unfair" ... and thus is demonized in the blogosphere (and apparently everywhere else that a person would be jealous of his opinions.) And in the Blogosphere, we are allowed to seek out the "fairest" opinions/reporting, i.e., the ones that fit our biases.

In my short blogging experience, I have sensed not just disdain for each other by both bloggers and MSMers, but a mutual paranoia that either might be the death of honest, accurate, important, genuine and noble information exchange. Personally, I believe more information is better than less, so I am not threatened by the Blogosphere, and I see its value in transmitting information that transcends the basic restrictions of mainstream media, namely space, time and mass audience.

I worry a little about the blogosphere's "Tower of Babel" and information-anxiety, but they don't keep me awake at night. Will the whole world soon turn to bloggers (and away from MSM) for information? It's doubtful. But to supplement their minimum daily requirement of knowledge and entertainment? Absolutely.

I really want to know, from non-MSM bloggers and MSMers alike, is the blogosphere a community that is made better or worse by your co-existence? Why should one side be viewed more or less skeptically than the other? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses in this diverse community, vis a vis MSM?

Talk to me, bloggers.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Picayune matter

Perhaps you have wondered, like me, why New Orleans' newspaper is the Times-Picayune ... especially since the word picayune means "of little importance or value." Or maybe you haven't.

But, frankly, if I worked for a newspaper whose flag declared boldly it had little importance or value, I'd want to investigate further. So I went in search of an answer, and here's what I found, courtesy of word-maven Michael Quinion:

An odd name for a newspaper, you may feel. But when its precursor, the New Orleans Picayune, began life on 25 January 1837, the main sense of the word was that of a small coin. It was at first applied in Florida and Louisiana to the Spanish half-real, worth just over six cents; in the early nineteenth century it was transferred to the US five-cent piece. The proprietors of the new newspaper gave it that name because that’s what a copy cost.

The Beeville Bee-Picayune in Texas took its name from the New Orleans newspaper more than a century ago as a sort of homage. Could this be true also of other journals that include the word in their titles? The town of Picayune, Mississippi, was given its name by Eliza Jane Poitevent Nicholson, the owner and publisher of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, who grew up in nearby Pearlington.

Scholars are less than totally certain about where the word came from, though the immediate origin is the French picaillon for an old copper coin of Savoy (in modern French, picaillons is a slangy term for money). In turn that derived from Proven├žal picaioun. Here the trail peters out, but that might have been taken from Italian piccolo, little or small, or more probably from Proven├žal piquar, to clink or sound.

A promise kept

When Frances Newton was executed in Texas Wednesday for shooting her husband and two children 18 years ago, she became the third woman -- and first black woman -- to be put to death here since executions resumed in 1982. "Strapped to the death chamber gurney and with her parents among the people watching," the AP's Michael Graczyk reported, "she declined to make a final statement, quietly saying "no" and shaking her head when the warden asked if she would like to speak."

Her motive for murder? Three weeks before the murders, Newton secretly bought $50,000 life insurance policies on herself, her husband and her daughter (apparently the murder of her other daughter was a freebie.) She named herself as beneficiary and admitted she signed her husband's name, but only to prevent him from discovering she had hidden money to pay for the policies.

No matter how ones feels about the death penalty, we kept our promise to Frances Newton. The arguments over capital punishment will likely be settled to everyone's satisfaction the day after we agree about abortion ... which is to say, probably never. We simply won't agree as a culture on who, when, where, how and why a human should be executed ... the usual debate when death and government intersect.

But when Frances Newton committed her crimes, she knew society had promised its severest consequence. A promise kept, in this case, is about the best shine one can put on a grim event.


AP's Michael Graczyk is a veteran of the Texas Death House, covering most executions in Huntsville in the past 20 years. He's probably spent more time there than a lot of stone-cold Texas killers. Far from being lurid and voyeuristic, his reporting has always been sensitive, fair and descriptive without being sensational. It's a tough job to be the eyes and ears of the public in a place where the public would rather not go.

Praise the Lord and pass the Glock

"Apart from the swearing, insults and virtual violence, [a
videogame tournament is] kind of like an Amish barn-raising."
Seth Killian
Ph.D. candidate, 2004

And apart from the wind, rain, destruction and death, a hurricane is kinda like a morning shower.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"Under God," utterly divisible, with justice for some

A federal judge in California has ruled that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because the pledge’s reference to “under God” violates school children’s right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.”

OK, it's California, where a guy with a petition to repeal the suffrage of hamsters could get 10,000 signatures in 30 minutes. It's ironic that ours is a nation where burning the flag is defended as free speech, but kids saying "under God" should be gagged. But really, is this the most pressing issue before a nation at war, a nation rabbit-punched by a hurricane, and a nation with a big al Qaeda target painted on its back?

On one hand, if God intended to reward us for including him in our daily affirmations before class, He might go a little easier on the hurricanes. I mean, don't you think that admitting we're "one nation under God" should invite some tender mercies?

On the other hand, maybe He doesn't care what we force schoolkids to say out loud, and is more interested in how we conduct ourselves when nobody else is looking.

Who knows? The Lord hasn't really been keeping up his blog, so we're not sure what He's thinking. But I can tell you what I'm thinking: These attention-starved atheists are starting to be as annoying as megawatt televangelists.

The last of the Buffalo Soldiers

An obituary from the Washington Post, 9/14: Retired 1st Sgt. Mark Matthews, one of the last Buffalo Soldiers and said to be the oldest, died of pneumonia Sept. 6 at Fox Chase Nursing Home in Washington, D.C. He was reported to be 111. Matthews [who trailed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa] was heir to a proud military heritage that originated with the black soldiers who fought in the Indian wars on the Western frontier. Historians say that the Cheyenne, Kiowa and Apache tribes bestowed the appellation because the soldiers' hair reminded them of a buffalo's mane. They helped lay roads and telegraph lines, protected stagecoaches, battled the Apache chief Geronimo and fought in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Matthews joined up at the end of the Buffalo Soldiers' colorful Western exploits. The regiments that made up the Buffalo Soldiers — the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments — stayed together for years afterward, fighting in World Wars I and II and Korea. The all-black regiments were disbanded in 1952 as the Army desegregated.

Lest we forget. Can you imagine that, in another 100 years, we'll be marking the death of the last of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force or maybe the last of the Seventh Cavalry?

A view obscured by trees

From the Denver Post, 9-13: "A proposed crescent-shaped memorial to 9/11 victims killed in Pennsylvania too closely resembles a key symbol of Islam and should be scrapped because the terrorist hijackers were "radical Islamists," Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo said Tuesday. In a letter to the National Park Service, Tancredo said that the plan for the memorial at the site where hijacked United Flight 93 crashed "has raised questions in some circles about whether the design, if constructed, will in fact make the memorial a tribute to the hijackers rather than the victims."

Sometimes, symbolism just sucks. Sometimes, you gotta wonder what artists are thinking. And sometimes ... it's just a semi-circle of trees.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Decorations in a ruined cemetery

All the violent colors of grief, New Orleans' St. Louis Cemetery, Nov. 18, 2004, by Ron Franscell

Can blacks be racists, too?

From a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll:

... Six in 10 blacks said the federal government was slow in rescuing those stranded in New Orleans after Katrina because many of the people in the Louisiana city were black. But only about one in eight white respondents shared that view. ...

... According to [another] poll broken down by race, blacks were more likely to blame Bush for problems in New Orleans, with 37 percent holding him most to blame for the fact that many residents were trapped inside the city after it flooded. ...

... On the question of whether Bush cares about black people, 67 percent of whites said they believe the president does care, but only 21 percent of blacks agreed.

Do you think the next head of FEMA will be black? I might be going out on a limb here, but ... bet on it.

Personally, it's hard to imagine an Oval Office conversation in which the President and his advisers agree to blow off New Orleans based on Census figures. It's hard to imagine that the Bush Administration would abandon the biggest city in a strong RED state that supported him with almost 57% of its votes last year. It's equally hard to imagine a group of people who agree more with the politics of semi-articulate hip-hop singer Kanye West than Rev. T.D. Jakes.

There's something racist about believing that everything is about race. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., dreamed of a time where his children would be judged "not by the color of the skin, but the content of their character." A worthy, noble and achievable goal. In fact, we're a lot closer now than in 1965. Certainly more than in 1865, which was better than in 1765.

But some blacks, apparently in large numbers, still want it to be about the color of their skin. Was Michael Jackson's or O.J.'s prosecution racially motivated? No (in the white community) ... yes (among many -- maybe most -- blacks.)

One example: At the moment, an unfortunate urban legend is gaining traction among blacks that an AP photo of black looters in New Orleans caption them as "looters" while an Agence France-Presse photo (from the French wire service) of white looters captions them as "finders." TWO pictures where TWO photojournalists attempted to say ONLY what they saw and knew to be a fact ... and the situation is perverted for political gains, then given momentum by Kanye West. Do yourself a favor by going to myth-debunking to see the truth about those photos and stop listening to urban legends. Suffice it to say, the explanation will reassure you that The Media is not always grinding a personal axe for either the Right or the Left.

I can't speak for nor argue about what's in most hearts, black or white. I can speak for my heart. I can look around and judge for myself what seems logical and honest. And I have seen the outpouring of help and sympathy for Katrina's refugees, evacuees and survivors here in Southeast Texas, not exactly the historic model for good race relations. But in the shelters and churches that have taken them in, the faces of the care-givers are overwhelmingly white in a community that's half-black.

America has a long way to go before we're truly and totally color-blind. Sadly, there are still some things that ARE racially motivated. But in the end, people of color must realize that to achieve color-blindness, they, too, must stop seeing all things as racially motivated.

Maybe I'm wrong. Apparently being wrong about race is " a white thing." Let's strike a blow for true equality: Maybe blacks can be wrong about race, too.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

A note this morning from my daughter Ashley, a photojournalist:

The man puts his weary lips to the cold, metal mouthpiece.

At his feet there is an occasional clink of spare change into an old coffee can. The low sound of a trombone stops for a brief moment as he bows his head and breathes, "Thank ya, ma’am."

But the couple staggers on down Bourbon Street, a street where all inhibitions are lost and souls freed.


The night was almost over. The sun’s rays would be cutting through the musky Gulf air in a matter of hours. New Orleans really was a city that never slept. There was too much to miss if eyes were closed.

We made our way through the street lined with strands of beads, empty cups and vagabonds.

All of a sudden the three of us recognize the distant melody. As if it were scripted we sing "Ain’t to proud to beg, sweet darlin’, Please don't leave me girl" in to our fists. We wiggle, jiggle and laugh to the music and nearly trip over the coffee can.

I step across the street for a picture. The trombone player under a single street lamp laced with beads. Chris moves in and out of the frame, dancing. My laughter keeps me from steadying the camera in the dim light. It takes three frames before Chris lands in one of them.

"I can feel it, man." It’s soul. It’s a spirit. A Big Easy spirit that Chris feels. The sensation is an infatuation with a mysterious city. A city so mysterious that not even the inhabitants can solve its secrets. It keeps them there long after they thought about leaving.

The music ends but not the laughter, nor the dancing. He plays another Motown hit that at age 21 I really shouldn’t know but I do. I sing along or try to. Laughter comes much easier to my inebriated mind than love lyrics from the 1960s.

Just like our night, the music winds down and we slow down. We’re exhausted, our minds and our legs numb from the alcohol and walking.

We search our pockets for any remaining money from the evening of indulgence. Collectively we have a couple wadded up bills and nearly two dollars in change. We drop them into the can one by one to hear each clink.

And, just as before, he tips his hat and says, "Thank ya." Except this time he asks our name. Shakes our hand. And says, "You’ve got soul, man." Chris wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead and smiles modestly. He lowers his head, embarrassed.


Hurricane Katrina hit five months later: August 28, 2005.


After our trip to the Crescent City in March I couldn’t get the city and it’s charisma out of my head. The mystery. The memories. The escape. The freedom.

Someone told me then that she’d never understood New Orleans and its appeal. She’d obviously never been. "But," she said, "I’ve never wanted to go."

Now New Orleans has been stripped of its power, its secrets floating away never to be told. It will never be the same. The streets have washed away its wrongdoings. Its soul, its food, its music has all left. Just got up and walked away.

"Someday I want to visit," she said lately. "I don’t care if I’m 70 years old, I will see New Orleans." What she doesn’t know, is that there is no New Orleans. The Big Easy is no longer The Big Easy. She will never know the infatuation the way I have. She will never have the sensation that I’ve had then and now. She will never feel the freedom the way I have.


Days later, Chris and I were driving. In silence we each looked out of our windows. He turned to me and asked, "What do you think happened to the trombone guy?" In all honesty I’ve thought about him a lot, especially lately. In mere minutes, he gave a persona to New Orleans. Soulful. Liberated. Gracious.

The possibilities ran rampant through my mind. I hoped he was safe. I hoped he made it out of the chaos. I didn’t even know his name if I wanted to check. Maybe he made it to the safe camp in Salt Lake City. Maybe I’ll dance by him on a street corner someday.

I turned back to the window. That was all we spoke for the rest of the ride.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

What were you doing on Sept. 11, 2001?

Consider this a meager and impromptu Sept. 11 memorial ... please leave a few words ... so we can remember.

And if you're inclined, please tell me how your life has changed since that day.

Be safe and God bless you.

A city of the dead

Here we are -- again -- at the intersection of Death and Government, a busy crossroads where the unnatural scenarios of a natural process (dying) collide regularly with the natural impulses of an artificial morality (the state.)

This weekend, the federal government retreated from its apparent order that news media would not be allowed to photograph Katrina's dead. The order, said a federal spokesman, had been misunderstood; Gen. Russell Honore had only ordered that news media would not be allowed on corpse-recovery teams. They would otherwise be allowed to do their work -- they'd just have to get to the site on their own and operate without the benefit of government choppers, boats, humvees, etc.

Seems fair to me. On the First Amendment, I'm a purist: "Government shall make NO LAW..." Government agencies cannot restrain, pervert, frustrate or divert a reporter's right to tell the story; they needn't aid him either, except where the law requires them to provide infromation in the form of public documents, access to public gatherings, and protection of those rights.

Pat Robertson's recent call for the assassination of a foreign leader -- and ongoing debate over government's role in abortion, the wisdom of war, the death penalty, assisted suicide, stem-cell research, and right-to-die issues -- prove Americans grow uncomfortable when our government starts decorating the death chamber. It is our most significant life event, and the diversity of America reflects a diversity of sacredness in death.

Do we want a government that only fiddles with parking fees in national parks while the nation is privately gripped in debate over abortion? Of course not. Do we want the government to tell us how we should all feel about a brain-dead woman's right to die, a murderer's quiet death by injection, or the dignity of a bloated, rotting corpse in the French Quarter? No, we don't want that either.

The videos of terrorists beheading innocents are as grisly as anything I've ever seen. I made it a point to watch as many as I could. I never looked twice, but I saw them ... because I wanted to understand the enemy we face. I truly believe that every American should look at these videos, even if you puke, even if you fall unconscious, even if you can't sleep at night. When you've seen them, you'll know the ruthlessness, the barbarity, the evil we face. And when you know, you can gird yourself for a war unlike any other.

So back to photographing corpses in New Orleans ... several arguments can be made, including the need for our journalists to illustrate for safely distant readers/viewers the awesome scope of this deadly disaster. The pictures of a horrific event simply cannot be warm and fuzzy. Modern mainstream media are quite careful to warn consumers when they're about to show something potentially offensive. You get a chance to avert your eyes, turn the page or click off. Don't want to see it? Don't look.

The government was right to stand-down on the corpse-photo ban. Let newspapers, networks, TV stations and magazines be judged by their readers, not by bureaucrats and government ideologues.

I get no particular thrill from looking at dead bodies, but if you want to understand Katrina's toll, you should at least glance at these pictures.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

What the Left won't tell you

OK, we all agree that the federal response to Katrina was slow, inadequate and managed by a guy [Michael Brown] who probably wasn't up to the job. A few on the Left have blamed President Bush ... well, because that's what they do. If the beating of a butterfly's wings in Sumatra ultimately caused Katrina, in some Left-leaning minds, it's because Bush personally failed to back policies friendly to butterflies. The drumbeat of blame emanates from somewhere off to out Left. It's incessant, irrelevant to the facts, and all-too-predictable.

It would be refreshing for one of the Left's media-savvy spokesmen or -women to step forward and give credit to Bush for dislodging the ineffective Brown, installing kick-ass Cajun Gen. Russell Honore as the military leader in ravaged New Orleans, and generally calming the troubled waters. It's not that Bush is above criticism -- how the hell did a poseur like Brown get an enormously important job like FEMA Director less than four years after Sept. 11? Was disaster money funneled to the would-be quagmire in Iraq? How could Wal-Mart, CNN and Geico be in a better position to deal with Katrina than the Bush Administration?

Those questions -- and many more -- should be answered in the post-mortem [God, what an ugly term in this context.] But at the moment, it'd be rather comforting to see Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton, Als Sharpton and Gore, Kanye West, Al Franken, Charles Schumer, even Bill Maher praise the President for quickly righting a wrong and moving forward quickly to save lives and regain modest control of the situation.

They had time in the midst of the crisis to criticize the use of the word "refugees" and to contrive elaborate conspiracy theories that always ended up: Katrina was a way for Bush to help his cronies in Big Oil.

It'd be nice for the Left to admit that, sometimes, it's not about politics. It'd be nice for all ideologues to admit that they occasionally have common enemies and obstacles. They won't ... but wouldn't it be lovely?

Here's what the exceedingly funny (and smart) commentator Ben Stein had to say in The Spectator about the Left's blame-game on Katrina ... can't argue with eons of Nature.

Friday, September 09, 2005

A Southern crossing

Snow is rare in the Ozarks, the only major American highlands between the Appalachians and the Rockies. The people of Missouri and Arkansas call them "mountains," although they don’t rise more than 3,000 feet high at any point. Close to the southern edge there is a squashed and rancid carcass of an armadillo on the road. No one has explained what the armadillo was seeking at that altitude.

— With apologies to Ernest Hemingway

The last time I plunged into this shallow end of the South I was still a college kid from out West.

I drove all day, all night and most of the next day, along the green spine of the Ozarks, down postcard-perfect blue highways, across Missouri’s sole toward the Boot Heel, stopping just short of the Mississippi, where I took a summer job on a tiny weekly newspaper in Arkansas.

Now, almost 30 years later, my daughter is graduating from journalism school in Missouri and I’m back on this road. Same road, same light, same towns like dust I left behind. They flash on the screen in my mind like old slides from a projector.

And now I live here in the South, so I see the place from a different perspective than 30 years ago. It occurs to me somewhere between Shreveport, La., and Oxford, Miss., the place hasn’t changed much. The road doesn’t change; the traveler does.

I’m older now, I’ve seen other roads, and my mind is strewn with sundry images of a vagabond newspaperman’s life. I can’t help it. My eye lights upon something and my mind snaps a picture that gets thrown on the disorderly pile of an untidy memory. Some are family snapshots, some are oddities of solitary moments, some are just dirty pictures from war and love. Now, my daughter’s graduation from college.

Someday, I reckon, I’ll create some sort of filing system that will put these images in some logical order in my brain. You know, the Little League pictures before the wedding before the babies before the divorce before the war dispatches before Texas before whatever comes last. Sort of a story that I’ll never be able to tell in polite company. But it would be nice to keep them, even though I cannot pass them on. That’s what scrapbooks are for. Memories aren’t transferable, except in this way: I write about them.

And now, as I make this Southern crossing again, it’s all about the pictures.


This roadside rock shop, just north of Clinton, Ark., is run by a grizzled little lump of a fella, 80 if a day. He’s missing several fingers. I asked for a certain kind of stone, and he showed me a chunk of glass, but not the stone I was hunting. I was moving toward the door when he spoke.

"Wanna see a pitcher?" he asked conspiratorially.

Long ago, my amateur curiosity turned pro.

"Sure," I said, and followed.

He yanked a dirty string on a bare bulb in a fusty back room full of boxes of rocks. He stuck his truncated paw into a hidey-hole behind a dusty shelf and pulled out two slices of what he called "pitcher agate." He held one out and traced his best finger-stump along a delicate natural line in his sedimentary gem.

I just smiled.

He did it again, more overtly, as if I was missing something.

"That’s really very pretty," I said.

"No," he grumbled, "that’s a boob."

I looked at him, then the rock, then at him again.

Once more, he traced his stub along the natural line of ancient sediment.

Sure enough, there was the silhouette of a young woman’s breast.

"Sure enough," I said.

Then he showed me the other stone. Several thread-like lines converged in an vaguely pornographic archipelago of watery squiggles. It looked like … well, it looked like the unfurling blossom in a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

"You know what that looks like, yeah?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, playing the part he expected me to play: a guy who’d get a kick out of ancient, accidental and abstract erotica.

"I keep ‘em hid because if the wife knew, she’d come in and break ‘em up."

Maybe I should have felt sad for him, or been repulsed. I was neither. In his stones, he saw something that made him feel young again, and he hid them like a teenage boy hides girlie magazines under his mattress.
It’s only human to invest stones with metaphors and meanings. We see pictures in them. At the end, on stones, we carve words that summarize our lives. With stones, we declare lifelong love. Within stone walls and fences, we sometimes hide.

The road is just a long slice of stone, too, and out here, I see "pitchers." Just like that old man, I see them in my own way.


Along the way, I pass through or see signs for Southern places with other places’ names: Nevada, Memphis, Mexico, Florida, Grenada, Oxford, Stuttgart, Evening Star. I’m wondering if Southern settlers wanted to live up to some higher model … or merely yearned to be somewhere else.

Then I see the turnoff to Hell, Ark.

OK, so not all my theories work.


My daughter is a newly minted photojournalist. She is my mirror image: She shoots real pictures and imagines the words.

On stage to accept her degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, she snaps a photo of the dignitaries there and walks off. And as she leaves the stage, she walks into a new life.

At dinner later, she no longer talks about little-girl things. She talks about her dreams, her fears, her own disheveled mental filing system. She reflects fondly on newspaper stories we worked together. She talks about other stories she wants to tell in her photographs. She talks about family. She tries to talk about the feeling deep down in the heart of her heart of her storyteller’s heart, but it’s hard to describe. And although she’s traveled in Europe alone, she still talks about going someplace.

"I think better when I’m on the road," she tells me.

She’s my girl.


I’m standing on a dusty road near Bragg City, Mo., when a picture flashes across my screen: A teenage girl walks past a teenage boy. They say Hey, but not much more. The girl runs home and tells her mama she just saw the man she’ll marry.

"Who?" her mama asks.

"I don’t know," the girl responds. "I never saw him before."

To be honest, I didn’t see this happen, but the picture is among the others in my mind. It was in 1934. The girl was my grandmother at 16 and the boy was my grandfather.


Blue highways return me to Rector, Ark., where I took a summer job on a weekly paper during my last year of college. It’s still the same, more than a post office, less than a county seat.

That long-ago summer, I met Wendell Crow, a vagabond poet who once published the Clay County Democrat. He was very old back then, but he still had black ink in the creases of his hands. He invited me, a wet-eared kid, to his house one night and after supper we went up on his roof, where he tried to talk about the feeling deep down in the heart of the heart of a storyteller’s heart, but it was as hard to describe then as now.

But I understand now. I just can’t describe it either.


William Faulkner and I have a complex relationship.

I prefer Hemingway’s muscular, indelicate narrative to Faulkner’s florid, entangled, almost Gothic prose. Faulkner doesn’t care. That makes our relationship complex.

But until I wrote a couple books, Faulkner was something I wasn’t: A real writer. When I became an author, too, I became aware of the debt I owed him and all the others who came before.

I wanted to say thanks, so on the way home to Texas, I detoured to Oxford, Miss., where the old guy lived and died.

Around sunset, I found his grave in Oxford Memorial Cemetery. I sat for a while and wondered how he’d describe the feeling deep down in the heart of the heart of a storyteller’s heart, but I’m pretty sure his answer would be knotted up worse than cheap fishing line. So I just sat and asked nothing.

They say it’s good luck to share a spot of whiskey with Ol’ Bill, so I did. I also left a few pennies on his stone, although he was past caring.

I also took something.

A picture.


The last day of driving crossed Mississippi, Louisiana and the last few miles home into Texas. I’d gone 2,000 miles in five days.

Larry McMurtry, another writer whose been this way, once said life is about answering two questions: How should one marry, and where does the road go?

Different journeys. Trouble is, you never know the answers until too late. This was just one journey, and the road goes conveniently home. It’s hard to tell if it made any difference, but I’m glad for the journey anyway.

Ask me again in 30 years.

The corpse on Union Street

The best writing and most provocative story so far on Katrina's horrific aftermath? Dan Barry's Sept. 8 New York Times piece, "Macabre Reminder: The Corpse on Union Street." It brings the helter-skelter ghastliness of New Orleans' deathscape into redolent focus by exploring a flat-lined place through the grisly touchstone of a corpse left mostly unmolested on what would have been a bustling street corner on a sane day. Talk about FEMA and shelter-hopping all you want ... the story of Katrina is right here.

An excerpt:

"In the downtown business district here, on a dry stretch of Union Street, past the Omni Bank automated teller machine, across from a parking garage offering "early bird" rates: a corpse. Its feet jut from a damp blue tarp. Its knees rise in rigor mortis.

"... Maybe the slow acquiescence to the ghastly here -- not in Baghdad, not in Rwanda, here -- is rooted in the intensive news coverage of the hurricane's aftermath: floating bodies and obliterated towns equal old news. Maybe the concerns of the living far outweigh the dignity of a corpse on Union Street. Or maybe the nation is numb with post-traumatic shock.

"Wandering New Orleans this week, away from news conferences and search-and-rescue squads, has granted haunting glimpses of the past, present and future, with the rare comfort found in, say, the white sheet that flaps, not in surrender but as a vow, at the corner of Poydras Street and St. Charles Avenue."

Get high in New Orleans

In 1900, when a monster hurricane nearly wiped out Galveston, Texas, the citizenry ultimately responded by literally raising the level of the city and rebuilding. Think about that ... 1900 ... 6,000 to 8,000 dead ... a city (and many buildings) raised up to 17 feet higher ... no FEMA nor any other significant federal intervention ... no helicopters ... no cable news.

In a two-day, unscientific online poll this week, more than one-third of 518 of my newspaper's readers believed rebuilding New Orleans would be too dangerous and costly.

While two-thirds said the city should be rebuilt in some fashion, three-quarters of those (47 percent of all our poll-takers) liked the idea only if the city were situated at a higher elevation.

Only 19 percent — fewer than one in five — believed New Orleans should be re-created exactly as it was.

Is it possible? Technically yes. Would it be difficult? Hell, yeah. Is it the right solution? Who knows. One amazingly indignant Florida reader has already castigated us for being so stupid as to suggest a city's elevation could be raised to protect it (more or less) from future hurricanes, but Galveston has already proven it's not impossible. Perhaps our major handicap today is our impatient insistence on fast-food solutions that can be FedEx'd. It's a damn good thing contemporary Americans didn't choose to build the Great Wall ... it might have become the Biggest Wall We Could Build in a 40-Hour Week.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Refugees in this line, evacuees over there

Paul J.J. Payack runs the Global Language Monitor, a San Diego-based site that analyzes word-usage trends. Using an algorithm to analyze databases of mainstream media, the Internet and the blogosphere, Payack found that one week ago, "refugees" was being used five times more often than "evacuees" ... but by Tuesday night -- after etymological diatribes against "refugee" by such word mavens as Jesse Jackson, George W. (W stands for "What's wrong with nuculer?") Bush and others -- it was down to 60-40 "refugee" versus "evacuee."

Next, FEMA will whine that the word "slow" is too derogatory to all government workers. Instead, they'll demand that we say "FEMA arrived well in advance of the next hurricane."

Ye Olde XXX News, Goddammit

A couple indignant e-mailers today griped that we carried an AP news story out of New Orleans in which an evacuee was quoted saying, "That's what so devastating, that goddamned levee breaking."

Two million people displaced or killed. Two million futures disrupted. Putrefying corpses floating in the streets like free-swimming day at the Styx. A modern city reduced to an uninhabitable, poisonous swamp. American confidence in its government's protective capability shaken. Our own oil security crimped while the oil-terrorists howl at our back door. An unprecedented recovery and cleanup that could exceed the GNP of most nations on Earth. A potential public health crisis looming ... and these folks worry about the Lord's name being taken in vain?

Face it, if God were reading the paper, we might have at least been spared from listening to Kanye West.

But the most interesting caller today wanted to know the origins of "-30-" ... a traditional symbol appearing at the end of hard-copy news stories in the "old" days (you know, back when we used typewriters.) For once, I actually knew! It derived from the days when out-of-town stories were literally transmitted by telegraph wire (thus, we still call them "wire services.") The telegrapher separated each item with a simple "XXX." And if you paid attention in Latin class or watched the Super Bowl 10 years ago, it looks a lot like the Roman numeral for 30. Over the years, under the green eyeshades of yore, "XXX" simply evolved to "-30-"

And as you can imagine, more than one old-time newspaperman's obit ended that way.

BOLO for NOLA journalists

Katrina's devastation has drawn reporters to New Orleans like moths to a nuclear flame. But the lack of communications, the chaos, the inherent danger of roving gangs of gunmen, streets-turned-poisonous bayou, and (for bigfoot TV personalities) the intolerable lack of good tables at Galatoire's means some have lost touch with their editors and producers.

So the Poynter Institute, a media think tank, has posted a "missing reporter" site. It's a lot like the missing-persons sites that have popped up from the BBC to CNN, where evacuees, friends and family can use the power of the Internet to reconnect with displaced (and misplaced) loved ones. This morning, Knight-Ridder is looking for almost two dozen staffers from its Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald ...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Godspeed, Little Buddy

I can't explain why "Gilligan's Island" is such a cultural touchstone for my generation. Probably senseless to try to affix some sociological significance to the crew of the SS Minnow, the Three Stooges, and Marcia Brady's legs. Younger women have their good points, but I doubt I could spend the rest of my life with a woman who isn't old enough to have seen at least one "Gilligan's Island" episode in prime-time. How easy romance was when the choice boiled down to ... Ginger or Mary Ann? Of course, I was only 8 ... Judy Jetson looked hot.

But Gilligan introduced me to Shakespeare. Does anybody else remember the Hamlet redux where Skipper sang "neither a borrower nor a lender be"? When I first heard the line spoken in the "real" Hamlet years later, I wanted to shout, "Hey, that's from 'Gilligan's Island'!"

It was a different time in TV-land. Today, "Gilligan's Island" would be a relatively short reality series. They'd all be rescued when they voted each other off the island. New season, new crew. Cut the Shakespeare crap, can we get Pamela Lee Anderson to fall out of her bikini in a wardrobe malfunction?

No matter. Gilligan is gone, dead of cancer at age 70 this week. Anchors aweigh, little buddy. And somebody send a bottle of rum to the Hollywood Reporter obituary writer who thoughtfully included the largely unknown first name of First Mate Gilligan: Willy.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

On refugees, newspapermen and ditherers

Once, a long time ago in a faraway life, I called myself a journalist.

And in less time than it would take to punctuate that sentence, a wise old editor did what editors do best: He stuck a needle in my pomposity.

"You’re a newspaperman and never forget it," he growled. "A journalist is one of those sissies who writes for magazines, nothing to be proud of. Being a newspaperman is something to be proud of."

To you, it might seem like a distinction without a difference, but to him, journalist carried a whiff of wimpiness and affectation. To him, a newspaperman was an ink-stained knight pursuing a noble quest with the thinnest shoe-leather and the thickest skin.

So to this day, if you ask me what I do, I’ll tell you I’m a newspaperman. When I can define myself, I’m not a journalist, a reporter or The Media. I’m a newspaperman. That’s my choice.

But sometimes I’m defined by other people, and they get to use the words they pick. That’s a nifty thing about free speech, and I’m stuck with the nouns other people choose. Sometimes they’re not pretty.

So along come the Rev. Jesse Jackson and President George W. Bush, decrying the use of "refugee" to describe the desperate people who fled, evacuated, escaped, decamped, skedaddled, left, abandoned, vacated or otherwise got the hell away from Hurricane Katrina.

"They’re not refugees," Jackson said. "They’re Americans."

In Jackson’s and Bush's unlike-minds, the word summoned Third World images of frightened, starving, powerless and stateless people fleeing wars, coups and political persecution — something Americans apparently don’t do. For Jackson, the word was derogatory and racist. He apparently wants something … less precise.

Webster’s defines "refugee" as "one who flees for refuge, especially from war or oppression."

Katrina’s survivors are certainly fleeing for refuge. And many have found it here in Beaumont and beyond, where we’re privileged to offer sanctuary. I hope that if I ever become a refugee for any reason, the favor will be returned.

It’s hard to imagine the evacuees among us caring more about a word than food, water, a safe place to sleep, whether they’ve contracted a vile disease, a missing loved one’s fate, a home they’ll never see again … or the next day.

Refugees don’t carry some indelible mark of cowardice or shortcoming. In fact, they often carry very little and want only help from distant neighbors. They are not, by definition, foreigners, black, flawed or slovenly. They are only people seeking safety.

To tell their stories, we must choose the words that carry the most meaning. They should be generally understood and properly nuanced. The best words speak to the heart, not the overheated heads of professional ditherers.

I have no difficulty with other words. They are also evacuees, survivors and victims, all of which we employ in my newspaper. But Americans sometimes eviscerate language to be politically correct. It’s been seriously suggested that Katrina’s survivors be called "internally displaced persons" or IDPs, "dispossessed" or — ridiculously — just "people."

Oh please.

Were we wrong to call the evacuation an "exodus" because the word connotes a Jewish migration? Of course not.

What evacuees call themselves is their business, and I respect their choices as far as they respect mine. But nobody’s taking any polls right now, and I don’t think evacuees spend a lot of time worrying about etymology and lexicon.

"The cardinal sin today is to offend," media critic Jeff Jarvis said last year, "(and) the clearest badge of victimhood is to be offended."

"Refugee" is a useful, functional word. It isn’t derogatory, no matter how Jesse Jackson or George Bush imagine it for their political purposes. It would be a self-induced tragedy if Katrina’s devastation included the slaughter of language to suit those who would rather turn it to mush.