Writers of the storm

As we ride through the mostly empty streets of the lower Ninth Ward, the devastation still is apparent. Once bustling communities are reduced to empty lots, bulldozed homes and piles of debris.

This is New Orleans, ravaged more than two years ago by Hurricane Katrina. Broken levees, flooding and poor evacuation plans left 1,300 residents dead and thousands more homeless, many now scattered across the country. Seven of us, graduate students in Knight Chair Patricia Thomas’ health and medical journalism class, are in the Crescent City to attend a medical convention. While we’re here, we have an opportunity to see firsthand how New Orleans residents are recovering from the tragedy.

We tour the affected neighborhoods with Diana Pinckley and Dolly Simpson, members of an organization called Women of the Storm.

We walk along the repaired break wall next to a ghost town-once a thriving neighborhood. Foundations and concrete steps remain where homes once stood. We hide our emotions behind camcorders and notebooks, working as journalists to capture the scene. Christy Fricks, a first-year journalism graduate student from Athens, comments on a lot with a mowed and well-maintained lawn, which stands out amidst the overgrowth.

“People, other people just like us are struggling to live there, to rebuild, to make sense of it all, years later,” Fricks says. “It was very affecting for me, somewhat life-changing, not
something I’ll ever forget.”

We drive by the Southern University at New Orleans campus, where buildings remain closed and students take classes in trailers. The city’s only public historically black college is still struggling-less than three miles away from the University of New Orleans, which has almost fully recovered.
On the last day, we talk with John Pope, a reporter at The Times-Picayune.

“This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon,” Pope says of the recovery. “It’s slow as you saw in the Lower Nine. It’s agonizingly, frustratingly slow. Yet there are people somehow determined to return if they can get it together.”