My alma-mater posted this to its Web site following Hurricane Katrina:

Medill School of Journalism – Northwestern University:
Medill Alum Documents Katrina Aftermath in Mobile, Ala.

Story by Andrea James, MSJ05

Andrea James is currently working as a business reporter at the Mobile Register in Mobile, Ala. This commentary is excerpted from an E-mail she sent to friends and family after the hurricane.

watereverywhere Hello from the Gulf Coast. Life down here, as we knew it, has changed, and for many it has been destroyed.

The destruction and chaos down here is worse than anything I’ve ever seen, and I was in D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

I have so much to tell all of you. I’m sorry for not staying in better touch. It’s been difficult, and I’ve been using the remaining juice in my cell phone battery to talk to family.

Let me start from the beginning.

Last Friday was a normally gorgeous day in Mobile. Hurricane Katrina was supposed to cross Florida and hit Florida again in the panhandle. I flew to California for a friend’s wedding and had a blast.

By mid-day Saturday, the projected path, size and strength of the storm had changed, and things weren’t looking good. I caught a midnight flight back to Mobile, and got in just before the airport closed. I went to church and we prayed, and then we all went home to prepare for the storm.

But it wasn’t enough time.

Most of the Gulf Coast was caught unprepared. New Orleans evacuated Sunday, but that wasn’t nearly early enough to get everyone out. They are still counting the bodies.

On Monday morning at dawn, I arrived at the paper with most of my important possessions in tow. Our paper is one block from the Mobile river. Our newsroom is on the third floor. Good news for New Orleans came in early that day — Katrina had ticked east, meaning Mississippi would get the brunt of the storm, and Mobile would probably flood.

Katrina roared in full force from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Downtown Mobile flooded under 12 feet of water, meaning that the water level reached the streetlights. Our newsroom was surrounded by water. People had to be evacuated from their homes by boat.

The wind picked up anything that wasn’t bolted down and tossed it into the air, into windows and cars. I was awed by Mother Nature’s power. To see it in person, not on a TV screen, is incredible. This entire half of the state lost power. The newsroom didn’t have power for two days. The computers were hooked up to generators, and at night the only light came from the glow of the computer screens.

This newsroom that was our sanctuary during the storm soon became our pressure cooker. It was over 100 degrees, and we were working under tight deadlines. Our paper was printed in Pensacola and Birmingham and shipped down for delivery, because our presses had no power. Reporters from newspapers in Mississippi and New Orleans also camped out here.

(Never fear though, caffeine was in high supply. Using an impressive tangle of extension cords, the editors hooked up the coffee pot to the generator outlets. They also somehow brought in sodas chilled by ice.)

I spent Monday night sleeping in the accounting department. Tuesday morning, the water had receded and I headed home to retrieve my car from a parking garage, see my apartment in daylight and hopefully take a shower.

I found my place still standing in one piece, surrounded by debris and a mangled fence. That’s it. Oh, and my bedroom window leaked in water. I was extremely lucky.

Mobile wasn’t hit nearly as hard as New Orleans or Biloxi. New Orleans sits under water as I write this. Most of Biloxi was destroyed. An entire casino broke off and fell into the water. Officials say that the Port of Gulfport, Miss. no longer exists.

Much of downtown Mobile has been ruined from water damage.

The water missed my apartment by several blocks. The wind basically ruined everything that wasn’t cemented into place, and the water got the rest.

It was one of the worst storms to hit Mobile, and yesterday felt a bit like living in hell. It was hot and sticky and sad. Everything downtown was covered in mud, and smelled something awful. But Mobile’s buildings are still standing, which is more than we can say for Mississippi and Louisiana. The death toll keeps rising, and many of those who survived lost everything.

As for Journalism

I wonder if maybe I am getting a little sample of what it is like to be a war correspondent.

It’s super hot and humid, the phones aren’t always working and people are hard to reach. There’s no power so we aren’t eating properly. I really look forward to eating the MREs (meals-ready-to-eat.)

There’s lots of confusion, and Tuesday it was hard to figure out exactly the extent of the damage. Reporting is harder because I get conflicting information, and on Monday the phones kept going out.

By Tuesday, I hadn’t slept properly in three days. We are reporting through it all. The day after the storm, we put out a 12-page paper chock full of help and information for folks. (No ads.)

I wrote two stories for that edition and contributed to many more. My sources are the waterfront and maritime industry, the airport, the state docks and the business community. One of my sources at the state docks called Tuesday and was surprised to hear me answer. She said, “Well if it isn’t the business reporter who never sleeps.” Hahaha.

Tuesday I toured the state docks and got a first hand look at the destruction there. I wrote an article on it, and wrote about the economic impact of having all of the Gulf Coast ports closed. I also contributed bits of information to other people’s stories.

This is not typical reporting; we just cull information and then put it into the paper. Disaster reporting is fascinating because the normal routine doesn’t apply. It’s not about individual glory. It’s about capturing the destruction, and at the same time telling people what they need to know. Especially since many people don’t have TV or radio right now.

A Tranquil Night

When I left work Tuesday, I felt really down. I had been reporting for about the last 48 hours — and it gave me something to do. I knew I was heading home to a lonely apartment with no power, and that millions of people had no homes at all.

I got home and cleaned up the place until the sun went down.

I couldn’t take a hot shower, but as my apartment doesn’t get cold water anyway thanks to the Alabama heat, the shower was lukewarm. That’s OK with me.

I lit two candles and did yoga by candlelight. Then I played the piano and the light from the little flame danced across the sheet music notes.

I was in bed asleep by 9 p.m.

Now I’m at work and looking forward to another day of reporting. The work is getting me through and I am reminded of why I went into journalism.

What is strange is I feel almost guilty, and extremely thankful, for having my own apartment to go home to. For so many, that is not the case.

It’s heart breaking. There is little comfort in knowing that I am recording the first draft of history for what is the likely to be the deadliest storm to ever hit the United States.

Note: Andrea James’ colleagues at the Mobile Register include Medill alums Susan Daker (BSJ04), Dan Murtaugh (BSJ03), Rena Havner (MSJ00), Kristen Campbell (BSJ95, MSJ97) and Jane Nicholes (BSJ81).

Posted on September 1, 2005 03:22 PM to Medill School of Journalism – Northwestern University