As images of ruined neighborhoods and gut-wrenching stories of poverty emerged from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, journalists and citizens uttered a collective, "My gosh, look at what that storm did."
But Adam Nossiter, a veteran reporter who built his career around covering the South, knew the truth: Many of the city's intractable problems predated the storm.
Nossiter, who lived there for nearly 20 years, moved in April from his position as a New Orleans-based national correspondent for the New York Times to head the paper's West Africa bureau in Dakar, Senegal. With his old position still vacant, USA Today is the only national newspaper with a full-time reporter in the city.
New Orleans is "an irreplaceable cultural treasure," says Nossiter, 49. "There's no place like it in the U.S. in terms of its beauty and its contribution to American culture." The nation largely neglected the city's travails before the storm, but New Orleans deserves and needs "help from the rest of the country, because to a certain extent it has difficulty helping itself."
For almost a year after the storm, he covered the Crescent City as if he were a local reporter. His stories about crime and the city's ineffective government and weak economic foundations dug at New Orleans' underlying social tensions. Such probing wasn't always appreciated.
"I would hear from people all the time who would accuse me openly or insinuate that I wasn't helping in the reconstruction of New Orleans," Nossiter says. "But they didn't understand that my role was not to be a booster of New Orleans or promote its interest or sell its story."
That desire to get to the heart of a story is characteristic of the Times reporter, says Robert Travis Scott, chief of the capital bureau in Baton Rouge for New Orleans' Times-Picayune. Scott met Nossiter in 2003, while Nossiter was covering Louisiana politics for the Associated Press.
Nossiter's grasp of Southern history served him well, says close friend Larry Powell. His understanding of the story goes beyond today's headlines, says Powell, a Tulane University history professor. "He can see that longer view."
Put simply, the South showcases the best and worst of our national character, Nossiter says. Conflict compels people there to bridge racial differences, he believes, but also reinforces longstanding racial antagonism.
"The South has the heaviest historical baggage of any region of the country," he says. While this legacy of conflict and disagreement makes race "an ongoing good story," it is also a touchy subject to cover. "He tends to frame things a lot in a racial way," says New Orleans resident Karen Gadbois. Nossiter profiled Gadbois last August for her role in uncovering a nonprofit agency's misuse of federal funds meant for reconstruction. "[Race] becomes a player in the story but I'm not quite sure that it's always the player in the story that he makes it out to be."
Some in New Orleans accused him of racism for reporting in a February story that young African Americans were primarily responsible for violence against Hispanic laborers.
"That's not racism; it's what goes on," Nossiter says. "You are treading in very sensitive ground, particularly in a place like New Orleans."
Despite the "latent racial conflict" plaguing New Orleans, the city captivated Nossiter with its charm and human scale. The Garden District in particular, with its gnarled greenery and "incomparable architecture," exudes quiet. "It's just a very good place to sit and think and read and write," he says.
Nossiter, who declares himself inchoate unless writing, reveres the privilege of putting words together for a living. His keen attention to language stems from his admiration of what he calls the "holy trinity" of authors: Flaubert, Proust and Stendhal.
"The writers who have made a cult of finding the …