Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Outside It's America

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Outside It's America

Article excerpt

Sig Christenson knew his many years covering floods and hurricanes would help him make sense of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, as he drove in a company-issued SUV from the San Antonio Express-News toward New Orleans with photographer John Davenport.

But when the veteran reporter arrived at The Big Easy on Aug. 31, two days after the storm ravaged the city, he soon realized the scene was more reminiscent of those he had covered in Iraq during three stints as a combat correspondent. "It was a war zone," Christenson, who remains the paper's military reporter, said a few days after returning home from the battered city. "The town was empty, there were buildings on fire and no civil authority -- and there was violence."

Christenson, 48, gained prominence in the national news world as president of Military Reporters and Editors. Since 2002, the organization has made a name for itself as both a defender of Iraq war coverage and an advocate for better Pentagon-press relations.

During that time, Christenson traveled to Iraq three times -- first as a U.S. Army embed when the invasion began, then twice more in non-embed roles that took him from Baghdad to Tikrit over a total of five months. When he and Davenport drove into New Orleans on their second day in the area, the sights, sounds, and pleas for help mirrored Iraq all too closely.

"The first thing was, we attracted crowds, and that really reminded me of Iraq," Christenson said, recalling the scene about a block north of the New Orleans convention center, where journalists were approached by those begging for everything from food to a ride out of town. Some even asked reporters to take their children to safety. "American reporters in Iraq always attracted a crowd."

Christenson flashed back to the scene in 2003 when Saddam Hussein's regime fell and locals gathered outside the Palestine Hotel, where many reporters still live. "There were thousands of Iraqis with no food, no power and no fuel," he said. "They just wanted you to help them. The people in New Orleans were doing the same thing, wanting to survive."

Spending most of his five days in the hurricane-damaged area near the convention center, Christenson found similarities to Iraq in everything from the lack of working toilets to the occasional dead body in the roadway. "There were no clouds in the sky, either. …

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