Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Pressing Issues: Web to the Rescue, after Feds Failed

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Pressing Issues: Web to the Rescue, after Feds Failed

Article excerpt

The hurricane katrina catastrophe might be the biggest story I've ever covered -- from 1,000 miles away. It's also one of the first major national events where reporters essentially acted as first responders, while top federal officials refused to rush relief and rescue units to the scene of the disaster, as hundreds died. In a sense, I played an emergency role myself, while not moving, sometimes for hours at a time, from my desk far from my favorite city.

That's because I could examine harrowing eyewitness reports -- often cries for help -- buried deep in readers' forums at the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and then channel them directly onto E&P Online. In some cases, other national media quoted from my accounts, in an attempt to drive rescue efforts to specific hospitals, homes, or overpasses.

To cite just one example: The nation reacted with horror after rescuers found 45 bodies at Memorial Medical Center and doctors revealed that they let some people die as they saved others. But on a Times-Picayune forum nine days earlier, I'd found and re-posted this message from the brother of a doctor at the center who had sent him text messages: "Yesterday, he explained that management at the hospital decided to selectively withhold food and water from patients. Doctors are being forced to decide who gets to live and who will starve to death. The hospital is surrounded by 8 feet of flood water; there is no more electricity, food or water. Windows are broken out and people are starving."

For more than a week after the hurricane hit, I hosted a feature at E&P Online called "Blogging the Hurricane." Adapting the format of a normal news story, I added brief items at the top every few minutes. My behavior came as no surprise to those who knew my love for the city, its people, food, and music. In fact, some of my bloggish items focused on missing -- and then found -- musical legends such as Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. And, like many others, my wife and I have a friend in New Orleans, whom we worried about for a day or two.

Here's just a small sampling of the Times-Picayune forum entries:

Aug. 30: "Dome info: Bathrooms are overflowed, no air cond., trash is everywhere, 2 dead but that would be expected, as many of those sheltered were elderly or infirm." Later: "People are jumping to their death in the Superdome! …

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