Under Water

By David L. Marcus '82 / November / December 2005
April 26th, 2007

When Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, Mary Swerczek '96, a reporter at the Times-Picayune, was about to close on a house in the city with her fiance; instead she fled to Omaha, Nebraska, to stay with relatives. Political columnist Stephanie Grace '87 grabbed her cat from her Uptown neighborhood and, on orders from her editors, evacuated to Baton Rouge, where she phoned in storm updates to colleagues huddled in the newsroom after it lost electricity.

Peter Kovacs '78, the paper's managing editor, dispatched his wife and two teenage sons to stay with friends in Birmingham while he hunkered down to run the paper. When the rising water made it impossible to stay, Kovacs became the paper's transportation and logistics coordinator, cramming 250 staff members and relatives into delivery trucks for a sweaty, ten-hour drive through flooded, tree-strewn streets to safety. Several times, the water was up to the drivers' doors and nearly flooded the engines, he says. The evacuees had no idea what had happened to their homes and whether they would ever see their possessions again.

Kovacs, a former Brown Daily Herald editor in chief, had grabbed a favorite Brown T-shirt as he left the newsroom. He kept in mind the wisdom of a colleague's minister: "Don't cry over anything that can't cry over you." He wrote that sentence on a piece of paper on which he'd scrawled the names of friends he wanted to check on. One of his reporters vanished for days - but then turned up unharmed on the Mississippi coast.

The Times-Picayune, which has a legacy as a scrappy paper in a scrappy city, outdid itself. As the Brown Daily Herald pointed out, its reporters fanned out on kayaks and motorboats to neighborhoods that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had deemed inaccessible. Without printing presses, the paper published a Web-only version for four days. On September 2, even as the federal government downplayed the disaster, the paper published a memorable front-page headline: "Help Us, Please!" Writing on borrowed computers, the staff kept going on coffee, adrenaline, and a sense of mission. "The work was so intense and never-ending that there wasn't time to fret," says Kovacs, who has worked in New Orleans for twenty-two years.

Federal officials say they were blindsided by Katrina. Times-Picayune readers weren't. In a 2002 series reporters had forecast just such a crisis - a strong hurricane and heavy rain that breached levees, leaving people in low-lying areas dead and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate. Kovacs finds little satisfaction in having made the prediction. "I think the nature of the political process is that nobody ever pays attention to threats until they become disasters," he says.

Kovacs says he is still too busy putting out a paper and getting his sons into new schools to make political pronouncements. But Grace has been relentless in her criticism of President Bush and the political appointee he put in charge of FEMA. After Bush made a nationwide speech from a deserted New Orleans plaza, she wrote in her column, "No matter how many times the President sets foot on our soil, there will be no 9/11-style, bullhorn-on-a-pile-of-rubble moments this time. It's hard to imagine anyone looking to Bush for reassurance and leadership. It's way too late."

Of the three, only Kovacs found damage to his house - and that was from wind and trees, not flooding. They have coworkers who lost everything, and everyone knows somebody who died. A few days after Katrina hit, Grace fielded a call from a friend in Pennsylvania who hadn't heard from his father. She accompanied a police officer to the father's house only to find the elderly man dead - apparently he'd suffered a heart attack while preparing to flee.

Although the three alumni worry about an advertising shortfall at the paper, they have no intention of leaving their adopted hometown. Grace, a Needham, Massachusetts, native who moved to New Orleans in 1994, says she hopes the city's famed corruption will wane as citizens unite to rebuild.

In late September, as New Orleans steeped in a toxic soup, Swerczek spoke about the city's attractions in the present tense. Having grown up amid chain restaurants and malls on the outskirts of Omaha, she first came to New Orleans as a Times-Picayune summer intern after her junior year at Brown. "If you're in the news business, there is no place with more raw material," she said.

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November / December 2005