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La. media report from inside the story


By yesterday morning, 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina had unleashed its fury upon New Orleans, the editors and staff of The Times-Picayune, Louisiana's biggest newspaper, decided it was time to go.

In a message posted on its Web log at 9:40 a.m., the paper announced it was evacuating its headquarters on Howard Avenue: "Water continues to rise around our building, as it is throughout the region. We want to evacuate our employees and families while we are still able to safely leave our building."

Like pioneers in a desperate quest for shelter and sustenance, they were headed "across the Mississippi River on the Pontchartrain Expressway to the west bank of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish - from there, we'll try to head to Houma," a town 60 miles to the southwest, the blog said.

"Our plan, obviously, is to resume providing news to our readers ASAP," the posting said, although it was not clear when that might happen. The Times-Picayune did not publish a paper yesterday, although its Web site was being updated with Associated Press dispatches.

At WGNO-TV, an ABC affiliate on Canal Street, most of the staff was stuck in the building. Though its cars and trucks could not make it through the flooded streets, reporters were dispatched, wading out to see how far they could get.

For reporters, whose jobs depend on getting the story and getting it out, there is an irony to such a predicament: The biggest story of your life lands on your doorstep but you cannot cover it because, metaphorically speaking, no doorstep is left.

While Katrina shut down most of the local news media's operations in New Orleans, The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., managed to survive a 25-foot storm surge that hit the city at the height of the storm.

At 3 p.m. Monday, the newspaper posted a triumphant update on its Web site with the headline, "Biloxi Sun Herald Survives Hurricane."

"The worst is over," Marlene Kler, the paper's operations director, reported. "Water didn't get anywhere near the building."

But the paper's printing plant, less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, had "many, many leaks" and was without power. Telephone and cellular service remained interrupted.

Kler, who updated her blog using a temporary power source, said several newsroom staffers went to The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, where The Sun Herald was to be printed. A team of journalists from The Charlotte Observer, The Ledger-Enquirer, The (Macon, Ga.) Telegraph and The San Jose Mercury News was in Montgomery, Ala., ready to help.

"They are also rounding up generators and chainsaws," she said, conjuring a curious image of reporters going well beyond the normal call of duty.

Throughout yesterday, news networks relayed harrowing scenes in New Orleans of stranded children and injured women being hoisted from rooftops by helicopters. The coverage began early, as soon as the skies had cleared sufficiently for crews to set up and choppers to take off. On NBC's Today show, Brian Williams did a live stand-up thigh-deep in floodwaters, still managing to look dapper.

On Monday afternoon, Williams had sent a blog message from the New Orleans Superdome, which he said was "sopping wet throughout, the roof long since having yielded to Katrina's persistent advances."

"We have no power, no working computers and one satellite path," he wrote.

Also on Monday afternoon, Fox News' Steve Harrigan wrote his own blog from Gulfport, Miss., recalling the moment when he knew the storm was truly coming: "I was squatting down in the parking lot, looking at the gravel, when suddenly one small stone turned dark. The first drop. Then another, and another. 'Here comes the rain,' I said to nobody."

Determining where to cover a hurricane is an inexact science, Harrigan said.

"Initially you try to get to the worst spot, but that worst spot often moves as you try and reach it," he wrote. "This time it moved west. We flew to Panama City, Fla., and then drove to Pensacola, then to Gulfport, Miss., where we began doing live shots about a terrible storm on a sunny Sunday morning."

As more news came in about the path of the storm, Harrigan wrote, it seemed that their hotel by the beach could wind up under water. "It makes no sense to be in the worst spot in a hurricane," he said, "if you can't transmit any pictures."

But the worst spots, as CNN's Jeanne Meserve found out, can be devastating even for reporters accustomed to visions of horror. On Monday night, as she told anchor Aaron Brown by telephone after traveling to a suburb east of New Orleans, she could hear people yelling for help from flooded houses.

But authorities had to suspend rescue efforts as night fell because the area, draped with live electric wires and filled with spewing gas, submerged cars and debris, was too hazardous.

"It's hard for me to comprehend how many people might be out there and how many people's lives are in jeopardy or how many people may already be dead," said a clearly distraught Meserve, who at one point saw a woman with a severed leg being rescued.

Meserve recounted that one of her CNN colleagues had seen floating dead bodies and other "unfathomable things," such as dogs, trapped in electrical lines, being electrocuted.

"We've had very difficult situations," she said. "Our cameraman is working with a broken foot since 9 a.m. this morning to try and get this story to you."

Brown responded to Meserve's report by saying, "People sometimes think that we're a bunch of kind of wacky thrill-seekers doing this work, sometimes, and no one who has listened to the words you've spoken or the tone of your voice could possibly think that now."

Meserve, who joined CNN in 1993, is "a very tough, capable, strong reporter," Brown said, "and she met her match on a story tonight."

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