Amid a hurricane's toll, a call to listen; journalists, take note

In the mayhem of a catastrophe and the rush to cover it, journalists spout numbers on damages and deaths often immune to the full human toll. But, a volunteer at an Austin, Tex., relief center has issued a call for Americans to take time to listen to the stories of Katrina victims. The call has a special meaning for journalists who may be talking to victims for stories and may not realize the higher purpose their interviews can serve -- meeting the needs of victims to share their experiences with other human beings.

Clinton's article, below, is a call for journalists all over the country, rural and urban alike, to get out there and spend time talking to evacuees – not just to do stories, but to use their interviewing and interpersonal skills, even on their own time, to give these folks what they desperately need – someone to tell their stories to. --Al Cross and Bill Griffin, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Katrina’s Ghosts
By Ryan Clinton

Last week, I worked the night shift --- 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. -- a couple of times at Austin's Red Cross shelter for hurricane evacuees. Though the number changes daily, there were probably around three thousand New Orleans residents remaining at the shelter at the time. Food, clothing, phones and showers are provided for them; all of the most basic needs are met.

What has touched me most, however, is the need of the people there for nothing else but to be heard.

Among many others, I talked to a 90-years-young, nearly blind widow who is terrified because she has never before been outside of New Orleans, has no home or family, and struggles to believe that she won't be thrown out on the streets. Her greatest hope is that a stranger or two at the shelter will find an apartment and take her in.

A 69-year-old caregiver of her 44-year-old son, who she watched die before authorities arrived to evacuate them by boat. She left her son’s body in the attic of her home. "I killed my son," she says of her decision not to evacuate.

A 70-year-old woman who waded through chest-high water to make it to an interstate overpass, where she spent the next 5 days without water or food in the company of thousands.

A retired military nurse who lives on disability; he has no idea where his friends and neighbors are, and keeps mostly to himself at the shelter.

While I was walking around my designated "room" (of some 1000 persons, I would estimate) of the shelter one morning, talking to people who couldn't sleep or woke up early, I ran into a woman who was packing her belongings. This is usually a good sign, meaning she has found a place to go. I asked where she was headed, and she said, "My job is relocating to Houston, so I'm flying to Houston this morning." I asked what she did for a living, and she answered: "I'm an attorney."

She fully concedes that she should have evacuated New Orleans. "I got out too late," she says. As her apartment filled with water, she located a neighbor's teenage son outside. Together they were rescued by authorities and dropped off at the New Orleans Convention Center, where they spent the next 5 days and nights. She calls those days "unspeakable," but says she must nonetheless tell the story.

It was a scene of complete lawlessness, with no police or National Guard. The only food or water around was that provided by generous looters, and that was not nearly enough. Armed teenagers shot at the crowd in drive-by shootings, using the roads that the government couldn't seem to find. There were a large number of rapes, with women being followed into the bathrooms. Apparently, there was also a pedophile among them, and each night in the complete darkness inside, the screams of a mother for her missing daughter resonated throughout. There were large, raging fights involving hundreds. She and her neighbor slept in shifts, so that someone remained awake at all times.

She, like many others, believed that the world had abandoned her at the N.O. Convention Center. She saw the news helicopters flying above, and at least took comfort in the idea that someone was watching, even if only to report their deaths. She was actually interviewed by a French television crew, another group able to use the roads the government couldn't locate. After days with little water, her feet and legs became increasingly swollen. Because she takes medicine for blood clots, she thought it was only a matter of time before she died. A day longer, and she says she probably would have taken the entire, full bottle of the prescription medicine she had in her purse. Ultimately, she was rescued from the facility and flown to Austin.

She, of course, was one of the more fortunate ones at the shelter because she has a job and a place to go. Those remaining in shelters across the country will have to find new homes, new churches, and new friends in new cities. Please take a moment today to consider ways you might be able to help.

Ryan Clinton is an assistant solicitor general in the Texas attorney general’s office. He is a native of Baton Rouge, La.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last revised: Sept. 15, 2005