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The land of "accounts inconceivable": NCEW members get an up-close look at Katrina's devastation.

Among the vast piles of debris from Hurricane Katrina still waiting to be collected in New Orleans, there's a small, recent addition: a half-filled reporters notebook. It flew out my hands as I tried to write, take pictures, and keep my stomach steady in a bumpy helicopter with air blasting through the open door.

The flight works pretty well as a metaphor for the National Conference of Editorial Writers fact-finding trip to the storm-battered Gulf Coast. Powerful, overwhelming, disorienting, disturbing. Enough material in just three and a half days for some members to write a whole series of commentary.

Hunt Downer, assistant adjutant general for the Louisiana National Guard, used to be reluctant to take visitors to the devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans. It seemed intrusive, like bringing outsiders to a wake. Then he realized that the region's recovery depends on getting the word out: However many pictures a person has seen on television, in magazines, and newspapers, the images can't convey the scope of the damage. Now Downer's eager to get visitors up in Black Hawk helicopters for a wide-angle look at how the devastation goes on mile after mile. He takes them in vans to see how homes were pummeled into splinters next to a levee break. How the water was so powerful it set a building at a right angle to the foundation.

The NCEW trip, from February 15-18, began in Baton Rouge with a critical analysis of the levee system by Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he says, built an inadequate levee system that was bound to fail.

Officials with the Corps insisted that local authorities had final say on levee construction and sometimes balked at the cost of higher standards.

People in Louisiana repeatedly echoed what Mayor Ray Nagin told us in an interview the following day: The flooding in New Orleans was a manmade disaster. The federal government, in their eyes, has a special responsibility to repair the city.

The challenge, we saw over and over, isn't just rebuilding structures but reestablishing all the tiny connections of daily life.

Most traffic lights were still out, replaced by temporary four-way stop signs. The downtown stores that we recognized from the pictures of looting were still boarded up.

It's hard to conceive of how every part of normal life disappeared or was disrupted. A deli had to bow out of making sandwiches for our group because it didn't have enough workers. The upscale W hotel, not yet officially opened when we stayed there, had technicians acting as elevator operators while they tried to get the system to work reliably. Sometimes, not a single lobby elevator would run, and we were led to the freight elevator.

Charity Hospital was operating out of tents in the Convention Center when we visited. Medical care, like so much else in the hurricane zone, is in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Facilities can't open up until there are enough patients. But anyone with special medical needs can't return until the healthcare system is running.

We spent a day touring the Mississippi coast, where a line on freeway embankments showed how the storm surge reached miles inland. The first few blocks of buildings along the ocean were so thoroughly scoured away that the people guiding our bus kept losing their bearings.

We were visiting the Gulf Coast to consider reconstruction. But the tales of the storm and survival were so compelling that it was hard to focus on the future, not the past.

Picky R. Mathews, president/publisher of south Mississippi's Sun Herald, rode out the hurricane at home and has terrifying video of waves crashing against the windows. The house next door pancaked.

Unlike a lot of other institutions, the paper had a disaster plan that worked. Mathews offers some key advice to others in the business: Test your plan regularly and know your backup site personally. Know what you would do if you had no regular communication, such as using satellite phones.

Mississippi was clearly ahead of Louisiana organizing its recovery. There are huge differences, of course, in the type of damage. A wall of water, almost a tsunami, smashed the Mississippi coast and then retreated. New Orleans soaked in flood waters for weeks, and a far larger part of the population evacuated.

A big reason for the contrast, though, is clearly leadership. Governor Haley Barbour has the advantage of being a Republican with close White House ties, as Louisianans gripe. But he also swung into gear immediately to develop new designs for destroyed areas. He picked the new urbanist approach, which focuses on walkable mixed-use communities, and brought in uber-new-urbanist Andres Duany. Within weeks, the plans were ready for discussion at the Mississippi Renewal Forum. The effort emphasizes local input--we dropped by a town hall in Pass Christian--and practical building options. To overcome insurance and financial barriers to rebuilding the crucial casino industry, the Mississippi legislature lifted the requirement that casinos be on the water and allowed them up to eight hundred feet inland.

Leadership has been far mushier in Louisiana. While we were there, the legislature refused to take strong steps to trim inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy--New Orleans has seven assessors--or give real power to the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The Big Easy could seize this opportunity to recover from the big problems it faced before the hurricanes, from wretched schools to what Nagin calls "a poor population overly dependent on services." But the odds are dicey.

The NCEW trip wrapped up with a half-day session with representatives of the business and tourism community, who find themselves in a disorienting and difficult new economic landscape. While old employees hesitate to return, New Orleans is gaining a Hispanic work force that didn't exist in the era some now call PK, or pre-Katrina.

Cash flow is a critical problem. Companies are still suffering from the collapse of the postal service, while help from the Small Business Administration is snarled in red tape. There's so little prospect of collecting bills pending when the storm hit that one business owner calls them "accounts inconceivable."

Two months after our trip, the federal flood maps for New Orleans finally came out, providing crucial guidance for rebuilding. The Corps of Engineers recommended strengthening the entire levee system to a higher standard.

But as King Milling, president of Whitney Bank and chair of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration, told us, the first line of defense is still missing. Wetlands and barrier islands, which should cushion the blow of storms, must be rebuilt. Otherwise, all the repairs and reconstruction will be in jeopardy.

Kathleen Ingley is an editorial writer for The Arizona Republic. E-mail
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Title Annotation:National Conference of Editorial Writers, Hurricane Katrina damage
Author:Ingley, Kathleen
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Previous Article:Get interested in the world, and don't let the story get away.
Next Article:About the Gulf Coast tour.

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