Reporting Hurricane Katrina: How covering the story swept journalists into the drama

Jason Sickles

Click image to view more of Jason Sickles' photos from Hurricane Katrina. (Jason Sickles/Yahoo News)

NEW ORLEANS — Journalists are observers. We are trained to help others by reporting stories, not by becoming part of them. Hurricane Katrina, however, tested those boundaries for many of us.

A decade ago, I was a producer for the CBS Evening News when the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history changed New Orleans forever.

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I rode out the Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, storm downtown in the Superdome — the city's “shelter of last resort" — with some 10,000 New Orleanians and 500 national guardsmen. A day later, we witnessed widespread looting as floodwaters rose. By Wednesday, I was navigating a maze of suffering souls marooned on a bridge near the Superdome.

An unidentified woman I saw carrying baby formula on a flooded Canal street. Some looted for gain, but many were just trying survive. (Jason Sickles/Yahoo News)

Each day brought challenges. Still, I was where I wanted to be — reporting the news. Katrina was my seventh hurricane in two years, but the magnitude of misery in New Orleans made this one particularly difficult to maintain a distance between professional and personal observations.

I slept in my rental car each night, as did a dozen or so fellow CBS News staffers, moving each night to what we hoped would be a safe spot. We spent Tuesday night on an elevated freeway and by sunrise discovered the bridge below us was packed with people trying to reach the Superdome for help.

As our crew — a correspondent, cameraman, soundman and myself — walked toward the encampment, we encountered a woman named Cynthia Scott who was attempting to leave the makeshift shantytown lugging a car seat holding newborn twins with four more grandchildren, ages 1 to 8, in tow.

“I don’t know what kind of damage my house has, but whatever it is, it can’t be no worser than this,” Scott explained before leading us to the bridge’s railing. “Look at this man down here. This man jumped to his death. I guess he figured death is better than this.”

Someone tried to cover the body with an outdoor chair cushion. I never learned exactly how or why the man died. The temperature was climbing into the 90s, and Scott’s food supply had dwindled to a little water and two Rice Krispie Treats.

It was more than I could bear.

On my way into New Orleans two days before the storm, I had stockpiled crackers with peanut butter, beef jerky, water and other rations. I hiked back a quarter-mile or so to my SUV and stuffed the food into the pockets of my cargo pants. It wasn’t easy hiding the bounty from the horde of hungry people on the bridge, but I was able to slip the supplies into the car seat without causing a stir.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, but my longtime friend and former newspaper colleague, Michael Ainsworth, photographed Cynthia Scott with three of her grandchildren before I encountered them trying to leave the bridge. (Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News/Corbis)

By Thursday, three days after the storm, I was standing alone in knee-deep water near the Superdome waiting for a correspondent and cameraman to return from a boat ride to the city’s ravaged hospitals. That’s when Helen Kim, a soft-spoken tourist from Atlanta, waded up seemingly out of nowhere.

“Sorry to bother,” said Kim, then 52. “May I use your phone?”

Cell service in the blighted Big Easy was spotty at best, but the despair on Kim’s face told me I had to let her try.

After several attempts, Kim reached her cousin’s in-laws who lived outside of New Orleans and began relaying details of being trapped with her 84-year-old mother in a deserted Comfort Suites hotel nearby. The elder Kim was out of her heart medication and the pair was surviving on junk food scavenged from abandoned rooms.

Mom and daughter loved trains and had taken Amtrak from Atlanta to New Orleans for their vacation. But no trains, planes or rental cars were available by the time they figured they should evacuate.

Maria and Helen Kim wanted to mark the moment with me before the CBS News caravan carried them to safety out of downtown New Orleans. (Jason Sickles/Yahoo News)

Out their fourth-floor hotel window, the Kims watched as Katrina claimed chunks of the Superdome’s roof, witnessed floodwaters from the busted levees seep into downtown and saw looters ransack nearby restaurants.

Scared by the chaos around them, they stayed barricaded in their room, even after the hotel’s other guests and staff had fled.

The cousin’s in-laws were dealing with a flooded house 17 miles away, but offered the Kims a safe haven provided they could find their own way out of downtown.

Before approaching me, Kim sought help from a New Orleans police officer sitting in a patrol car. “Ma’am, I can’t do s--- for you,” she says he told her.

Kim’s plight frustrated me. I had the rented SUV, but I couldn’t depart downtown where the story continued to unfold as thousands were awaiting rescue at the Superdome and Convention Center.

The best I could offer was to get her on TV and hope her story would summon the right resources. Kim gave me her room number and returned to check on her mother, who was struggling in their stifling hot room.

I was already committed to the hospital story for the Evening News, but I located another correspondent, Tracy Smith, and gave her crew details and directions to find the Kims.

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A short while later, the bosses in New York called me with an unwelcome message: For our own safety, management ordered all CBS staffers out of downtown. They wanted us on higher ground near the airport, where meals and security could be provided.

“Do you know where Tracy Smith and her crew are?” a boss asked. “Go get them, meet the others and get out.”

Smith was on the street outside the Kims’ hotel by the time I arrived.

No one was happy about leaving, and management’s decision quickly presented another predicament: What about the Kims?

There was no way we could leave them behind. Smith went back to deliver the news.

Mom and daughter squeezed into one of the vehicles as the CBS News caravan departed. I felt guilt and danger as we passed up other storm victims on our way out of downtown.

The back of a shadow box Helen and Maria Kim sent me after Hurricane Katrina. (Jason Sickles/Yahoo News)

Judith Sylvester, an LSU journalism professor who authored a book about the media’s coverage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, told me this week that a number of reporters were similarly distressed by the wretched conditions and inept government response.

“It was very difficult for journalists to keep from being distracted,” Sylvester says. “Honestly, I would rather them do what you did than just to go ‘Well, I’m just here to document this.’”

Helen and Maria Kim connected with their extended family once we arrived, and my colleagues and I went about our work.

A shadow box inscribed by the Kims arrived at my office several weeks later. “Your kindness will always be remembered,” the last line reads.

That memento has been sitting near my desk for 10 years — a frequent reminder of what reporting on tragedies like Katrina is all about.

Earlier this week, I tracked down Helen Kim and phoned her. A decade after Katrina, as a new New Orleans has been born from the storm’s destruction, I needed to hear her voice again.

“I remember you!” she said, excitedly. “Oh my god!”

We then talked for 45 minutes like old friends, and promised each other to stay in touch.

“I hope you will stay safe, and that God will watch over you at all times,” she said.

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).