‘Everybody needs everything’
One year later, Louisiana newspaper struggles to serve community
On July 28, 11 months to the day after Hurricane Katrina forced the staff of The Louisiana Weekly to evacuate New Orleans, Executive Editor Renette Hall moved back into the paper’s offices. Literally.
Four feet of standing water rotted Hall’s home from the inside out for two full weeks after the storm, rendering it unlivable. So when Hall and her family returned to New Orleans last month, they took refuge in the only place they had left: the African American weekly newspaper’s offices, which miraculously survived the tragic flooding.
“I took the conference room at the office and made it into a little sitting and sleeping area,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “That’s where we are residing at the moment so that we can concentrate all of our efforts on trying to get the paper back up before we even attempt to think about living arrangements. The business is first and foremost.”
Reviving the Weekly will be no easy feat. With most of her employees still displaced, Hall says her pre-Katrina staff of 21 has been whittled down to four. And even with the contributions of several volunteers, most of the burden for filling the gaps falls on her shoulders.
“I’m still the executive editor, plus I’ve got to be the advertising manager now, I’m the production manager laying the paper out, I’m the business manager, I’m fielding calls for accounts payable and receivable,” Hall said, her voice sounding weary just from describing her responsibilities. “Time management is a big issue. When do you put what hat on, and for how long?”
All of Hall’s jobs are critical to the Weekly’s continued existence, but she cited recouping advertising revenue, the lifeblood of any newspaper, as the task in most serious need of attention.
Despite the uphill battle ahead, Hall remains “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for regaining advertisers because, as she put it, “Everyone in the city — black, brown, green, blue, whatever — needs to buy everything.”
After that, she paused.
“I mean that literally,” she said. “Everybody needs everything.”
Her voice shakes.
“Unless you actually had been here, you cannot understand exactly what we’re dealing with. You just can’t comprehend the magnitude of the destruction that took place,” she said. “Because [New Orleanians] lost everything. You’ve got insurance companies that don’t want to pay. The government did this to you, and then they offer you a paltry amount to try to make yourself whole again.”
More than anything else, one of Hurricane Katrina’s enduring legacies is the fundamentally shaken faith in government, on all levels. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality that Hall wants everyone to know about.
“That is my main concern, that it is exposed that we are in this situation because we were at the hands of a government that did not do their job and have been lying to us all this time about what type of protection we had,” she said. “And if it can happen to us, it can happen in Dayton, Ohio, or Cambridge, Mass., or anywhere else.”
In May, Hall talked about a discussion she’d had last year with a friend newly retired from the South Carolina school system. She said, “The day I retire from [running the Weekly] is the day they lower me into the ground — or bury me above it, if I’m buried in New Orleans.”
Even after the year she’s had, she’s still committed.
“Sometimes I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But … a lot of days, I wake up in the morning optimistic and I go to bed pessimistic. I wonder if it’s all worth it,” Hall said. “But every Friday, I’m resolved to make the Weekly viable again.”
These days, though, her dedication comes a little colder, fringed with morbid doubt.
“With my luck, the day after I see that will be the day I drop dead.”
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To explore the racial and economic dimensions of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, The Associated Press asked notable Americans who know the stricken region well to share their thoughts on a broad set of questions:
“Katrina exposed a deep divide of race and poverty along the Gulf Coast and in America. Has that divide narrowed at all in the past year? And do you find reason to hope that it will narrow in the future?’’
Here are their words:
Andrei Codrescu, author of “New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City,’’ is the MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English at Louisiana State University. A regular commentator on NPR, he divides his time between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
“‘Race has become a code for poverty and crime that is used by conservative politicians to vote against social change. Black leaders have also soft-pedaled the issue of race because they were afraid of losing what social programs were left. Katrina revealed that there are people in America much poorer than it is publicly acknowledged.”
John Hope Franklin, 91, a professor emeritus at Duke University, assisted Thurgood Marshall on the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and, half a century later, chaired President Clinton’s Initiative on Race.
“... The New Orleans tragedy speaks in a loud but eloquent voice that racial inequities in the United States persist. One need only to visit Uptown, in the neighborhood of Tulane University, and the Ninth Ward, a remarkable concentration of African Americans, to conclude that in the pre-Katrina days it was racial disparities as usual. There were low wages for blacks, as well as poor housing, a false romanticism surrounding Mardi Gras and a lack of general support for education and social well being.
“As far as race in America is concerned, Katrina was just another example of the failure of the people of the United States to come to terms with a centuries-old problem ... and make a forthright effort to solve it. Thus, it ranks with the failure of our schools to serve the needs of blacks and whites alike. ... It is a bed-mate with the disparities in housing, not only in New Orleans but across the nation. ...
“There are many lessons to be learned from Katrina. Perhaps the most important one is ... an appreciation for the common threads that bind all mankind together (and that) the best way to achieve a better world is to treat all mankind as decent human beings.
“The nation didn’t know just how segregated we are. Now they know.
“The nation didn’t know just how bad our segregated schools are. Now they know.
Katrina also taught us that the government does not care much about the black and the poor unless they are embarrassed by the media in front of the whole world.”