The night before Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in 2005, journalist Jarvis DeBerry joined his colleagues in the building of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, where they spent the night on air mattresses waiting for the storm to hit.
“We were introduced to the storm by a window breaking in the building,” DeBerry said.
He was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage of what happened to New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm.
More than 10 years later, he is still writing for the Times-Picayune, and still covering the aftermath.
DeBerry spoke at Webster University on Feb. 10 as part of an event sponsored by the Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs. J
It was part of a series of Black History Month events; DeBerry is African-American and, according to the Associated Press, so was 67 percent of the New Orleans population before Hurricane Katrina.
Conservatory students Bernell Lassai and Mitchell Ferguson also performed scenes from the play Shotgun by John Biguenet, which chronicles the story of two families from different racial backgrounds and parts of New Orleans who find themselves living together in the aftermath of the storm.
“When I turned 30 years old, I was essentially in exile,” DeBerry said. “My house had been flooded, like 80 percent of New Orleans had been flooded, and I was living in the guest room of my cousin’s house in Baton Rouge.”
The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, DeBerry said, reminded him of the revelations which people in their 30s often have that the circumstances of their lives won’t change anytime soon.
“Because it’s been 10 years, we can’t say that the problems are temporary,” DeBerry said. “We can’t say it’s a phase we’re going through.”
Instead, the effects of the storm and its aftermath persist.
DeBerry said what happened to New Orleans is both unique to that city, which has a history dating back before Louisiana entered the United States, and part of a larger landscape of problems.
“The same issues that bedevil the city bedevil other American cities, too,” DeBerry said.
Those issues include unaffordable housing, racial disparities in political representation, police brutality and income inequality. New Orleans is the second most unequal city in the nation, according to Bloomberg’s rankings, after Atlanta.
When talking about Katrina, DeBerry said most New Orleans residents will emphasize that what happened was not a natural disaster. Instead, he said it was longstanding infrastructure problems and poor government response that led to more death and destruction than the storm itself should have created.
“For the most part, the people in New Orleans who died did not die because of the actual storm,” DeBerry said.
DeBerry was born in Mississippi and attended Washington University in St. Louis, but he has been a New Orleans resident since he moved there in 1997 for an internship with the Times-Picayune.
During and after Katrina, DeBerry and his fellow reporters had to learn how to cover a massive story that was also intimately affecting every one of their lives.
“Objectivity in journalism is, in all situations, an ideal that can never be obtained,” DeBerry said.
In the days after Katrina, it became especially beside the point for the Times-Picayune staff. As members of the community, they did not pretend to be emotionally detached or hesitate to help when they saw someone in danger.
“There was nothing wrong with us caring about the survival of New Orleans,” DeBerry said.
He ended his presentation by sharing a photo taken the day before the event at the massive local celebration of Mardi Gras and recalling the attachment to the city that he saw from its people even in the midst of crisis.
During the efforts to evacuate the city after flooding, DeBerry said he was talking to people who were refusing to leave.
He asked one resident who had lost everything why he would not get on a bus to Baton Rouge.
“He responded in a way that I have never forgotten,” DeBerry said. “He said, ‘if I leave New Orleans, where the hell am I going to be after that?’”