'A Tale of Two Stories': New Orleans Native Arthel Neville Recounts Covering Katrina
By: Arthel Neville
When my crew and I arrived in New Orleans on Monday, August 29, 2005, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Suddenly my eyes and mind got a divorce and they were no longer communicating. Clearly, because what I was seeing didn’t make sense. We came in from Lafayette and once we reached the I-10 and I-610 spilt, the water stopped us in our tracks.
The rule in journalism: The story is not about you. However, this WAS about me. Hurricane Katrina drowned 80% of the city where I learned my ABC’s; the city where I played year-round sports; the city where I discovered my first best friend; the city where I learned how to drive; the city where my cousin Kim and I met our first “imaginary” friend. Hurricane Katrina caused the water to swallow up the city of New Orleans - my hometown. She didn’t leave out my house either. More on that later.
Eventually we sourced a canoe and floated through the streets of the Carrollton area. Time to go to work, Arthel. My photographer began capturing the unbelievable images. I began interviewing those who were stuck behind. My reporter instincts took over and I started collecting people’s stories that I would share with the nation. Even the hot sun beaming down on us, and its reflection jumping off the water baking us from below, wouldn’t get in the way of the storytelling. Laser focus. Not long after, another canoe floats by ... “Arthel! How’s your cousin, Keith Green?!?” The sobering sight of someone from Uptown (the neighborhood where I grew up) floating by in a canoe snapped me out of reporter-mode and right back into reality. This assignment is going to be tough.
My dedicated crew and I forged ahead. We drove four hours roundtrip each day for about two weeks. Lafayette to New Orleans. New Orleans to Lafayette. This was of little consequence in the quest to tell the story of a city loved by people all around the world. One of the stories that touched me the most was at a gas station “across the river” - on the West Bank of the Mississippi. The cars were lined up for blocks - long blocks. It was one of the few gas stations in the metropolitan area that lived up to its name. Katrina had shut down most of the others in town. Anyway, just in front of the convenience store at this service station was a group of kids. They were playing with makeshift toys and a few favorites their parents grabbed from home. I got permission (from their parents) to talk to the youngsters. They told me the games they were playing and showed me their toys. I was happy to see that they couldn’t fully see what had unfolded around them.
We rented a helicopter and loaded it with bottled water and supplies acceptable as humanitarian aid. We were off to the Superdome. It was the very least we could do as we sought to tell the story of the suffering experienced by many trapped inside. While my producer arranged for an armed guard to take our crew inside the stadium, I grabbed my photographer and another guard escorted us to the barricades around the exterior perimeter of the arena. I began interviewing the people pressed against the barricades vying for my attention. I knew how much it would mean to family and friends elsewhere to see the faces and hear the voices of their loved ones on the news. They were stuck in an unfathomable situation, but they were alive. I also started collecting phone numbers and promised to call their relatives to let them know that they were okay. It happened again. “Arthel! Your cousin, Charlene is in here!”
What?!? We’ve been looking for her! The gentleman told me that he had just seen my cousin not far from where we were standing. Could you please go get her?!? I pleaded.
Moments later, Charlene emerged and came running towards me. We hugged. We cried. Another schizophrenic instance of trying to tell the stories of others, while the story pointed its finger towards me. The rest of my reunion with my cousin, Charlene, is a part of the documentary, “Fox News Reporting: Hurricane Katrina: The Storm of a Lifetime” airing on Fox News Channel on Friday, August 21 at 10p ET.
Stories - More to tell
My crew and I were on a stretch of Airline Drive near Harahan. Where we were, water in the street was only 3 inches deep. The neutral ground (New Orleans vernacular for median) was dry. Consequently people had parked their cars there, as well as lawn chairs and whatever makeshift seating they had. I remember interviewing an elderly woman who told me she had left home without her medication. I told this lovely woman’s story to the nation. I also told paramedics when I ran across them a little later.
My producer gets access to a pickup truck to drive us to a location not far away to meet up with our other photographer. Remember, water in the street where we were was only ankle deep. We accessed a service road to get on Earhart Expressway in an attempt to get around the water. Wrong move. We proceeded with caution, but as we approached an underpass the water got a little deeper. My producer kept driving slowly. The water got even deeper. He told me not to worry because we were “pushing” the water. We kept going and now the water was reaching the door handle. I was worried. So was my producer. He tried backing up. The engine started coughing. He tried again. The engine revved, but the truck barely moved. It was dusk and we were quickly losing daylight. At that point-in-time, we were getting reports of physical altercations and gunfire in the area and I knew that we didn’t want to be stuck there at nightfall. I said a silent prayer while my producer tried backing up again. This time it worked. The pickup truck started to go in reverse and began to emerge from the water.
Throughout my assignment in New Orleans, my mom, grandmother, and uncle (my mom’s brother) were at a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas. Once they finally got mandatory evacuation orders, they hopped in a few cars and headed west. They ended up in a modest, but clean hotel. Cell coverage in New Orleans was spotty, so when I got back to our lodging in Lafayette every night I called my mom. I would give her an account of what I saw during the day. Months later my mom told me that she told her brother, my uncle, “This reporter thing has gotten to her mind.”
Like the rest of the world, she was watching coverage on television, however she couldn’t completely grasp the gravity. The best images couldn’t quite translate the feeling to the viewers at home. My mom recounts more on this and other very moving stories in the documentary, “Fox News Reporting: Hurricane Katrina: The Storm of a Lifetime.”
My mom’s house (my home) is located in New Orleans East - a part of the Ninth Ward that working and middle class families called home. We hired an armed police officer and an amphibious boat to get us there. I thought to myself, Okay, a boat I see gliding through the Everglades to get home. Our house is blocks away from Lake Pontchartrain. I couldn’t believe just how much water was everywhere! I had trouble directing the driver of the boat to my house, but finally a street sign tiptoed and peeked its head out of the water. “Let’s go this way,” I said.
When we arrived at my house I couldn’t take it anymore. Before my eyes, my home sat steeping in dirty, smelly water up to the rooftop. System overload. My childhood mementos, my first doll, my Jackson 5 albums, all of my Mother’s belongings and more had drowned inside. My photographer captured my organic, emotional reaction. That too is part of documentary, "Fox News Reporting: Hurricane Katrina: The Storm of a Lifetime."
This short essay is a mere glimpse into what it was like for me to cover Hurricane Katrina; the toughest assignment of my career. Throughout this ordeal, I never lost sight of how fortunate my family was. We lost ten family homes collectively, but none of us lost a life. Unfortunately, so many others did. In the thick of the storm, we never lost track of how blessed we are.
I hope you take this in the spirit in which I wrote this piece.
Don't miss "Fox News Reporting: Hurricane Katrina: The Storm of a Lifetime," which premieres Friday, August 21 at 10p ET on Fox News Channel.