Once you've lived in New Orleans, you never really leave. A part of you stays on. You don't feel quite whole again except when you return. Then it's like regaining an appendage you had learned to live without, but suddenly realize how much you have missed.
Transfixed by events there over the past month, I have been missing that part of me I left behind in 1996 when I drove a U-Haul north after three years as a reporter and editor for New Orleans' weekly business newspaper.
I should feel lucky I don't live there anymore. Lucky that I'm safe here, with home, job, family and life intact. But I don't feel lucky. I wish I were down there in the thick of it.
I have been experiencing the crisis vicariously through friends in the area, especially through Keith, a reporter for the Times-Picayune. From afar I have tracked his ups and downs, his initial fear as he huddled with 50 reporters and editors in a downtown office building waiting for the storm to hit; then, afterward, as reporters ventured into the fetid waters to do reporting by boat and hurried back to the building to write, without air-conditioning, sharing with other staffers a few computers powered by generator. Keith was sleeping only a couple of hours a night and knew almost nothing about the safety of loved ones or the status of his home in the heavily flooded Ninth Ward.
"It's better during the day because the intensity of work keeps my mind off worrying about what will happen next with my life," he wrote.
He told me how an inundation of floating fuel forced them to hastily evacuate the building, with nothing more than a briefcase each, and how he and co-workers spent seven hours in the back of a newspaper delivery truck in 95-degree heat after being deserted by their driver on the side of the highway.
"I've still got a job for now ... but no one knows how long the paper can publish without advertisers or a defined readership."
He wrote of setting up a makeshift office in Baton Rouge, and of flying over New Orleans in a helicopter with utility officials to survey damage, a trip that included this bit of serendipity: "As we flew along the east side of the river to get to the canal, we passed right over my house. And there it was, completely dry, roof intact and still completely boarded up. I fell apart."
I have followed Keith's adventures with a mix of fascination, sorrow and envy. Envy because the work he is doing seems so vital. He covers utilities, so his job is to answer pressing questions such as, "When will my power go back on?" "Is it safe for me to return to my home or business?" "Are electric and phone companies doing everything possible to restore comfort and security to my building and neighborhood?" And "How much is this going to end up costing ratepayers?"
These are make-or-break questions. Not much of what I do feels make-or-break. The work of Keith and his colleagues lies at the very heart of journalism: giving readers information central to their lives and livelihood, telling them where to go for help, providing accurate reports in an environment of rumors run amok, monitoring how well government is serving its citizens, and championing the rights of the dispossessed.
Ideally, we all feel a sense of mission about our work, but it's hard to keep the fire burning. Consumed with the details of daily duties, I sometimes forget the public-service element of journalism that initially was such a powerful draw for me.
Although it shouldn't take a crisis to jolt me out of complacency, Keith's dedication despite all odds is inspiring me to kick my own efforts up a notch (to borrow the phrase of another New Orleanian). While it may not seem as sexy as what's going on in Louisiana, we've got big companies in bankruptcy, city services declining because of insufficient revenue, stepped-up logging in state forests, and an overwhelmed court system, among other things to keep an eye on. The public's right to know is always compelling.
As someone who knows all too well what it means to miss New Orleans, I'm still itching to go down there and help set things right. But I keep reminding myself I can do some of that right here.
Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.