I spent four years working as a journalist, covering everything from local elections to natural disasters. I attended the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, the most elite journalism school in the country, where I studied political and environmental journalism with some of our nation’s leading journalism educators. My experience as a journalist was both enlightening and haunting.
When working for a small local paper the summer after my freshman year of college, I was tasked with a number of “accidentally” environmental stories. I hadn’t taken a single earth science or geography course at that point, so I didn’t yet see the connections between the environment and, well.. everything else. I’ve described a story below that I wrote in June 2009, one that I think illustrates the struggles and opportunities journalists have for a deeper discussion about all of the economic and social issues involved with covering environmental disasters. I hope you can use it to reflect on some of your own experiences, and find ways to connect your stories to the “larger picture.”
Behind the Vinyl Curtain
I wrote a story about the repossession of FEMA-issued trailers four years after Hurricane Katrina in June 2009. There weren’t many left in the county I was a beat writer for (Stone County, Mississippi), but there were a few scattered here and there, and a park or two that hadn’t been cleared out yet. The trailers were marked with red “tabs” so that they were easy to find. It took me all of 10 minutes to find a park. The park I found, just outside of Wiggins, Miss., had eight FEMA trailers, neatly arranged over a hot dirt patch next to an alligator-infested pond. It was the middle of the day, so I figured I would have to come back that night to try to find someone to talk to who lived in the trailers. I knocked on the first door, the second, the third, and so on, becoming more certain with each knock that I wasn’t going to be able to finish this story on deadline. I got to the seventh trailer, and before my knuckles reached the vinyl door, I could hear movement inside the house. I heard a television game show on in the background, and someone talking as they moved through the tin home. I knocked. A few seconds later, an older black women, wearing her Sunday best on a Tuesday afternoon, opened the door and softly asked what I needed. I told her that I was a journalist with the paper and was writing a story about FEMA’s repossession of the Katrina trailers and wanted to talk with her about it. I wanted to know if she had a plan, a new home somewhere, or if she would maybe stay with relatives. I had heard stories about people being dragged out, put in handcuffs, and wanted to know if any police had approached her. Could she buy the trailer from FEMA if she wanted to, and did she have the means? What happened to the house she was living in before? I had so many questions. Then she opened the door.
The chill of the A/C unit gave a much-needed reprieve to my face, which was hot and sweaty from the June heat. The soft hair around my face was already starting to curl, little blonde corkscrews sticking out every which way. I could already smell the potpourri and bleach. As the door opened, I saw what I thought was a cot right next to the left of the door, pushed against a wall, with a young woman laying down, her head twisted as she tried to see me. She had no legs, and only half of one arm left. Her eyes were bulbous and bloodshot. She couldn’t speak. She tried to move her body, but the tubes going into her arm, chest and legs cemented her in place. She was much younger, maybe in her 20s. The older woman started talking, telling me it wasn’t her home, it was actually her daughter’s, who suffered from some sort of rare liver disease, among other things, and that she was only there to take her to her biweekly dialysis. She drove from Baton Rouge – two-and-a-half hours away – twice a week to take her. It was their biweekly lunch date.
Eventually, after letting the woman offer me tea and listening to her talk about the dialysis in all of its gruesome detail, I eventually got around to my questions. The girl on the bed was her daughter, and she was healthy when Katrina struck just four years prior. Her small house was destroyed, so after three weeks in a crowded high school gymnasium, she moved into one of the FEMA camps in the county – a decision she, according to her mother, quickly regretted. She got sick not long after, and through the crime outbreaks and subsequent abandonment of the FEMA park, she remained, frozen, in her trailer. It was a nice trailer, to say the least. Clean, spacious and smelled like church. I couldn’t find a speck of dirt nor hint of sour anywhere inside. It was, in every way that mattered, a home.
The police had already approached her daughter earlier in the week, giving her daughter a notice to vacate. They threatened to drag her out if she wasn’t gone by the June 30 deadline. This sickened me, but I stayed on topic. I’d have to confirm with the police, of course, but they were never cooperative with the newspapers. I had recently written an award-winning piece about two officers who were gunned down during a domestic violence dispute, which had maybe earned me one favor. I would later cash it in for confirmation of this series of events.
FEMA has also mailed her a letter saying she could buy the trailer for a few thousand dollars – far more money than either had saved up, and much more than the trailer itself was worth. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” the mother told me. Even though she came to care for her daughter, back in Baton Rouge the woman lived in assisted living for the elderly – she couldn’t move her daughter in with her. They had no other family, and the man in her daughter’s life took off not long after the sickness started to set in and her daughter started to lose her hair. They were together, but they were both tragically alone. The mother had even considered moving into the trailer with her daughter, but the gap between when she could get Medicaid in Louisiana and transfer it over to Mississippi could very well kill her. “There have been many times when I’ve just thought about giving up, but never came to a point where I felt like I had nowhere, or nobody, on my side,” she told me, sitting on the floral-decorated loveseat next to the television with her arms folded, “But now…”. She just sat there, twisting a feaux-gold bracelet around her wrist, searching for words. I sat next to her, doing the same thing.
After a few hours of conversation and a couple gallons of sweet tea, I got the woman’s number and promised to come back. Then, before I left, I did something a journalist should never do – I told her I would do everything I could to help her daughter keep that trailer. I heard the vinyl door close behind me with a soft swoosh, and looked over to the last, eighth trailer in the park. I stepped down the wooden ramp to her door, and started walking toward the eighth trailer. It was later now, around 5 p.m., and most of the people were coming home. A few meters away from the door, I could hear two kids playing and laughing inside. I could see their mother in the kitchen through the window – young, probably my age, and very pretty – cutting up fruit on the kitchen counter. She looked tired, like she had had a very long day and just wanted to settle down. I stopped, turned, and made my way back across the park to my car. I couldn’t take another heart-breaking story. I would come back tomorrow and try again.
As I drove my jeep home to my parents house, where I was living during summer break, I started crying. I tried to think of everything that I could do – pull in favors from local officials, start a fundraiser so she could buy the trailer, call the governor. I possessed a powerful optimism that things would work out, but also had a deep fear that they wouldn’t. I had become invested, a cardinal sin in journalism. I was angry, and wanted to fight whatever monster was orchestrating this. Why didn’t President Obama just give them the trailers? FEMA was just going to store them or destroy them anyways. How could anyone drag that young woman off her bed, throw her on the ground, and tow that trailer away from her, her home?
The next day, I called the FEMA regional manager for our area, a handful of other state and federal officials, and even a few non-profits who were trying, rather unsuccessfully to this point, to petition the government to stop its evictions. A week went by, the deadline inched forward, and nothing had changed. I always believed journalists possessed some kind of power to change the world – if we could inform, and thus empower the public, certainly they would rise up and demand more from their government. I was 19. I was naive.
I got into a rather heated altercation with one FEMA official – demanding to know every detail of where these trailers were going and what they were going to do with them. He tried to justify FEMA, saying Hurricane Gustav, which struck the previous September, had damaged many of the trailers, which were only meant to provide temporary housing, anyways, so now many were unsuitable for human occupation. There were issues of mold, collapsed walls and foundations, and a short list of other problems that he ticked off in his robotic voice. My rebuttal was simple, “isn’t have a possibly unsafe trailer better than being thrown onto the street? Isn’t homelessness already much worse after Katrina, without taking people’s temporary housing?” He told me “a lot” of people had purchased these allegedly unsafe trailers, though he wasn’t “sure” how many. He also said many people were finding other housing at shelters, but, again, wasn’t “sure” how many. When I told him about the woman I had met, he abruptly ended the conversation with “I’ll have to get back to you.”
That was the second time I had broken a cell phone via throwing it against a wall. I was broke, too, so I would spend the rest of the summer with a cracked phone (a Sidekick, if you can remember what those were). It was a constant reminder of my frustration with bureaucrats.
A week passed and I had finished writing my story about this woman and her daughter, and the seemingly inevitable homelessness she would soon endure, when I received a phone call from the FEMA regional office: Obama had ordered FEMA not to issue any more evictions. I had to tweek my story, clearly, but the last minute salvation for these families left me both ebullient and morose. I didn’t want to say thank you to this man, the one I had previously fought with, so instead I rushed over to the FEMA park to tell them the good news. The mother wasn’t there on this day, so I let myself in as so many people in the deep south are accustomed to doing. The daughter laid on the bed, and I told her about what had happened. She turned her head side to side, and tried to speak, but, like always, nothing came out. She started to cry a little, and I didn’t bother fighting the tears. I gave her a hug, and went back to work. A recession was on the horizon, so I had a suite of economic stories to write that week.
That was one story of more than 30 I wrote that summer. It was four days out of three months.
I understand the pressure that comes with investigative and what I would call “honest” or “good-intentioned” journalism. I know the stress of working on a deadline. I know the temptation to feel powerful and enlightened, and I know the heartache that comes when you realize you’re not. I know it is a lot to ask for journalists to also act as science educators. And I know that your time is limited and extremely valuable.
The story I described above eventually went on to win a couple of awards and was reprinted in a few national newspapers. I was proud of it, though I felt guilty for being proud about telling this woman’s story. I was a college student, and although I had my fair share of experience with poverty and homelessness, I was now at a point of privilege, and, yes, I felt guilty for that, too.
But had I taken just a single geography course my freshman year, or any environmental-science course, I would have seen the signs. And I would have written a better story.
The kind of liver disease the daughter had – Leptospirosis – was caused by animal urine and feces. She likely contracted it in the days following Katrina, when more than 100 people were being sheltered in the high school gymnasium with no fresh water, electricity, air conditioning etc. I would have understand just what Katrina was and what it represented, and how far it had reached even then, nearly 4 years later. I would have understood and appreciated that these types of events are becoming more frequent, and tough decisions on where to put people after natural disasters are becoming more common and more difficult. I would have tied this into the regional, national and global crisis humanity is experiencing because of these environmental damages. I would have written a story that captured much more of the story than what was happening in that park in Stone County. I would have, as simply as it can be said, seen.
Please read through some of the resources I’ve provided here. I did not decide to go into journalism, but I did finish my journalism degree at Syracuse, and so did every single friend I ever had at college, more or less. They now work at Forbes, the New York Times, Esquire, and every other major news outlet in the country. If there’s a scientist in the world who appreciates what you do, it’s I. And I also have the highest expectations from you, as well. When there are so many elements to a story, so many complex webs that intertwine, and you must sort it out so that it’s readable and important, don’t forget that the most important tie of all, the one that binds every person, cause and element together, is Mother Earth, and she is a very, very sick woman.