Among the many cruelties delivered by Hurricane Katrina, there was this: The people most in need of information about the storm were the least likely to be able to see, hear or read about it.
Journalists from the two hardest-hit areas -- New Orleans and the adjacent Gulf Coast of Mississippi -- have labored to describe the unfolding catastrophe. They have worked around demolished newsrooms and production facilities, primitive-to-nonexistent communications lines, and personal losses to produce pictures and words about the storm's aftermath.
But hardly anyone who could really use that news got it.
With electricity wiped out in the affected areas, receiving local broadcast or cable TV signals was nearly impossible. Only New Orleans radio station WWL-AM reportedly stayed on the air. Printing a newspaper in New Orleans was a cosmic absurdity: Even if the Times-Picayune, New Orleans's largest daily, hadn't had its presses disabled by rising floodwaters, delivering a printed paper would have been an act of madness, given the state of roads and bridges in the paper's circulation area.
The Times-Picayune left a dozen reporters and photographers behind as a cadre of employees jumped into circulation trucks and scattered to points north and southwest of town on Monday. Two small teams of the paper's editors set up shop in the offices of the Houma Courier, some 40 miles outside New Orleans, and yesterday at the Baton Rouge Advocate, 75 miles north of town.
In an e-mail sent to friends and colleagues yesterday, the Times-Picayune's managing editor for news, Dan Shea, wrote: "I stayed with the paper and witnessed the extraordinary death of a city."
The editors put together Internet-only editions of the paper, including a first-day report Monday that carried a stark, single-word headline: "Catastrophic." The editions were a source of pride to the dwindling staff -- but a pride tempered by the knowledge that many of the paper's 260,000 subscribers never saw it. "This is mostly for people who have evacuated the city and are trying to keep up with what's going on," said suburban editor Kim Chatelain yesterday as he was about to decamp from Houma to Baton Rouge. "Unless you have a generator, you have no idea what we're reporting."
The Sun-Herald, the daily in Biloxi, Miss., produced an eight-page paper on Tuesday and 24-page papers yesterday and today by using the printing presses of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, 315 miles away. Distributors fought backed-up traffic and long gas lines to truck the papers back to Biloxi, a coastal town that suffered extensive damage but less flooding than New Orleans.
Once in town, newspaper delivery people were greeted like relief workers, said Pam Siddal, the Ledger-Enquirer's publisher. "People were coming out the woodwork for a paper; they were absolutely desperate," she said yesterday. "Some people lost everything. We're their one source of information."
Information poured from locally produced blogs and Web sites -- though WWL-TV in New Orleans was knocked off the air Monday, it kept up a steady video stream on its homepage -- but the Internet was a frustration, too. Almost everything on it was inaccessible to thousands of people struggling to secure such basic needs as shelter, food and water.
On Tuesday, the Web turned into a town hall. Overnight, Web sites and blogs sprang up to provide a forum for the worried to speak their mind, for Samaritans to offer evacuees a place to stay, and for survivors to bear witness.
"Of course it's true what people tell you when they want to cheer you up," wrote Lance Lindley of Belle Chasse, La., on the MSNBC blog. "What matters is that your family is safe. The insurance will cover your property (or will it?). But some things, like 40 years worth of family photographs, kids' blue ribbons from school, grandmother's jewelry and a fully restored classic Porsche stupidly left in the carport can never be replaced."
Others used their blogs to provide news updates, request rescues for the stranded, and post pictures of the missing. Some used it to snipe at New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin: "Mayor Nagin tends to talk through his hat and doesn't necessarily have the facts to back up what he's saying. The man doesn't seem to have much of a 'filter.' "
More than anything, however, the Net provided a vast electronic bulletin board for those looking for lost loved ones, posting phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and making urgent pleas. In an echo of Sept. 11, 2001, each posting was a snapshot of lives torn asunder, of families pulled apart and of wide-eyed nights.
"PLEASE FIND GEORGE SIMS, SR," pleaded Zahira Sims on the Times-Picayune's site. "PLEASE HELP ME FIND MY DADDY." A "worried mother in Illinois" wrote to say she had mapped her son's address and was convinced that his home, close to a golf course, was submerged. She feared the worst: "He cannot swim," she fretted.
On Craigslist, a worried nephew posted: "Jeff Jackson, Jr. - 91 Year Old Black Creole Gentleman. I am inquiring into the whereabouts of my uncle, Jeff Jackson, Jr. who lives at 3600 North Derbigny Street, New Orleans LA 70117. I believe the address is in the 9th Ward. Family members in the NOLA area tried to evacuate him prior to the hurricane, but he refused to leave."
It was hard not to feel the anxiety on neworleansrefugees.blogspot.com, where C.F. Reynolds of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., wrote: "My niece, Raina Whitman, lives on Chateau Blvd. in Kenner about a mile from Lake Pontchartrain. Haven't heard from her since Monday morning. The water was up almost to her door at that time. Our family needs to hear something!!"
There are survivors posting reassurances that they made it out alive: "gone from my lovely city and safe in san francisco." "Im in England," while another posted the obvious to a group of friends: "no Fri lunch."
For the most part, it was a one-sided conversation, with those who'd made it out or those who lived out of town doing the talking. Those who remained in the hard-hit areas remained silent.