For Katrina 10, Government Executive Talks to Government Responders

The surprising stories from Government Executive's oral history project.

The image that you’re met with when you click on Government Executive’s package of oral histories from ten federal responders to Hurricane Katrina is an opaque, foamy white swirl–a NASA image of Katrina taken from space.

“Looking at this from space you see the magnitude of the storm in relation to the Gulf Coast,” said Katherine McIntire Peters, deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group and head of the project. “By choosing that I think it avoids the pitfall of a more intimate image where you’d have to select a person or a place or a particular aspect of the response. The storm was just massive and we wanted to convey that.”

The choice was one of many Peters and her team arrived at once they made the decision in April to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but first they had to decide what form that would take. “We knew that everybody was going to be covering this and we tried to think of something we could do that would be different, that would still add value to the coverage,” said Peters.

The team hewed to its mission of covering the tangle of departments and agencies that make up the federal government. They decided to interview the federal responders who had been involved in Katrina response during and after the storm. “It was widely understood that the federal response was a failure, but we wanted to get beyond that assessment and explore some of the lesser-understood facets of the response,” said Peters. “We also wanted to capture the humanity of the responders themselves. It’s easy to demonize ‘the government’ as some monolithic entity, but in reality it was composed of people deeply moved by the unfolding tragedy who worked very hard to make a positive difference.”

In staff meetings where team members updated each other regularly on the progress of their interviews, it soon became clear that an oral history would be the most effective way to get that story out. “We felt that it would be best to let them tell their own stories, in their own words, so we settled on the oral history approach, arranging the interviews over a timeline as events unfolded.”

It was an ambitious project for the small staff, who devoted extra hours from their already packed schedules to get it done. “It’s really the first all staff project we’ve done quite like this,” said Peters. To keep it all organized and exchange ideas, the team collaborated through a Google doc, which helped them make good use of the limited time they had to work on this.

The product of the team’s efforts is a compelling narrative, where you feel the tension in the accounts build naturally as the timeline progresses through Katrina’s landfall and aftermath. The interviewees may be bureaucrats, but the stories they tell don’t read like the agency line. Peters, too, was pleasantly surprised by their candor, which she attributes in part to how far removed we are from Katrina, and in part to the fact that some of those interviewed have moved out of government positions or are retired.

“Especially for people who were no longer in government, there are no repercussions for being candid in a way that there might have been at the time,” said Peters. “I also think for the people who were involved it was a really formative experience and they’ve had time to reflect and digest the experience in a way that gives them a kind of perspective and freedom to communicate that more directly than they might have been able to at the time.”

As its name implies, Government Executive’s audience is largely those people who use GE to inform their work in the federal sector. One of the purposes of the oral history is to examine the lessons of Katrina in order to give its audience ideas about how to change disaster response in the future.

But there are lessons here for journalists as well. Probably the most recognizable federal figure who responded to Katrina is then FEMA director Michael Brown. Spoken of almost exclusively in negative terms, the story about Brown that the GE team unearthed has more nuance, something that came through in Max Mayfield‘s account.

“Mayfield, who was the director of the National Hurricane Center at the time, said Michael Brown…was engaged and asking the right questions–that certainly didn’t come through in the reporting at the time,” said Peters.

When asked what she thought accounted for the discrepancy in the accounts current and past, Peters pointed to the tendency of journalists to turn real people into storybook characters. Acknowledging that Brown’s role was neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad, she said, “we in the media often want to create heroes and villains and find easy explanations for things. And things are often just much more complex.”

“People [at the time] were under tremendous stress on the ground and all they know is FEMA is not there. It’s very easy to understand how that anger would build and really settle on the man who represents the organization. I think that’s part of it. It’s a very human impulse to simplify things and often things aren’t as simple as we want them to be.”