Published: August 2006
Thomas Hayden

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

When hurricanes hit, it's easy to be overwhelmed by their destructive power, and nowhere is this more apparent than with Katrina's brutal impact on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But it's important to remember the hopeful stories as well—in this case, tales of human resilience in the face of tragic disasters.

I spent several evenings listening to the stories of a remarkable group of Katrina survivors from Jefferson Parish, just next door to New Orleans. All neighbors in a large apartment complex, the 20 or so people barely knew each other before the storm hit, and all opted not to evacuate for their own reasons.

When Katrina hit, they gathered one by one at the complex's little-used picnic area, and set about figuring out how to survive. In this real-life version of a reality television show, the group organized themselves into teams, some to scrounge for resources, others to maintain their space—such as rigging a pulley system to haul water from the swimming pool up to flush toilets—or form security squads to protect the group from looters. By the time power came back on three weeks later, the survivors said, they were all fast friends and all convinced of the power of camaraderie in the face of disaster. "I know it sounds terrible," one of the residents told me later, "but honestly, I'm sorry it's over."

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

Katrina dealt a ferocious blow to the New Orleans region, but the storm's brutal impact on coastal Mississippi and Alabama was in some ways even worse. There are a few barrier islands, and, for the most part, the coastline was defenseless in the face of Katrina's horrific storm surge, which topped 20 feet (six meters) high in many places.

Dawn and Dennis Lavoie, both scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, took me on a tour of the devastated Mississippi coastline, where they had lived some years earlier. On a cold, rainy December day, some four months after Katrina struck, the usually lush coastline was a grim and barren place—thousands of houses swept away or reduced to rubble; trees stripped clean of leaves, moss, or any other life; the entire coastline virtually deserted by humankind.

As the Lavoies explained the geology and physics behind the catastrophe, they also pointed out the human impacts: the spot where a friend's house had once stood, the wreckage of the school their children attended. Such personal touches brought the awful power of hurricanes to life for me and made the rush to better understand and predict these most powerful of storms seem all the more urgent.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Jimbo's Place is an anomaly in the fancy world of South Florida, and yet it seems to belong much more than the shiny high-rises and exclusive hotels and resorts of the Miami area. The scruffy little bar is really just a low-slung shack, way off the beaten path and tucked away between Biscayne Bay and a water treatment plant on Virginia Key. (Locals suggest staying away when the wind blows from the wrong direction.) But the place is an institution, a treasured secret for locals and an intriguing draw for tourists and Miamians alike. All come to fish cold beers out of ice tubs and stand around the burning barrel, perhaps taking part in a bocce ball tournament or singing a country tune on karaoke night.

The hurricane researchers at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Studies emphasized to me that their work was motivated by finding ways to help people cope with hurricanes. Several of them also count themselves among the regulars at Jimbo's. And I can't help thinking that this is a connection that will help keep their research focused on the very human impacts of hurricanes.