Sunday, September 11, was the first time in two weeks 27-year-old Brent Hightower had a day to relax. He spent the day with new friends and some old familiar faces at a barbeque in Baton Rouge and then watched his beloved Saints lead a 23-20 victory over the Carolina Panthers in their first game of the season. The people of New Orleans needed some good news.
Hightower, a New Orleans resident and SLA member, was among the hundreds of thousands in the southern U.S. Gulf region who had their lives and way of life altered dramatically by Hurricane Katrina.
When Katrina approached the U.S. coast and gathered strength to a Category 3 hurricane on Saturday, August 27, Hightower went to his parents' house to help them evacuate the city that day and board up their windows. At that point, he decided to remain in New Orleans and remain with his associates at the Times-Picayune, helping them get the newspaper published without interruption, if possible, because by late Saturday night the National Hurricane Center had issued a warning that extended from Morgan City, Louisiana, to eastern Alabama. New Orleans was expected to be hit directly.
By 10 a.m. Sunday, August 28, the sum of many fears came to fruition: Katrina intensified in strength and elevated to a Category 5 with winds up to 175 mph and an expected 25-foot flood surge. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered mandatory evacuation of the city because Katrina was bearing down on them.
Hightower, who serves the Times-Picayune as a library archivist analyst and has been with the newspaper since 2001, joined the nearly 250 employees and some family members at their office building on Howard Avenue, just a mile from the Superdome in downtown New Orleans.
"I learned so much that night," Hightower recalled, in helping get the newspaper published and news uploaded onto its affiliated Internet site, www.nola.com.
Katrina came ashore on August 29 with 140-mph winds and a 20-foot storm surge; the hurricane struck that Monday morning as a Category 4.
Initially, those at the Times-Picayune had hoped to stay. The newspaper managers had hoped to be able to provide essential, breaking news during the immediate days after Katrina, even though many other news outlets had fled. Despite the loss of electricity and phone lines, the building had a generator to keep computers and presses operating. But by 10 p.m. that Monday, the Lakeview levee had been breached near the 17th Street canal--one of many levees that eventually flooded the city. By early the next morning water was rising rapidly throughout New Orleans. The newspaper's publisher, Ashton Phelps Jr., ordered the evacuation of everyone from the Times-Picayune building. They were to leave together via the loading docks and drive out of the city on the newspaper's delivery trucks.
"Nobody was injured," Hightower reported of those who had remained that Monday night. Taking laptops and other portable necessities, they abandoned the Times-Picayune building.
The Tuesday newspaper was never printed, but the publisher, editors, and reporters were determined to continue collecting and distributing the news. They were in the middle of the worst natural disaster in American history and they were determined to get the information out to the public. Hightower remained with them; he wanted to help any way he could. Hightower's duties had been working in digital archiving, primarily PDF files, and managing the real estate collection.
On the Road
That Tuesday morning, Hightower was part of a 12-member team that traveled to Houma, Louisiana, 57 miles southwest of New Orleans. The Houma Courier offered a place for his associates to eat, use the computers, contact their families, and, equally important, get a newspaper out. The plan was to produce the...