The month before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I went to Louisiana to report my second-ever story for Current TV. This was before the network had even gone on air, before the idea of the documentary series Vanguard as a show.
I was there to work on a story about how geography is affected by global warming. In Louisiana, the ocean was creeping up along the coastline, eating up marshland. The people I interviewed living in the southern parts of the state knew they were in a precarious situation, that the encroaching sea was already impacting their way of life.
A fisherman I interviewed named Tom told me I was looking at it all wrong. The levees were vulnerable, he said, but the real danger was that a Category 5 hurricane could wipe everything out. Saltwater from the ocean invading the marshland meant that one last line of defense -- unlike the furious cycle that a storm picks up over open water, marshland can actually help slow down hurricanes -- was also gone. Tom said that it would probably take a major city -- New Orleans -- being threatened to get anyone to take it seriously.
I went back to California, and before I finished assembling the story, Katrina hit. Everything people had told me would happen, did. I had been so fixated on the rising sea level that the risk a hurricane posed to New Orleans, while part of my story, wasn’t the first or biggest thing on my mind.
I wish I could say “I told you so” -- but like the government, like most people, I wasn’t taking it seriously. The people who lived there were right. It’s not the kind of thing anyone wants to be right about.
The global warming story I had originally gone to Louisiana to cover was -- before Katrina -- entirely ignored by the mainstream media. In its wake, as seemingly every journalist on the planet swept into town, it became a major part of the discussion. (I went, too, though I was skeptical about what I could add.) But I was glad so many reporters were there, that finally the long-overdue questions were being asked. People were talking about levees and the impact mankind had on that fragile ecosystem.
But still the coverage was reactionary. We should have known that this place was particularly vulnerable. I had been on the right track, but I didn’t ask all the right questions. When I got back to New Orleans, areas where we had been a month before -- even those relatively unscathed by flooding -- were a ghost town. The voice of that fisherman warning me about hurricanes echoed in my head the whole time.
The lesson to me as a journalist was that we have to stay a step ahead, to be enterprising and ask tough questions -- but also that we can so easily miss the big story if we think we already know what it is. I’m not saying that it’s possible to predict the future, but it’s important for journalists to go where the story is -- and listen when those who know best tell us there’s a storm coming.
Adam Yamaguchi is the executive producer and a correspondent for Current TV's Vanguard.