I'm at a hotel in the French Quarter, where the Open Society Institute has gathered its Katrina media fellows. OSI is spending $1 million to subsidize a group of 27 journalists - photographers, documentary filmmakers and writers (including yours truly) - to document the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
OSI is funded by George Soros, it won't surprise anyone that there's an agenda here: to cast a probing eye at issues of race and class. Post-Katrina New Orleans has a surfeit of those, but they can still be hard to discuss in a politically divided, conflict-weary nation.
We spent a surprising amount of time yesterday discussing how to discuss these issues, using the word "framing" quite a lot (George Lakoff, your victory is complete, at least among the NGO set). But the conversation didn't really take off until the participants started talking about their individual projects and ways to pursue them through the archipelago of bureaucracies, FEMA trailer parks and half-gutted homes that marks daily life in New Orleans today. These projects are really exciting. Watch for them as they roll out over the coming year in various media, large and small. OSI is enabling a lot of smart people to take some time and delve into some of the hardest issues this nation has ever faced - and right now, incredibly, seems to be giving up on in many ways.
Some of the projects take a narrow focus: One documentary looks at Treme, a historic African-American neighborhood in New Orleans, another at the experiences of a single 9th Ward family. Other projects take a single issue and develop it in depth, such as one brave journalist entering the impenetrable morass of FEMA flood mapping. My own project, growing out of our book, deals with the future of the city - how can we protect people now and assure it's still here in 100 years?
To most of the media, Katrina is not only a thankless story, it's officially passé. On some level, it is always the same - ruined homes, dysfunctional government programs, and frustrated, sometimes damaged people. Last month's anniversary was in some sense a last media gasp - at least, until August 29, 2010. But of course, this extraordinary story is ongoing, and it can't really be understood in all its kaleidoscopic, decrepit grandeur without taking time and digging into the issues, developing an expertise. Katrina made history last year, but history is still being made here, every day.
John McQuaid is the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.