New Orleans:  Making It Personal

I was struck by how vast the destruction was: After a couple hours, it became apparent that 80 percent of New Orleans had been under water, including many middle class neighborhoods—a fact that rarely made the news, which focused on the impoverished areas of the city.

John led police on a high speed chase, apparently hoping they would kill him.

Like many Times Picayune staffers, Stephanie had evacuated to Baton Rouge and reported from there. As we traveled through an area called Lakeview, just a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain, where some of the levees broke, she told me the story of her friend, Times Picayune photographer John McCusker.

He apparently tried to commit what’s known as “suicide by cop” in August 2006 after learning his insurance would not pay to rebuild his house. John led police on a high speed chase, apparently hoping they would kill him. Instead, he ended up in the hospital and faced criminal charges for running over a police officer. Afterward, he said he could not recall the incident.  He was fined and placed on probation.

His heart-wrenching story prompted an outpouring of support from other Times Picayune staffers and friends, who raised $200,000 for John and his family within days.

I was still in shock at the story, when we turned a corner and Stephanie said, “There’s John!” She waved to him, then parked the car. We met John and he gave us a tour of his new house, a two story pre-fab built on stilts with the money raised by his friends and colleagues. He explained that the modular house will stand up to the strictest hurricane building codes. It seemed at once hopeful and unsettling to see a man and his family so excited about rebuilding his home and his life here, where he had already suffered so much.

Dusk fell as we left Lakeview. Just a smattering of the houses had lights on; most were abandoned. Have you visited post-Katrina New Orleans?

Read Part 1: A Traveling Mom Tours New Orleans

Michele Turk is the owner of A Bloc of Writers, Inc. in Cos Cob, Conn. She has worked as a professional writer and editor for the past two decades. Her work has appeared in many national consumer magazines, among them BusinessWeek, Parents, U.S. News & World Report, Shape, Glamour, Elle, The Washington Post, and USA Weekend, and she has written articles and blogged for numerous web sites. She is the co-editor of “Ink Stained,” a collection of essays by the members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992, and the author of “Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross.” She has also worked as an adjunct professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University.