Jeff Duncan (Part One)

An Interview with Jeff Duncan (Part One)

An Interview with Jeff Duncan (Part One)

“I was the first reporter in the Dome…The Dome was such a symbol of Katrina and suffering. Even a year later talking to officers and military people we still don’t know what happened in there. There’s no way to nail down the deaths and rapes. Trying to peel away the myth and get to the truth was very difficult.”

It was the most rewarding experience of my career. I’m sure I’ll never cover another story of that magnitude…I was fortunate to sink my teeth into something so important and make a difference in the community…I’ve never felt my job was more important than it was these past two years.

“Obviously it changed my perspective on sports…I used to be the obsessive guy who watched ESPN all the time and would read the sports section first. Now I pick up the A section first and work back to sports. I watch…more CNN and broader-scope programming. It helped me become a better-rounded person.”

Jeff Duncan: Interviewed on March 1, 2007

Position: enterprise sports reporter, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Born: 1964, Louisville

Education: University of Louisville, 1986, communications

Career: Louisville Courier-Journal (part-time), St. Petersburg Times (part-time), Monroe News-Star 1989-96, Florida Today 96-98, Nashville alternative weekly 98-99, Times-Picayune 99 –

Personal: single

Favorite restaurant (home): Jacquimo’s “the quintessential New Orleans restaurant – get the alligator sausage cheesecake – it sounds horrible and if you’re not from here you wouldn’t order it – 10,000 calories but worth every one”; Cochon “warehouse district – hottest new restaurant in town – specializes in Louisiana pork”

Favorite restaurant (road): Jake’s Del Mar Restaurant, Del Mar, Ca., “beachfront dining and Del Mar is one of the most beautiful towns in America”

Favorite hotel: Grand Marriott, Point Clear, Ala. “where we stay covering the Senior Bowl – old historic hotel on a bluff – you get the points and you’re in a nice hotel”

Jeff Duncan excerpted from the Times-Picayune, September 12, 2005:

The concrete and steel titan on Poydras Street still dominates the New Orleans skyline. But the Superdome, like everything else in the brutalized city, looks much different now.

Hurricane Katrina’s 100 mph-plus winds relentlessly strafed the world-renowned stadium’s roof, peeled back its white weather- protective shell like a coconut husk. The force was so powerful it stripped off sheets of 2-inch foam and thick rubber and blew them all over the Central Business District. Three huge smoke dampers were blown from the roof. Seven other gaping holes were opened.

Once compared to a sleek futuristic spaceship, the Dome now looks like a beat-up car that has lost its primer. Sixty percent of the roof was damaged, said Doug Thornton, regional vice president for SMG, the company that manages the state-owned facility.

Thornton tagged the cost of damage at between $50 million and $100 million, less than some that have been tossed around in recent days, but substantial nonetheless.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the World Trade Center became an icon of their wreckage. After Hurricane Katrina, it’s the Superdome. Via helicopter fly-overs, TV networks beamed countless images of the hurricane-ravaged arena around the world in the days after the storm. As before, it symbolizes the city.

The unyielding eye of the cameras, however, never peered inside the 30-year-old landmark, which has been under armed-guard lockdown since the last of the 25,000 storm victims who sought shelter there were evacuated Sept. 4.

On Friday, Thornton led a team of 22 contractors and a handful of Superdome employees on a tour of the facility to assess the damage caused by the hurricane and the storm victims who used the building as a refuge. It was the first time anyone other than Thornton or National Guard troops had been inside the building since Sept. 4.

The group included representatives from several national companies that specialize in environmental disaster abatement and demolition services. They donned gas masks, white jumpsuits and rubber hip boots. Some even rubbed Vick’s Vaporub under their noses to block the stench….

Inside, the Dome’s 1.8 million square feet looks trashed. Its floors, concourses, ramps, meeting rooms, offices and restrooms are littered with debris and refuse from the evacuees who endured hellish living conditions in the building for as many as five days after the storm.

The floor and Momentum Turf playing field have been transformed into a mushy lake of inch-deep black water. The fetid soup coated a sea of trash and spoiled food. The bathrooms on the 200 level overflow with human feces and urine. In one men’s room, the human waste spilled out of the entrance and into the concourse. Blood stains several walls. Stagnant for days in the still air, the water, spoiled food and human excrement will require decontamination and will be removed by professionals…

Officials said at least 10 to 12 people died in the Dome, including a man who jumped or was pushed 50 feet to his death from one of the pedestrian walkways. A military police officer also was shot in the leg during an assault.

On the suite level, windows were shattered; holes and graffiti marred several walls. Damage to the luxury boxes varied from suite to suite.

In one, the liquor cabinets had been broken into and the chairs were rearranged but everything else was unharmed. Down the hall, one of the New Orleans Saints’ suites was ransacked. Leather couches were turned over. Holes were punched in the walls and pictures were shattered. A 10-by-18-inch picture of former Saints running back Ricky Williams lay in tatters on a bed of broken glass and splintered wood…

Friday’s tour was the first step in a two-month evaluation process to determine whether the Dome should be salvaged, renovated or destroyed.

There is a strong possibility the costs to save the facility will be too high. Thornton has estimated it could cost $50 million to $100 million to repair the Dome and as much as $500 million to $600 million to demolish it and build a new one.

The future of one of country’s world’s most recognized buildings, one that has hosted some of the biggest events in American history and along the way became one of New Orleans’ most enduring symbols, is now uncertain.

Six NFL teams won Super Bowls in it. The LSU Tigers celebrated the 2004 college football national championship in it. Frank Sinatra crooned in it. The Rolling Stones rocked it. And Pope John Paul II prayed in it.

The evaluation will be a laborious process. Thornton hopes to receive bids from the contractors by the end of this week.

“One guy asked me why we wouldn’t just want to tear down the Dome because it harbors so many bad memories of the storm, but we had 30 years of good memories here before the hurricane,” Thornton said. “It could be a symbol for the rebuilding of New Orleans, something people could rally around.”

But, he added, “there is a possibility that they’ve played the last game in the Superdome as we know it.”

Q. What was it like going into the Superdome after Katrina?

A. I was the first reporter in the Dome. The GM of the Superdome, Doug Thornton, contacted us about accompanying them on the first inspection after the storm. Because I had been the NFL reporter and had covered so many games there I was sent.

It was intense. We wore hazmat outfits – I remember putting on gloves and boots and a hat and thinking that two weeks ago I was concerned with who was making the Saints final roster -now I’m concerned about hazardous material – what a surreal experience. To get into the arena and see the damage – and to cover the renovation and the symbolism it had for the city – and to be there that night (Sept. 25, 2006) for the Falcons game – it was a tremendous experience beyond sports reporting.

A year later I worked on a story that was the most difficult assignment I ever had in sports journalism. They wanted me to write the Dome experience for the (Katrina) anniversary issue. They wanted me to relive the five days at the Dome, to write the definitive story of what happened in there. It was a year later and people still didn’t know. It was foggy. Traditional reporting methods were useless – you couldn’t call up a source at City Hall. Police reports weren’t issued – there were no public records you would traditionally go to.

It was boots on the ground, roll up your sleeves reporting and it took all of my time from July to late August. To dig that story back up and tell it was a great challenge. You had storm victims in the Dome, and the military, which was responsible for protecting those people. You had the Dome manager, Doug Thornton and his staff – they were trained in running a sport facility, not housing storm victims. You had the medical people who were there, and I found a group of tourists from England and Australia – vacationers who ended up in the Dome, trapped in sub-human living conditions. We ran the (anniversary) series daily – it started on Sunday before the storm and picked up the next day with the storm hitting. I tried to take readers into the Dome and what it was like.

The Dome was such a symbol of Katrina and suffering. Even a year later talking to officers and military people we still don’t know what happened in there. There’s no way to nail down the deaths and rapes. Trying to peel away the myth and get to the truth was very difficult.

Q. What is it like to walk into the Dome now?

A. There was a lot of criticism nationally that New Orleans’ priorities were out of whack in rebuilding the Dome. They don’t understand the significance of what the Dome means to people here. In a lot of ways it’s like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field – an iconic symbol that holds a strong place in the hearts of Orleanians – it was very important to rebuild it. For the NFL it was prerequisite to getting the team back. The city needed the Saints back here and it wasn’t going to happen without the Dome.

All I could think of were the workers who worked around the clock for nine months straight. Doug Thornton lost his home but he was at the Dome overseeing a project that should have taken three years condensed into nine months – all to lift the city and to provide a beacon to the city. That, to me, was the story of New Orleans.

Q. What did the Katrina experience mean to you as a journalist?

A. It was the most rewarding experience of my career. I’m sure I’ll never cover another story of that magnitude – it’s still ongoing and will be for the next decade in New Orleans. As a journalist you can go a whole career and never have something of this scale. I was fortunate to sink my teeth into something so important and make a difference in the community. That’s why most of us got into this – to inform the community and make a difference in everyday lives. It was tremendous on that level. I’ve never felt my job was more important than it was these past two years.

I remember after the storm – our base was moved to Baton Rouge and we had to truck the papers in – I would go down and hand out papers to military personnel and holdouts and some people were crying when we handed them out. It was very powerful to see the impact of that – the newspaper was a sign of normalcy for them.

Obviously it changed my perspective on sports. I look at it differently. I used to be the obsessive guy who watched ESPN all the time and would read the sports section first. Now I pick up the A section first and work back to sports. I watch less ESPN and sports-related TV and more CNN and broader-scope programming. It helped me become a better-rounded person.

Q. Was your home flooded?

I live in the Uptown area near Tulane and Loyola universities. My house is close to the Mississippi River – anything close to the river is on high ground because of years of natural flooding depositing sediment. So I’m on high ground, but I didn’t know about flood elevation when I bought my house – I’m a runner and wanted to be near a park. I had about $40,000 in damage from the actual storm including a new roof.

I also lost my SUV – it was parked at the Times-Pic and was lost in the flood. When I went out reporting Monday night I parked in front of the building in an area that was dry. As the waters rose overnight none of us knew what that meant – we knew the levies had breached but we didn’t’ know how high the water would get or how far it would go. I thought my car was safe – the next morning I saw four feet of water on my truck. We were awakened by the publisher and told to evacuate. It was pretty hectic, but I survived pretty much unscathed. Three weeks ago we had a huge tornado that hit my block and I escaped again.

The floodwaters got stopped about five blocks from my house, but when we evacuated Tuesday morning to Baton Rouge none of us knew. You can imagine the shock of seeing four feet of water lapping on the front steps of the newspaper where I had walked the night before – I can’t tell you how disorienting. We rode seven hours in the back of a delivery truck to Baton Rouge in searing heat. It was a brutal experience – almost like being a refugee.

I stayed at a colleague’s house that night. We had the radio on and Mayor Nagin came on and said they can’t stop the breaches in the levies and the city was going to fill with water. They expected eight feet of water on St. Charles Avenue before it leveled out. I figured there would be ten feet of water in my house. The next morning I received hundreds of e-mails from friends and colleagues around the country. I told them I feared I had lost my house.

Q. How long before you got back to New Orleans?

A. I was in Baton Rouge for two days. After watching events transpire I was dying to get back into the city – any journalist worth his salt is going to want to cover this story. We had a small band of reporters that had stayed in the city under the direction of David Meeks who was SE at the time. He had the perspective and foresight to realize we couldn’t abandon the city all at once – he had a handful of reporters working for two days and nights.

When I was in Baton Rouge in the initial days I talked to Gordon Russell on the phone. He had been where the police had shot a man and had got out his car to report it and the police threw him against a wall and put a gun to his head. He was on the phone with me afterward and he was terrified. Gordon is one of the most diligent bulldog reporters we have. To hear that in his voice spurred me more than anything to go help our team. They needed help not just for surviving but to cover the story.

I got through to the managing editor and asked to come join them. I knew there would be no power or water – that type of environment isn’t the easiest situation to work in and it’s not for everybody, but I’m healthy and fairly young. My colleagues were doing it and I knew it was dangerous but somebody had to do it. It was competitive – I knew the New York Times and Washington Post were there. But this was our story and we needed to cover it better than anybody.

I got in a rental car that night and drove with Michael Montalbano, a sports copy editor. We gathered supplies and drove to Houma (La.) – we were working out of the Houma Courier newsroom. We slept on the floor of the newsroom and went back into the city to report on Friday. Friday night we put out our first printed story after the storm – we were printing at the Houma paper.

Q. So now you’re a news reporter, not a sportswriter. What was your first story after Katrina?

A. I did a story on the zoo, which is in the back of Audubon Park. It struck me that no one knew what had happened at the zoo – were tigers running around? I had no idea. I went to the gate – they had metal gates down in front of the building – and I saw somebody in back. I called to them – the security staff came out but they would not open the gates because they were in such fear after what they heard on the radio. There was looting uptown and they were terrified and they wouldn’t open the gates for us. We interviewed them through the gates and wrote a decent story about the damage. I slept in the Houma newsroom that night.

The next day I went to the Wal-Mart in Houma and stocked up on supplies – I was preparing to stay for good. We stayed in a colleague’s house uptown – Stephanie Grace, a metro columnist – she let in this animal pack and regrets it in hindsight. Her house became the Times-Pic Katrina bureau for the next month. We slept on the floors and had fans powered by generators. We developed an efficient system. Walt Philbin, a police reporter, became the courier – he called every morning and asked what supplies we needed – fuel, ice, beer, food – he brought it in every day and took stuff back to Baton Rouge.

James O’Byrne, the features editor, had set up a (Baton Rouge) newsroom within 24 hours with laptops and a computer network and editors and started putting out a newspaper. For reporters and editors there was no difference in the work we were doing – the deadlines were different but the journalism performed was essentially the same – although it was more difficult because of the 24-hour news cycle. We were filing at 3 a.m. and blogging constantly on the website.

It was a fluid situation. The Times-Pic and (owner) Newhouse were wonderful in how they treated the situation. They announced to us that we could work if we wanted but we didn’t have to, we could take time off – whatever we felt was best. Some people evacuated before the storm and stayed at different spots around the country. October 10 was the day we had to be back at work and they would pay us for that time. People came and went in the newsroom and the bureau.

We had a core of six to twelve in the bureau the whole time. Once you were there it was a hassle getting back out of town – it was better just to stay there. You had food and water and you knew what was at stake – the story was unfolding before our eyes. For a journalist it was such a rich environment you were compelled to stay – nothing would pull you out of there.

After 10 days I went back to Baton Rouge for a few days. A colleague was kind enough to put me up. I had to take care of personal things – bills and insurance claims – once I got that under control I felt better about focusing on the story. Luckily I was able to break away and check on my house and see that it was fine – there was no looting. Early on all standards had broken down – there was no law enforcement in the neighborhoods – police and military were concerned with saving lives. It was a very dangerous environment early on. I distinctly remember the fear in the early days until the National Guard got in. We were armed – we had weapons in our bureau that our photographer, Alex Brandon, brought in, just because there was nobody to protect you.

Q. Were you at any point in a life-threatening situation?

A. No. I never felt like my life was in danger. I did feel some fear for my security in reporting some stories. We had a pact – reporters would travel in pairs or with photographers. We did some reporting on holdouts – stragglers who refused to evacuate. These people formed mini-societies, congregated and looked out for one another. There are going to be some bad people in that kind of crowd – you could see them watching you. I found myself interviewing them and being asked to go into out-of-the-way areas to see something – that’s when I felt a little fear because I was back there by myself.

(SMG thanks Jeff Duncan for his cooperation)

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