The NOLA Project

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So this is it… this is my big project. I have until the end of the year to produce an earth-shaking, half hour piece of investigative journalism. Or at least something that a few people are willing to sit through. But I’m shooting for the former.

I’ve got a couple of different ideas for my piece, and the purpose of this trip is to find out which one is the winner, that is, which one has the right combination of accessibility, interesting characters and a reasonable plot arc that I can follow. All of them so far center around New Orleans.

Earlier this year I was starting to lay the groundwork for a piece examining peace communities in the war zone of Columbia, but language barriers, financial hurdles and some personal situations conspired to make the idea out of my zone of abilities. Not to mention there was no narrative, and thus, no story. I would have to trek out to the jungle on the off chance that I discover a story worth telling. I’m sure it’s there, but if I were to come back from a trip like that empty handed, I would be pretty well SOL as far as my degree is concerned. Plus, my passion for the subject just wasn’t there.

Just as my enthusiasm for that idea was waning, I rewatched a couple of documentaries on New Orleans and realized that even though it’s been a solid five years since I set foot in the Crescent City, it still fascinates me. Everything about it: music, food, filth, corruption, its indomitable exuberance and lust for life. And in spite of the number of great documentaries produced about it, there are still plenty of stories to be told.

This is the first of a series of trips I will be taking to New Orleans in the hope of crafting a story from the sparse leads that I have. The story that has stuck in my head the longest is an investigation into what happened to the 517 detainees that went missing from Orleans Parish Prison in the days after Hurricane Katrina. In 2006 I heard from a former inmate that they were kept in their cells because of the lack of staff to supervise a proper evacuation. Consequently many of the prisoners on the lower tiers were basically left standing in sewage tainted water up to their chests for several days, without food, water, or ventilation. This same former inmate also said that he heard of several deaths, and from his cell in one of the top tiers he claimed he could hear the first tier inmates screaming and pleading for help.

One complicating factor in figuring out where all of these prisoners went is the fact that as much as 80% of the prison records were destroyed by the flood. Prisoners were shipped to other facilities around the state without authorities knowing who they were. If people did indeed die, or escape, it seems that it would be fairly easy for the authorities to cover up any mistakes or crimes. Or maybe they were all apprehended and none of them were injured. Which leads me to the present moment.

As I write this I am sitting in the lobby of a hotel near the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, on the first night of my first trip down here to investigate. I have a few contacts and a few ideas of where to start, but nothing solid to go on yet. Just a lot of hearsay and the general knowledge that Orleans Parish Prison has consistently been one of the dankest hellholes in the American justice system. Without saying too much over the web, one of my contacts is exactly the person I need to talk to so hopefully I can meet him face-to-face.

I want this series of blog posts to serve as a behind the scenes log of investigative journalism. In the future I would like to include the thoughts and words of my subjects and community in this blog. I want to make it a community effort, because this is a community issue and so much more.

But first thing is first. I need a place to stay after tonight. Which will be my first mission tomorrow morning. Wish me luck….

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