Ethnic Media Share Survival Stories One Year after Katrina

By Donal Brown, New America Media
Friday August 25, 2006

The men in the office slept on the floor, had to forego bathing and ate rations provided by the National Guard, but they were able to broadcast nonstop after the devastating hurricane. The men were five dee jays for 1540 Radio Tropical Caliente, some of the workers for the ethnic media of New Orleans that survived Katrina to provide first response services and eventually overcome financial blows and play a role in the rebirth of the city. 

Upon the one year anniversary of hurricane Katrina ethnic media shared their survival stories. 

After a two-day evacuation, the dee jays returned to their offices in New Orleans to provide critical survival information in Spanish and help Latino residents connect with loved ones. 

As business owners canceled ads, severely cutting the station’s revenue, radio host Azucena Viaz said people from the community came to their rescue. They donated gasoline for their generator, some even bringing it from Houston. Viaz said the station played a crucial role for the Spanish-language community. 

“We established a beachhead of good will,” she said. 

One day, Viaz and her editor, Ernesto Schweikert, received a call that 300 people, including children, were living in a warehouse with two bathrooms and no kitchen. 

When they reached the site that housed laborers, security guards were angry with them. Schweikert and Viaz argued that the laborers were promised $10 and were paid $7 and were living in these filthy conditions. 

Rather than risk further exposure, the security guards then told the people in the warehouse that immigration was coming, a de facto firing of all 300 workers. 

As the workers rushed out of the warehouse, Viaz was in tears. “What can you do now,” she asked some of them. But her station helped call attention to the situation of unequal pay. One of the workers told her, “Don’t worry. We are just happy you came and demonstrated that Spanish people are not alone.” 

Viaz said the station is now doing great financially. She said the Hispanic community had grown substantially with new restaurants, discos, and stores opening. 

After fleeing to Atlanta, Terry Jones, publisher of the 40-year-old New Orleans Data News Weekly rounded up writers who lived in Atlanta, sent reporters down to New Orleans and found a printer in Atlanta to replace the one in New Orleans that was wiped out. With the help of associate Cheryl Mainor, he was able to go beyond CNN coverage to give information on the location of displaced people, salvaging property and dealing with FEMA. 

They called friends in Houston; Jackson, Mississippi; Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Alexandra and arranged to ship the newspapers to New Orleans for distribution in shelters. They effectively became the “voice of the black diaspora” in the year following Katrina. 

Their crowning achievement came with the election season. With editors, photographers, sales people and reporters in a temporary office in New Orleans, they reported on the New Orleans election and facilitated the participation of displaced residents. 

The election was good for business but even better for people threatened by disenfranchisement while mired in temporary housing in distant cities. As one of the major conduits to the displaced, the Data News Weekly ran six and seven pages of ads with voting information paid for by the state of Louisiana. Jones put the entire newspaper online so that people could download it and stay informed about how to vote. 

“Everything was at stake,” said Mainor, “how the city was to be rebuilt and whether people were to be able to return.” 

With the information from the Data News Weekly, thousands displaced by natural catastrophe were able to vote. They came by bus to New Orleans to vote or faxed or mailed their ballots. 

Mainor said the future looks bright for the Data News Weekly. They are rebuilding in New Orleans and slowly regaining their ad base. 

The Vietnamese Americans displaced by the hurricane received essential information and support from the Vietnamese media. Thuy Vu, CEO of Vietnamese-language Radio Saigon Houston, said the day after Katrina hit, the station directed Vietnamese to a shopping mall in Houston where they could find food and shelter and other information in Vietnamese. 

The radio also went on the air to search for residents in Houston who could take in these displaced as well as provided a bulletin board to unite children with parents. 

Other ethnic media did not fare so well after the hurricane. The 21-year-old Vocero News of Kenner, Louisiana serving the Hispanic population of the Gulf Coast, New Orleans and Mississippi has ceased publication. The vibrant weekly had a circulation of 60,000. Their telephone service was disconnected and the last posting on their website was for their weekly of May 20-27, 2005. So too, the telephone service for the editors of Little Saigon News of New Orleans is disconnected. 

The Louisiana Weekly, a proud family-run newspaper since 1925, also had a difficult time. Executive Editor Renette Dejoie Hall, whose grandfather founded the operation, said the two days after the Katrina hit they returned to take down the server and computers and move everything to Houston. 

By Oct. 24 the Louisiana Weekly was publishing on-line and print editions. Unable to hire back her staff, Hall said people worked as volunteers. 

“They donated their time and effort while they had other jobs and were trying to deal with the quagmire,” she said. 

It took until this past Aug. 18 for Hall to make her first payroll in 11 months, down from 21 to four employees. 

Before Katrina, the weekly had a press run of 25,000. Hall said they were down from this but that the exodus of blacks from New Orleans was exaggerated by the mainstream press. She was hopeful for a regeneration of the black businesses and their ad revenue even though businesses have found it difficult to obtain loans. 

“Banking has not been forgiving. To get an FDA loan, they want the business owners to provide tax records back to 1993, but the records were under 10 feet of water and no longer exist,” said Hall.