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After the storm comes the emotional trauma

Rick Sanchez was at his dining room table a few days after he covered Hurricane Katrina near New Orleans for CNN. Suddenly, Sanchez started crying.

"What's wrong?" his wife asked.

The answer was simple: In a rush of pent-up emotion, away from the chaos of covering a story, Rick Sanchez the reporter became Rick Sanchez the human being.

"You're a journalist and you're supposed to be able to separate and detach yourself from a story," Sanchez said this week in a telephone interview after covering another hurricane named Rita. "But it takes an emotional toll because you see what other people are going through.

"You see people hurt and killed and lose their houses and everything they own. It makes you think about yourself and your own family and how vulnerable we all are."

Sanchez told his wife about being in a boat with a National Guard rescue unit as bodies were floating down what were once streets. Remembering that moment, Sanchez said, makes you, "feel helpless and it doesn't just go away. You feel beaten up emotionally and physically."

Sanchez had little time to heal his wounded Katrina psyche because he spent last week in Lake Charles, La., and parts of Texas when Rita hit. This time he came face to face with his own mortality while riding with a CNN crew the first night of the storm.

"We were out in the truck when one of those giant oak trees, with a trunk about 5 or 6 feet in diameter suddenly fell right in front of us," he said. "If we had been there a few seconds earlier, it would have landed right on top of us. We said that's it, it's too dangerous to travel."

Such are the job trappings for hurricane reporters. Sanchez has been doing it for nearly two decades but seldom has there been such destructive storms and nationally riveting stories so close together as Katrina and Rita.

There is a media regimen to hurricane television coverage: National reporters come in and local media, stretched to its limits, does its best to cover a story for an audience without access to media or their homes. Then, when the storm ends, the national media hits the road.

"This is an event for the national media; to us it's life," said David Kurpius, associate dean of the Manship School of Journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "They parachute in, do their job and move on. We have to live here."

Kurpius believes it's the local media who provide the "long-term contextual coverage, day after day."

In an era of media distrust, newspaper and television reporters, along with photographers, became sort of a lifeline to civilization, especially for the displaced citizens of New Orleans.

"The media usually gets noticed for doing something bad," Kurpius said. "This time the media deserves credit for helping the rest of the country understand the magnitude and suffering of these storms. The people here appreciated the amount and the quality of the coverage."

"People were grateful that anyone was there to tell their story," Sanchez said. "The biggest worry for them is the uncertainty, not knowing how things will turn out, not knowing what happened to their homes and families.

"At shelters, you would see people huddled in front of television sets, trying to find out if they could see anything of their neighborhoods."

One of the most heart-wrenching moments during Rita for Sanchez came when he and his crew spent one night of the storm sleeping in the conference room of Holiday Inn. Throughout the evening, cars with families came to the hotel asking shelter, but all the rooms were gone.

"They were coming in with children, babies, but there was nothing available," Sanchez said. "The hotel clerks were crying but there was nothing they could do. I'm watching and thinking of my four kids back home. It just gets to you."

Sanchez added it was also difficult to deal with some local law enforcement officials, who may restrict not only movement but also what can be covered. "We had some tussles," he said, adding they don't always understand a reporter's role. "I'm just doing my job. I told them, 'The last thing I want to do is be here.' "

Television reporters in hurricanes can take the easy way out by standing out in the wind and filming garbage cans and property flying by.

"Some of the criticism is valid, because that is a cheap way out," Sanchez said. "You've got to go deeper than the first impression. You don't just stand in front of the parking lot or stick a microphone in front of person who just lost his home. What we try to do is give perspective, report facts and provide information."

There are other journalistic lessons of hurricane coverage. "Journalists have to give depth and context," Kurpius said. "There is an ethical aspect to covering a hurricane and evacuation. Reporters have to remember the dignity of people they are covering."

Showing dead bodies was an issue during Katrina.

"The job of a journalist isn't to whitewash a crisis, but you don't want to traumatize people," Kurpius added. "There are ways to show bodies and destruction without crossing an ethical line. Good journalists find a way to do it."

And those journalists also find a way to deal with a hurricane story's aftermath.

"It takes time," Sanchez said, "because this is the kind of a story that stays with you."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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