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By Keith Burton Ė Owner and Publisher - GulfCoastNews.com  Filed 11/1/05

A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I was contacted by Anthony Moor, a senior editor with the OrlandoSentinel.com and asked to be a panelist at the October 27-30 Online News Association annual convention held this year at the New York Hilton in downtown New York. It seems that our work at GCN, particularly the GCN Katrina Survivor-Connector Database, had caught the eye of this well-respected editor, and he felt that I might have something to contribute to other online news operations.

At the time, I was buried with work covering Katrinaís aftermath and its continuing confusion and like many other survivors from the hurricane; I had many issues regarding my family and home to resolve. I didnít think I could go, but I appreciated the invitation. After more weeks of work, Anthony called again and asked if I was coming. ďOkay, I will go,Ē I told him, but it was difficult to do, my work at GCN and my other activities had not slowed. But I felt it was important to go.

The Online News Association is the nationís premiere organization dealing with online journalism, and it was an honor to be asked to participate. This is especially so for a small Mississippi Gulf Coast independent news website that has been GCN.  And this past Friday afternoon, I delivered my presentation to a room full of online journalists.

The ONA is packed with the major players in journalism, regardless of whether online or not. Major media outlets, including those from the top newspapers and television media all have Internet sites. Members of the ONA include powerhouses such as the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Yahoo News and many others.

Several other online operations that covered Katrina were also invited for the part of the conference that I was asked to speak, they included the online representatives of the Sun Herald, WWL-TV in New Orleans and the Times Picayune. We were all to speak on how we covered Katrina and its aftermath, and how we overcame the communicationís difficulties in the immediate weeks after the hurricane.

We all had challenges, but the gist was that we found whatever means possible to get information to people and to help folks get by. But my presentation was more than that. I felt I needed to talk about what is also happening and not happening regarding the media coverage.

Many people have commented to me that they feel as if the national media was leaving the Katrina story and moving on. And that is the case. I sought to remind journalists at the ONA that the Katrina story remains an important one. Most people outside the Coast think that we are well on our way to recovery.  But that is not the case. It will be years before the Coast, and New Orleans, are back to what will be a new normal.

I bring up New Orleans because I have seen the devastation the broken levies and the hurricane did to that proud city. It is true that much of the national mediaís attention was focused on New Orleans leaving many to be unaware about what happened to the Mississippi Coast. But like the Coast, where the destroyed neighborhoods and business areas are now silent and dark, so too is much of the Crescent City. I had to drive to New Orleans International Airport to travel to New York. It is such a sad sight. All of New Orleans East is empty. Thousands of apartments, businesses and homes and nothing is stirring. The emptiness extends well into the central city. It looks all the world like a set from some sci-fi movie about the end of the world.

The airport was also silent. My wife, Enola, and I arrived to an airport with no planes on the tarmac or at the ramps. The parking lot was mostly empty and silence reigned in the terminal. New Orleans has, for now, lost its business heart. There are no conventions or visitors or tourists. This too will take time to recover.

But there is more to why the Katrina story needs to be kept alive and it is hinted at in the emptiness of New Orleans, and the losses in our area.

The lessons that Katrina teaches us are of national importance. If there ever is a major earthquake, or terrorist attack, the loss of lives and property only are the beginning of sorrows.

Governments at every level, from city to county, from state to federal, depend on taxes. And just as when you lose your income in a disaster, so too can governments. Throughout the Katrina area, local governments are going broke.

Katrinaís devastation has destroyed the tax base of our area and New Orleans. This is a story that has not effectively been discussed and it will have profound and long-term effects on not just our area but nationally. How can cities, counties and states even begin to recover, when they cannot predict their income?  They canít. How can they provide services, fix streets, repair sewers, provide police and fire protection and run schools if they cannot pay their people? They cannot. And raising taxes is no solution either. It will just drive out those that are left.

The other major story is that the Hurricane Katrina evacuations, those empty neighborhoods and businesses, have resulted in the largest diaspora of people since the displacement of Indian tribes in the 1800ís. It isnít just the poor that we saw on television in shelters. It is the executives of businesses, doctors, lawyers, accountants, computer experts - the thousands of experienced workers that drive a community Ė that are gone and many of them cannot return. Their dispersal to other communities and what that means for our area, and the nation, have received little attention in the media.

Since Hurricane Katrina, GCNís readership has expanded over 1,000 percent and we have received both national and international mention in stories about the site. This is no small feat. More people are reading GCN than ever before and I am thankful for that. Our GCN Katrina Survivor-Connector Database helped thousands find loved ones displaced by Katrina. And we have received hundreds of emails and letters thanking us for our work.

The professionals at the ONA conference were generous in their compliments to me and GCN, and I deeply appreciated their recognition and encouragement.

While it was an honor to have been recognized for a short while at the conference, my focus and that of GulfCoastNews.com remains to help people. Yeah, that does sound corny, but it is the simple truth.

To hear the presentation made at the Online News Association conference, CLICK HERE. This will open your Media Player and automatically begin playing. The presentation is a little over 18 minutes.

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