Hurricane Katrina & David Perez

As August turned into September 2005, I watched the TV in the same horror as you did as the situation in New Orleans deteriorated from bad to worse. For me, the tragedy onscreen was compounded by my fear for the welfare of my sister Brita and her family, whose home in Long Beach, Mississippi, was just feet from the Gulf.

And after.

And after.

Here's what my sister's house in Long Beach, MS, looked like before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Here's what my sister's house in Long Beach, MS, looked like before Hurricane Katrina hit.

I petitioned my bosses at the North County Times to send me down to the Bayou to report on the unfolding tragedy. They considered it, but I struggled to present them with a “local angle” with which our local-to-North-San-Diego-County newspaper justified its existence. I received word that while her home and neighborhood were destroyed, my sister and her family were OK, staying with her in-laws a few miles away, but running out of supplies like diapers for the young ones.

David Perez

David Perez

But while most of us watched in horror and wondered what we could do to help, San Diego businessman David Perez watched and then did something with his anger. He organized a remarkable one-man, private relief operation, sending chartered jets to the devastated Delta full of supplies he paid for himself, supplies specifically requested by the emergency-response coordinators, fire chiefs and mayors he somehow personally found on his cell phone amid the chaos. 

 

He resolved to fly there himself, with a half-baked plan to bring storm refugees back with him to San Diego, to allow others the chance to help neighbors in need half a nation away. And he offered a few San Diego-area journalists a spot on the plane with him. Because of my intense lobbying and despite the fact that I was working on the Opinion side of the newspaper at the time, I got the assignment from the North County Times, even though by this time my sister had found her way north and toward our family’s locus in the northeast. 

 

The first of the New Orleans residents flown to San Diego by David Perez is carried down onto the tarmac. Photo credit: Jamie Scott Lytle/North County Times

For his efforts, Perez was profiled by CNN and A&E Biography as one of their heroes of the year. I got a great series of compelling A-1 stories and the chance to witness history. And most important, dozens of storm refugees got a new chance in a new city.

Here are the stories that I wrote about the remarkable journey of David Perez for the North County Times:

Lee Enterprises, the corporate owner of the North County Times, asked me to write a “How I Got the Story” piece for their Writing Matters website. Here it is:

Finally, here is the story I wrote on the 1-year anniversary of the storm:

 

David Perez founded a nonprofit organization, 2 Life 18, to coordinate his ongoing efforts to help folks stricken by Hurricane Katrina. 

Finally, here is a San Diego Union-Tribune profile of David Perez that I wish I had written, as it reveals motivations that I didn’t have the chance to find out in my whirlwind of a weekend.

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