The eyes of a hurricane
To tell the tragic story, he had to stay to see it through
by Michael Shute 93
ith Hurricane Katrina tearing toward New Orleans, Trymaine Lee ’03 had nowhere to go. He had no family in the area, no emotional ties to the city and no tangible reason to stay. This detachment helped him to remain and do his job–reporting the news for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune.
“A lot of my strength came from not having to concern myself with my family or my own well-being,” said Lee, who grew up in Chesilhurst. “This isn’t my home. My loved ones were safe in New Jersey. That allowed me to dig into the feelings of the people and see the situation from a perspective that was untainted by emotion.”
Lee was given a chance to leave as the storm barreled toward the city.
“(A few days before the storm) I was speaking to another editor who left and I realized this was going to be the big story and I wanted to be able to get into it. Then Sunday night [Aug. 28, 2005], my editor said to me, ‘Hey, if you want to leave, you can go,’ but I made the decision to stay.”
His decision paid off more than he ever could have imagined. Lee was a member of the Times-Picayune editorial team that received 2006 Pulitzer Prizes for Breaking News Reporting and Public Service in May. He was also a co-winner of the 2006 Emerging Journalist of the Year Award given by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Soon after Katrina made landfall almost eight feet of water flooded the Lower Ninth Ward, an area of the city that was the centerpiece of his story, “Nightmare in the 9th Ward all too real for one woman.” The piece, posted on the Times-Picayune website on Sept. 1, 2005, was part of the 10-story package that earned the paper the Breaking News Pulitzer.
Lee said speaking with Lucrece Phillips, the woman in his story, gave him a will to press on. It helped him realize the enormity of what he and his colleagues were doing and the service they were providing.
“Hearing [Phillips’] story of survival inspired me. I had to keep going for her, and for the people who were trapped in their attics. I had to press through it for all of the victims out at the Convention Center and stuck on the Interstate. I had a responsibility to those people.”
“As a journalist, to be recognized by your peers is always an honor,” Lee said of the Pulitzer, “but to win was bittersweet. We witnessed a lot of sadness, a lot of people died and suffered. It’s really a testament to a lot of my colleagues who were reporting while they had to canoe to their homes. Somehow, we were able to perform some wonderful journalism and to be part of something like this so early in my career is truly a great honor.”
Lee and his colleagues were also part of something new for the Pulitzers. For three days after the hurricane hit on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, the newspaper could not be printed. Stories were published online only. So for the first time, Pulitzers were awarded for online journalism.
Lee, 27, the first Rowan grad to win a Pulitzer Prize, spoke at the College of Communication 2006 commencement and received the Alumnus of Distinction Award.
“It felt great to have the chance to speak and I hope that I can be an inspiration,” Lee said. “It was really cool to stand in front of the graduating class and try to inspire them. I was just sitting there myself not too long ago. I tried to tell them, ‘Don’t take no for an answer. If you fall into the trap of underachieving, you’ll never reach your goals.’”
He also referred to a poem his mother used to recite to him as a child (“I Am Somebody,” by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and made popular on the television show “Sesame Street”) and it certainly struck a chord.
“Getting a chance to hear him speak was very inspiring,” said Melanie Mount ’06, a public relations major. “He kept saying, ‘I am somebody,’ which made you think that you can make an impact in your career, too. His accomplishment at his age is impressive. I was sitting there thinking that he’s only a couple of years older than us and he’s already done so much.”
In his time at Rowan, Lee was a staff writer for The Whit, and was involved with the Black Student Union and the NAACP. He came to Rowan from Camden County College where he earned his associate’s degree in communications in 2000. Two weeks after graduating from Rowan, he started a paid internship at the Philadelphia Daily News, then held full-time positions at the Philadelphia Tribune and the Trentonian before heading to New Orleans in April 2005.
“I think my time at Rowan gave me the confidence I needed,” Lee said. “We produced a good paper and it was a good training ground. Julia Chang was instrumental in my journalism education. She was the one who got me writing for The Whit, gave me confidence and allowed me to write creatively. Kathryn Quigley was great, too. She was supportive and reminded me that I had talent.”
“In news reporting class with Ev Landers, he played the role of a police department’s public information officer. We had to ask him questions and string together bits of information to write a story. It was very useful and still helps me,” said Lee.
“Trymaine’s tenacity and willingness to go the extra mile were evident when he was a student at Rowan,” said Claudia Cuddy, associate chair of the College of Communication’s journalism department and Lee’s advisor. “He showed an ability to meet adversity head-on and worked hard to reach his goals. We’re very proud of this outstanding achievement.”
“The Pulitzer,” Lee mused. “I never conceptualized ever winning that but [the Emerging Young Journalist Award] means a lot because these are my mentors telling me that I’m on the right track.”
Michael Shute ’93 graduated with a BA in Communications Liberal Arts. He lives in Gloucester Township with his wife, Colleen ’93, M’96 and their 20-month-old son, Ryan. He can be reached at via e-mail.