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August 21, 2006

Finding a shared flood fury

By Jeff Cox

To understand a flood, you have to live through a flood. Those who haven't might not grasp the plight of John McCusker, a photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, whose sad story recently made national news. Having just sustained nearly $100,000 worth of damage to my own home during a recent flood on the Delaware River, I can empathize with McCusker.


I'm feeling John McCusker's pain right now.

The name's not familiar?

Let me acquaint you.

McCusker is a photographer for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, a newspaper caught in the eye last year of Hurricane Katrina. The paper and its staff were among the heroes of the vicious storm as they continued performing their essential task of disseminating information and telling powerful stories while the city was under the siege of its worst natural disaster.

Among and at times above that incredible body of work was McCusker's art.

He was the only member of the Times-Pic's photo staff to travel throughout the city with the paper's top reporting team. The news group even stayed at McCusker's mother's house on occasion. Their work stands out as pure poetry in a time of such horror and human tragedy.

So what's that got to do with me?

A couple weeks ago, McCusker apparently snapped.

On Aug. 8, New Orleans police reportedly saw McCusker driving erratically through the city and tried to pull him over. As they did, he allegedly hit several parked cars. He then rolled down the window and said several times, "Just kill me, get it over with, kill me," according to a police account.

Authorities later said they believe this was a case of suicide by cop, in which he was trying to end his life by having police do it for him.

The reason for McCusker's extreme angst, if you haven't already formulated a pretty good guess, was that he had just found out his insurance company was coming up short in helping him rebuild the home he owned that was devastated by Katrina. Co-workers said he had been distraught and recently taken a leave of absence while undergoing therapy. (McCusker is recovering after undergoing psychiatric evaluation).

Now before you get ready to call 911 don't get excited.

I'm not suicidal.

And I'm not trying to equate the flood damage we in the Lehigh Valley and northwest New Jersey recently suffered with the plight of the Katrina victims.

But I do know where McCusker's coming from.

I know how it feels to turn to places you thought you could depend on for help only to get empty stares. I know how it feels to seek answers from insurance companies and mortgage brokers and the federal government and do-nothing local legislators only to get a one-way ticket to voice-mail hell.

I know how it feels to worry if your life is ever going to be normal again.

Sometimes it can be too much, and sometimes it's all just so insane that you can't do anything but laugh.

That was my day last Monday.

Driving home from work in New York City my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a sweet-voiced lady from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Hello Mr. Cox, this is so-and-so from FEMA calling. We'd like to know if you and your family need a house trailer to live in?"

Monday, as you'll recall, was Aug. 14. The flood, as you'll recall, was June 28.

My math is a little rusty, but if my counting is right the difference between those two dates is something like 47 days, or nearly seven weeks.

Yes, we could have used a trailer to live in while our electricity was restored, the pressure tank in our well was replaced, our septic system pumped out, the walls and floors ripped out of our downstairs, and our home fumigated. (We still can't drink our water, by the way.)

But that was then. This is now.

We're living in our house, even though our mortgage company is withholding two-thirds of our insurance payout as their contribution to the red-tape nightmare in which we've been held captive.

We have indeed managed to rebuild our lives somewhat, but no thanks to the kindly FEMA lady and all the other indifferent bureaucrats we've had to fight our way through.

Like too many others, John McCusker found out the hard way that he's on his own in recovering from natural disaster.

If I could talk to him today, I'd tell him to hang in there.

It will all be better someday.


Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:
Jeff Cox is an award-winning freelance writer based near Easton, Pa. He has spent nearly 20 years in the news business, working as both a writer and an editor. His freelance work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer,, and The Express-Times of Easton, Pa. He has received multiple awards for his writing and editing from the Pennsylania Newspaper Association and New Jersey Press Association, and has spoken at Columbia University's Hechinger Institute.