ESPN The Magazine

Wright Thompson’s Katrina opus filled with sobering truths, surprises

I am answering this on the day it is running, so obviously the answer is no. Hell no. Never again.
Wright Thompson on whether he would ever attempt such a project again

For the first time in its history, an issue of ESPN The Magazine will dedicate the entirety of its feature well to a single story.

In a moving and ambitious, 25,000-word piece entitled Beyond the Breach, ESPN’s award-winning senior writer Wright Thompson captures the spirit of New Orleans in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Thompson describes how the effects of Katrina are so ubiquitous they go unseen and to a certain extent unstated.

The story will appear in The Mag, on newsstands Friday, Sept. 4. Complementary pieces will also be available on digital platforms, including a rich collection of original photography, photo galleries and video on ESPN.com. Information for additional special features and content can be found HERE.

What did you personally find most challenging about your experience overall? Would you do it again?
I am answering this on the day it is running, so obviously the answer is no. Hell no. Never again. The challenge of structuring was difficult, but mostly the pace of this was the killer. I went to New Orleans May 25. I came home July 1. I went to Chicago July 2-5 to see the Grateful Dead, then came home and started going through notes.

I did that until the 15th or 16th and started writing. I filed Aug. 1. Then The Magazine’s [senior editor] Paul Kix and I started in immediately on the edit, while I was in New Orleans with two television crews, one for digital and one for SportsCenter. So the hardest part was the pace. Beyond that, the greatest challenge was making sure I did right by the people who opened up their lives to me.

I think readers will be surprised at how much Katrina influences the day-to-day lives of people in New Orleans even 10 years after the storm. The idea that the storm lives will be familiar to residents of the Gulf Coast and shocking to everyone else.
Wright Thompson

Did you have any kind of road map or someone – another writer perhaps – who had done a single-topic issue or 25,000-word story?
Alas, no. [ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com Editor in Chief] Chad [Millman] and I talked – the first idea came on a call I took while at an engagement party – and the final version was filed the day before the actual wedding took place – and what started as a regular Magazine story about Katrina became something else. He asked if I’d want to try writing one story that took up the entire issue, so the big idea came first. I went to New Orleans without really knowing who the characters would be.

I wanted to build it around Drew Brees, but his schedule was crazy busy and he wasn’t available, so even that fell apart. Otherwise, I had no idea at all how to do this. I’d never written a book or even a story half this long. So I just started and hoped it would be OK.

Is this the most you have written?
Yes. Absolutely. Although some people might argue that other stories — particularly ones on cricket — felt this long.

What would readers be surprised to learn?
My biggest surprise, honestly, was how much I liked [New Orleans Saints head coach] Sean Payton. He was hilarious. Also, I think readers will be surprised at how much Katrina influences the day-to-day lives of people in New Orleans even 10 years after the storm. The idea that the storm lives will be familiar to residents of the Gulf Coast and shocking to everyone else.

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