Jarring headlines from the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina said it all: "Catastrophic," "Hitting Bottom," "Help Us, Please."
Five years later, the Newseum on Friday will open a special, one-year exhibit, "Covering Katrina," that explores and explains how journalists reported on the disaster and its aftermath.
The Newseum assembled the accounts and belongings of journalists, newspaper stories and artifacts from the Louisiana State Museum for what curators believe is the first major exhibit on news coverage of Katrina.
About 80 front pages from around the world show how the story unfolded as the storm bore down on Louisiana and Mississippi — and what followed. At the time, newspapers and TV reporters were the only link between the people needing help and the government that could provide it.
"It puts you right there in the middle of the storm," Newseum chief executive Charles Overby said of the exhibit. "As you recall, the government was slow to respond, but the media wasn't."
The museum about news and the First Amendment also produced a film offering reflections from TV journalists as well as two newspapers that shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for public service for their Katrina coverage — the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Sun Herald of Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss.
The exhibit includes a Gulf Coast map from the Sun Herald newsroom with pins confirming the dead in Mississippi, an anti-looter sign from a New Orleans shop and a rusty ax used by a journalist to break into a colleague's home to rescue pets.
There's even a kayak deployed by a photographer to navigate flooded New Orleans streets and two bicycles used by reporters to first discover the levees had been breached.
"In that flash of a moment, they both realize that we're doomed," Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss said in the Newseum film. "The water has broken through the flood walls and that the oceans are rushing into this city."
Editor Stan Tiner at the Sun Herald explains on film that Katrina brought an urgent demand for information. He recalled people leaving a water line when the newspaper truck arrived to clamor for a paper.
"One of the most righteous jobs we did was to deliver the paper," Tiner said.
Much of the exhibit focuses on how journalists at the two prize-winning papers overcame enormous challenges and risks to inform the public and hold government accountable.
"Even when their families were in peril and their homes were being destroyed, they continued being journalists," said Susan Bennett, the Newseum's exhibit chief.
The exhibit includes reflections from such familiar journalists as NBC's Brian Williams, Shepard Smith of FOX News and ABC's Robin Roberts, who went searching for her mother and family while reporting from Mississippi's coast.
A longer, 30-minute film will play in the museum's Documentary Theater with sounds from inside the Louisiana Superdome as the storm beat down and later, the crowds chanting, "Help! Help! Help!"