Tragedies shape outlook of new CAO spokesman

Jeff Ventura could never have guessed he would be there — first at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, and then in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina devastated the coastal landscape.

Like the cities themselves, he will never be the same.

Six years later, his eyes still well up with tears when he remembers the moment Sept. 11 hit home.

Ventura had just begun his first year at Columbia University’s journalism program when the twin towers fell. Days later, Ventura saw an old man give up his subway seat to a rescue-weary firefighter.

Still an inexperienced reporter, Ventura asked the fireman how he was doing and then said, “At least you can go home now and get some rest.” The man replied, “I don’t want to rest. I want to go look for my friends.”

The firefighter was so exhausted that he couldn’t stop crying, Ventura remembers.

To this day, he regrets asking the fireman that question, but he is grateful for the experience of covering a national tragedy.

Ventura, now 37, carries those memories to his new job as press secretary for Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard.

“The first thing I did was to call a meeting about our emergency preparedness. You don’t think about [tragedy], but it can happen,” he said.

While attending Columbia, Ventura wrote several stories “capturing the essence of what it meant to be there” in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But once out of school, Ventura landed a public relations job at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School in Boston. “It was fine, but it felt like failure, I was knee deep in ash just a year earlier.” he said.

A veteran reporter convinced him he should give journalism another chance. Soon thereafter, Ventura found himself in Shreveport, La., working as a section editor for a local entertainment magazine. Then he got a reporting job covering the state capitol for The Advocate of Baton Rouge.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005, Ventura hitched a ride into New Orleans with the Salvation Army. Ventura did what reporters often do — he went toward the danger instead of away from it. “It was like being in a Third World country or another planet,” Ventura said.

He was astounded that three days after the worst of the storm hit, survivors were still stranded on the side of the highway in blistering heat. For 4,000 men, women and children, he recalled, there were only 12 portable toilets.

Soon after he arrived, the National Guard ordered all journalists to evacuate.

Ventura was devastated. “I felt like I was leaving them behind,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why do I get to get into that truck? Where are the buses?”

That one raw moment, Ventura said, forever changed him and his view of government.

“During 9/11, you had those terrorists causing all that hurt and pain and confusion,” he said. “During Katrina, it was the government that caused all that hurt and pain and confusion.”

After that experience, he says, his reporting itch “had been scratched,” and he decided to leave journalism behind.

“I proved to myself that I could do it,” he said, adding that money was also a concern. “It wasn’t this big mystery. Can I do it? I did it.”

In his own small way, Ventura said, he’s changing the government in his new role.

“There are people who work in the federal government who want to do the right thing and who realize that there have been mistakes,” he said.

But witnessing both tragedies has turned Ventura into a bit of a fatalist.

Two months ago, he took up smoking — a habit he admits is strange to acquire at his age.

“I joke that it’s part of my retirement, but then there is a little part of me that says you can stay healthy and take vitamin C every day and do all the right things — but you just never know.”

For him, the future is uncertain. Joy is found by living in the moment.

“I’ve learned to take life in stride,” he said.