“We are sometimes wacky thrill seekers. But when you stand in the dark, and you hear people yelling for help and no one can get to them, it’s a totally different experience.”
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some television reports indicated that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. Information about the levee breaches was almost non-existent. But viewers who heard correspondent Jeanne Meserve‘s report on CNN knew something terrible was unfolding.
“It’s been horrible,” Meserve told viewers of NewsNight on Aug. 29, 2005. “You can hear people yelling for help. You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come.”
One viewer called Meserve’s beeper “the riveting, heart-wrenching phone report I’ve ever heard on televsion news.” The next day, NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown said he had received over 600 e-mails praising Meserve’s report. And David Carr said she offered “a prescient look into the week that was to come.”
Meserve said she received many e-mails about the report, too.
“It appears to have been the first time many people have heard what was happening and understood what was happening,” she says.
She adds: “I wish more people had been listening, particularly people in operations centers around the federal government.”
So how did it happen?
Meserve flew into New Orleans with producer Jim Spellman on Saturday, before the storm hit. She covered the evacuation of the city and watched water seep through the streets as Katrina came ashore.
Mid-afternoon on Aug. 29, a CNN producer at the Superdome called in and said she needed a crew. When Meserve arrived at the ‘dome, she saw City Council President Oliver Thomas.
“He was bringing soaking wet elderly people to the dome,” Meserve says. “I turned to him and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said ‘My city is dying.’ And I said ‘What are you talking about? Show us.’ And he took us to Interstate 10.”
Two boats were bringing survivors to an I-10 overpass overlooking the eighth ward.
“Not far beyond us, I-10 sank underwater,” she recalls.
Meserve called into The Situation Room around 6pm and told viewers that New Orleans hadn’t dodged a bullet.
Cameraman Mark Biello went out on one of the boats, and Meserve stayed on the interstate and talked to survivors.
As night fell and rescue attempts were abandoned for the evening, she started hearing the screams.
“We couldn’t see anyone. It was dark. But we could hear them,” she says. “I wandered off by myself and just listened, horrified.”
Meserve and her colleagues waited hours for Biello to return.
“I thought we had lost him,” she says. “I thought he might be dead.”
Biello fractured his foot as he helped pull a rescue boat over submerged railroad tracks. But he eventually made it back to the interstate.
After the rescue efforts were suspended, the CNN crew packed up and went back to their hotel. Meserve finally established a landline connection to Atlanta, a few minutes before the end of NewsNight. She didn’t have anything scripted.
“I just wanted to communicate the breadth and the depth of what was going on, and the human tragedy that I had seen unfolding in front of my eyes,” she says.
After several minutes of narration about what she witnessed in the eighth ward, she began to sob. Meserve says she didn’t expect to cry on the air.
“It came spilling out of me that night,” she says. “And I’m not altogether happy that it did. I wasn’t sure at the time that it was as professional as I might have liked it to have been. But ultimately I think that might have gotten the point across.”
A Year Of Katrina
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When journalists like Greta Van Susteren weren’t on the air in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they were working behind the scenes to help survivors of the storm.
“Everyone tried to do two things,” she recalls. “You did your job to get the story out in a dispassionate way, and if you had a second, you couldn’t help but want to help these people.”
Van Susteren returned to the Gulf Coast for the one-year anniversary of Katrina before flying to New York to interview Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig.
After Katrina came ashore, Van Susteren flew to Houston to cover the evacuees at the Astrodome.
“I must give a shout-out to Houston,” she says. “In a matter of hours, they took the Astrodome and turned it into a city for almost 30,000 people. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
When they weren’t doing live shots, the Fox crews were helping reunite families.
“We were a clearinghouse to help people find their relatives,” she says. “We helped people find housing, find relatives, find doctors. It was almost like social services when we weren’t on the air.”
Individuals were attracted to the satellite trucks of news organizations. For example: “Someone came up to me who I assumed was from Houston,” Van Susteren recalls. “She says ‘I know someone who has a house in Fort Collins, Colorado who can take a family. Is there anybody who wants to go to Fort Collins?’”
When Van Susteren left Houston to visit New Orleans on Sept. 6, she blogged: “It is with some regret that I leave Houston since we had met many evacuees and were working — on the side — to get them housing. My colleague Alicia Acuna is still there and will continue to do our housing placement work. What happens is that people come to our live site offering housing — or call us or e-mail us — so we try to match them up with families.”
In Houston, journalists helped point people in the right direction. In New Orleans, they provided more immediate help.
“We were in boats feeding animals,” she recalls. “I remember one day plucking a puppy off a roof with the military.”
Van Susteren emphasized the extraordinary nature of this story.
“This was no routine story where you’re standing in front of a prop,” she says. “This was an emergency. This was the middle of a crisis.”
She described New Orleans as “hell,” adding: “there’s no other way to describe it.”
She says it would have been obscene not to help: “Everybody in the media, everybody — satellite truck operators, print journalists, producers, audio people, bookers, everybody — was working around the clock. And when they weren’t working, they were doing the decent and honorable thing of helping.”
Brian Williams conducted an exclusive interview with President Bush in New Orleans yesterday. “We covered a number of topics, from Katrina to Iraq to his own legacy… to his relationship with his father… to his summer reading list,” Williams blogs. Excerpts aired on the NBC Nightly News and the expanded version is on MSNBC.com.
“Let me let you in on a little secret,” Robin Roberts says.
The Good Morning America anchor is on the telephone from New York, describing her post-Katrina trip to the Gulf Coast.
“ABC thought I was there to work,” she says. “But I was there to find my family!”
Roberts is a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On Aug. 29, 2005, Roberts was live on GMA until noon. She lost contact with her Mississippi relatives at 10am that morning. Within hours, Roberts was aboard a chartered flight to the Gulf Coast. After it landed in Lafayette, Louisiana, the crew drove all night long toward Roberts’ family home near Gulfport.
By 5:30 a.m., Roberts was walking the last half-mile to her mother’s house.
“I got back to our satellite truck site about 10 minutes before airtime,” Roberts says.
Sunrise revealed a shocking landscape.
“I believed, like so many people, that we had dodged one. We had missed it. But to see it that morning, as the sun’s coming up, to see it live like that–” she grasps for words– “This is a place I knew like the back of my hand. And I had no clue where I was, on this road I’ve traveled for decades.”
That’s when she lost it.
“I broke down, live on TV,” she recalls.
She calls it “the most surreal moment of my life, and career.”
After tearing up, she heard the producers from New York in her hear, asking if she was okay.
“I thought I was going to lose my job,” she recalls. “People are going to say you just don’t do that. You just don’t show that type of raw emotion. I was shocked, not surprised, shocked that the response was 180 of that. That they were crying with me.”
After the broadcast, Roberts went back to her mother’s house. Then she tried to check out her family home in Pass Christian.
To this day, the house is still gutted. Roberts says losing the house was hard, but seeing her high school in rubble was even harder.
“If your home is destroyed, you can deal with it. You can rebuild,” she says. “When your hometown is gone, how do you rebuild a hometown?”
On the air, Roberts didn’t have to say “Where’s FEMA?” or “Where’s the Red Cross?” She didn’t have to say anything.
“I was just there, as these other outlets were,” she says. And people on their own, sitting in their living rooms, could say ‘Wait a minute. So the news media can get there, but the other agencies that are trained to get there, can’t?’”
She adds: “Maybe I was a little more motivated, because I had family there.”
Talk about timing.
Susan Roesgen, then an anchor at WGNO in New Orleans, interviewed for a correspondent’s position at CNN one week before Hurricane Katrina hit.
“The night the hurricane hit, I talked my boss at the local station into letting me stay,” she says. The rest of the station evacuated to Baton Rouge. “I borrowed a camera and an SUV from one of the photographers and started shooting video.”
Roesgen officially joined CNN as a correspondent in December. But she first appeared on the network on Aug. 29, 2005, during early morning breaking news coverage anchored by Carol Costello. She described the scene outside the Superdome. The next day, in a phoner with her longtime friend Kyra Phillips, Roesgen described her personal living situation.
“I was not able to get home” last night, she said. “I tried last night to check out my area. Too many downed trees, way too much broken glass. I am now at the television station, where we have been feeding CNN video, as much as we could, right before the storm and just as it was coming over.”
Roesgen described high tensions at the Superdome, a breach in the Seventeenth Street Canal, and a dearth of communication.
In subsequent interviews, she talked with Phillips about the experiences of residents in New Orleans — “what it was like to open your fridge for the first time after a week without power,” for example.
Roesgen provided invaluable “color” for CNN. She reflects: “Here I am — I’m a resident, describing what it’s like here, but I’m also a journalist, so I’m hopefully able to filter it” for the audience, she reflects.
Her first day as a CNN correspondent in the Gulf Coast bureau was Dec. 5. Having a local on the payroll must have come in handy for the cable news net.
“For the first time, the country was seeing a heck of a lot more of the city in a very bad way,” Roesgen says. She was able to put the situation into perspective.
In addition to Roesgen, CNN’s Gulf Coast bureau is staffed by correspondent Sean Callebs, two producers, two photographers, an assignment manager, a bureau chief, and a field engineer.
“It’s a commitment,” she says simply. “CNN has a long-term commitment here.”
Roesgen shares that commitment. “I still live here. I pay taxes here,” she says. “I want this city to work.”
You could say she’s “keeping them honest.”
Yesterday on Studio B, Shep Smith described New Orleans as “a city still trying to find itself and wondering will its residents ever come back.” He said:
“There were 460,000 people residents of this city prior to the storm. Now the postal service estimates that number is down to 171,000. The mayor has a different figure; the postal service however seems most accurate. Of those, half the doctors of the city have left; four out of five of the psychiatrists have left. Why? Why have they not come back? Part of the reason may be there’s not a single master plan for this city. No master plan for redevelopment. No master plan for infrastructure. It hasn’t been put together and there are no signs that it will be.”
“It seemed like everywhere we walked, we saw another story. Every time we turned around, there was another story to tell.”
Tracy Smith is talking about her first trip to New Orleans, just after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Smith, the national correspondent for The Early Show and the co-anchor of the Saturday Early Show, revisited some of her memorable.
The series of reports aired on Monday’s Early Show. They were the result of one question: “We’re going to be running images of all these people. We’re going to see all these people from the convention center. What happened to all of them?”
For example, Smith revisited a family she met at the now-infamous convention center. Last year they said they would never return to New Orleans, but they’re back.
“Hopefully each of these little microcosms can illustrate the scope of the story,” she says.
Others have had a tougher year. “Some people really seem like they’re suspended in time,” she says.
On Aug. 31, Smith’s crew helped rescue two tourists from Atlanta who were trapped in a flooded Comfort Inn in downtown New Orleans.
“They had stayed in a hotel that everyone else had left,” Smith says.
The CBSers were concerned that one of the tourists, an 83-year-old woman, wouldn’t survive.
Her daughter “came up to a CBS producer and said ‘We need help, we need help,’” Smith recalls.
The crew entered the Comfort Inn to interview the two women. As they walked back downstairs to leave, producer Jason Sickles came down the street and said CBS was evacuating the city due to new reports of flooding.
“We just couldn’t leave the city without taking them,” Smith says.
The two women are back in Atlanta now. The daughter would like go to back to New Orleans. The mom isn’t so sure.
In the days following Katrina, Smith spent a lot of time at the convention center. She says it’s strange to see conference attendees using the convention facilities.
“All I can see is they’re walking right through places where kids were playing next to dead bodies. It’s absolutely surreal,” she says.
Trashed hallways have new carpet and layers of paint. Dirty and disgusting bathrooms have now been sanitized and sandblasted.
“If only it was that easy to do that with people’s minds,” Smith says.
“New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan bristled at criticism and walked out of an ABC News Nightline interview when told that law enforcement officials were critical of Jordan’s handling of his office,” the ABCNews.com Blotter says.
Investigative correspondent Brian Ross conducted the interview yesterday. Jordan’s aide “stepped in front of the cameras and announced she was ending the interview. At that point, Jordon protested that Ross’ questions were ‘stupid.’” Here’s a partial transcript…
“I reached a point today early this afternoon where I felt like either I wanted to take a nap or have a drink,” CBS’s Harry Smith writes. “It’s a God awful mess in New Orleans and being back here for the umpteenth time — and talking to so many people who are so tired and disgusted — it’s all starting to rub off on me, I guess.”
He’s been anchoring the Early Show from the Gulf Coast. On CBSNews.com, he adds: “Everyone who comes down here for the first time has the same reaction: ‘I didn’t know it was this bad. It looked bad on TV but, my God, it’s so much worse.’ Well, it’s still like that.”
Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Danny Heitman, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, says the media’s biggest post-Katrina flaw is boredom. He writes:
“If the everyday challenges of post-Katrina Louisiana fail to register in the global media machine, it is perhaps because journalism, by its nature, sees the world as a series of dramatically packaged episodes rather than the dry continuum that a recovery from disaster can be.
Tuesday, we in Louisiana will star in Episode 366, the Katrina anniversary. Then we will prepare for another day post-Katrina, when the cameras leave us once again.”
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