Disaster Teaches Valuable Lessons

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Don Wall

Special to TelevisionWeek

When disaster strikes, most people want to get out, fast. Not journalists, who sprint from all points directly into the danger zone. Television crews, radio and print reporters and photographers and an army of technicians move in, against the tide of mass exodus.

Hurricane Katrina, like most disasters, natural and manmade, produced immense technical and human hurdles. And as usual, journalists pulled off coverage miracles on a daily basis, with surprises at every turn.

“I anticipated this would be like most hurricane coverage,” said Brad Watson, senior reporter and veteran storm chaser at Belo’s ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas. “We would do a preview piece on evacuations, hunker down during the storm and do a few aftermath stories about damage and power outages. That assumption was obviously wrong.”

Mr. Watson slept little during that first horrific week in New Orleans, telling stories live, on tape and by phone, about the evacuees, the Superdome, the looters. “It was heartbreaking to see families and older folks wading through polluted water to get to a dry sidewalk,” he said.

“We followed a satellite truck to higher ground on the Crescent City Connection bridge. It was incredible to see the city rapidly disintegrating into chaos and despair,” said Mr. Watson, who eventually moved to Baton Rouge, La., as security broke down and the safety of his crew became more at risk.

No stranger to danger, ABC News Dallas correspondent Mike Von Fremd said, “I’ve covered every hurricane during the past 20 years except two. This is the worst I’ve ever seen.” Mr. Von Fremd drove through the night to Gulfport, Miss., the bull’s-eye of Katrina. But he kept thinking about New Orleans, which he knew from a National Hurricane Center briefing a decade ago could present a worst-case scenario.

“At first I mistakenly thought that New Orleans had dodged a bullet, because that’s what I heard on the radio. Then I heard water had breached a key levee, and the Hurricane Center’s worst nightmare came true,” said Mr. Von Fremd, who had his own story to cover. In Mississippi, Katrina leveled entire blocks, neighborhoods, mansions and apartment buildings to their foundations.

“We slept in our cars for two nights with the windows open, next to the satellite truck,” Mr. Von Fremd said. “We used tons of bug spray, and that saved us from mosquitoes that would eat you alive.”

Experience told Mr. Von Fremd a big problem would be gasoline. “I carried eight 5-gallon gas cans in the trunk,” he said. “I know it’s dangerous, but you are of absolutely no value to your company if you get stuck.” As he had done during Hurricane Hugo, which hammered Charleston and other places in South Carolina in 1989, Mr. Von Fremd eventually helped organize a gasoline convoy protected by armed guards for ABC crews covering Katrina. “I felt a sense of guilt,” he said. “The community can see the news organizations filling up their vehicles. And the people who live there would die for gas. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

Another problem was the lack of communications, Mr. Von Fremd said. “The only phones that worked were direct satellite phones, which we had in our satellite trucks. Regular cellphones didn’t work. BlackBerries didn’t work; there was no Internet. We increasingly rely on technology, and all that technology failed us.”

One essential piece of technology that didn’t fail was the camera. “Protect the camera at all costs,” Mr. Von Fremd said. “Shoot from inside the van, by just opening the window for a short time, with the wind blowing away from you. And don’t overshoot, to conserve batteries. It will do you absolutely no good if the camera dies.”

Mr. Von Fremd came prepared. He carried spiral notebooks, pens and pencils in a waterproof case and a multitude of flashlights with fresh batteries. “I know it sounds silly,” he said, “but you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get around without streetlights. Even the local police get confused because the familiar landmarks don’t exist anymore.” Every day he arranged a time and place to rendezvous with the satellite truck. He packed enough dry food and water to sustain himself for five days.

Solving problems to enhance successful coverage of disasters like Katrina and other calamities will be the focus of “Covering Disasters,” a workshop discussion at this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists convention in Austin, Texas. Addressing disasters including last year’s tsunami in Southeast Asia, 9/11 and the possibility of a global outbreak of disease, the session will be open to broadcast and print journalists.

The panel will include Houston Chronicle Deputy Managing Editor George Haj, who has coordinated coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster over Texas in 2003 as well as major floods and hurricanes, including Andrew and Katrina. Mr. Haj knows that the paper and its Web site must compete with the immediacy of television, and Katrina offered an important opportunity.

“Online, we updated the news stories several times a day,” Mr. Haj said. “Several bloggers offered continuous news and commentary from inside the Houston Astrodome, perspectives from New Orleans as well as personal stories from the storm. We also posted the most comprehensive list of resources anywhere.

“We printed 10,000 copies a day of a special refugee edition that was distributed to evacuees living in area shelters,” he said. “The section … focused on service journalism-where to get help, how to find housing, how to ride the train, find a movie theater, etc.”

In the main paper, the Chronicle focused on strong narratives out of the storm and “played an important watchdog role in identifying problems with the FEMA response and how the city of New Orleans failed its most vulnerable,” Mr. Haj said.

For successful television disaster coverage, another panel member, Scott Miller, a 24-year news veteran who has spent the past 14 years at KING-TV, the NBC affiliate in Seattle, believes television news must hit the audience on three levels, which he refers to as the “three P’s”:

“First, pictures. Images drive the story. Television shows what a disaster looks like better than any other medium,” Mr. Miller said. “The second P is people. Telling the stories of people affected by the disaster. Then comes the third P, policy. What does the disaster tell us about the system? What works and what doesn’t?”

Mr. Miller counts three major disasters as the most memorable of his career: the Exxon Valdez in 1989, when 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound; the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed 61 people in San Francisco and Oakland; and the 1988 wildfires in and around Yellowstone National Park, which consumed more than 2 million acres.

“With Exxon Valdez, pictures were incredibly late and hard to get,” Mr. Miller said. “Everybody had the shot of [the Exxon Valdez] on the rocks, with oil spilling out. But we didn’t see pictures of dead birds and struggling, oil-covered otters for two days. The state of Alaska finally provided copies of tapes, shot on islands hundreds of miles away. All the journalists, including the networks, were elbowing each other to grab a tape, rush to a feed point and get it on the air.”

Mr. Miller went back to Alaska five years later to view long-term damage as part of a policy package for the station. In a standup piece, he walked along an island beach, stopped and picked up a rock, still covered in oil. “That powerful image brought the magnitude of the disaster home,” he said.

Sometimes, however, attempts to bring home the intensity of a disaster scene by shooting tight close-ups can cause television to lose perspective. “With fires, television producers want the biggest flames on the air,” Mr. Miller said. “They want to see, essentially hell on Earth, the end of the world as we know it, but they seldom show the vast acreage not burning.”

Peter Jennings got a firsthand exa
mple of the importance of context when he arrived in Mexico City to anchor news reports in the aftermath of that city’s devastating 1985 earthquake, which killed 10,000 people and left another 250,000 homeless. Years later Mr. Jennings told a group of journalists that the dramatic images fed back home had given him the impression that all of Mexico City had been destroyed, and of course, it hadn’t been.

So that first night in Mexico City, on “World News Tonight,” Mr. Jennings showed the audience a totally unscathed building, right next to the crumbled and twisted ruins of the hospital where babies had been miraculously saved.