Weathering Katrina’s Wrath: Hardships Beset Reporters at Site

Sep 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Television journalists covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath last week faced difficulties and dangers reminiscent of war zones and the chaos that can afflict Third World countries. Even after the winds and rain died down, news organizations struggled to communicate with and protect the scores of news people deployed to cover the mounting disaster caused by massive flooding.

Then came the evacuations, chaotic desperation, thousands of reported deaths and growing threat of disease, along with lawlessness, looting and vigilantism. The events turned New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast into a desperate scene for which apocalyptic cliches were inadequate.

In 30 years as a journalist, “I have come across stories like this, but they all had international datelines,” said John Stack, senior VP of news gathering for Fox News Channel. “I measure my words. This is unprecedented.”

The first battle was against the high winds, driving rain and flying debris as the hurricane came ashore.

Fox News correspondent Steve Harrigan, who wore dark swim goggles as Katrina neared Gulfport, Miss., spent 12 hours in the same cold, wet clothes. He joked on “Fox & Friends” that the storm surge to him meant a raise in salary. However, he later conceded via e-mail from New Orleans: “Now it is a different story … a sad one … especially when you see the elderly and the weak who need help.”

Suddenly, journalists who expected things to get better after Katrina passed instead found themselves counting the bodies they found on their rounds. Some lost their composure as they tried to convey the escalating horrors and suffering for which there would be no quick solution.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper stood up to everything Mother Nature threw at the region. He finally lost his cool a day after he found six bodies on the street, and he said during an interview with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.: “To listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap-you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up.”

The dangers became so real that news organizations began hiring security for their crews and the convoys that supplied them. “Security has turned into a big issue,” said Marcy McGinnis, senior VP of news coverage for CBS News. “It is very dangerous to try to bring supplies in because people will try to hijack it.” CNN correspondent John Zarella, who has covered more than 30 hurricanes in his career, said, “You know how to keep a safe distance from looters. You know how to keep an eye on where the police are.” But law enforcement was fleeting and fitful last week in New Orleans. Gunfire stopped ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff and his crew Thursday on their way to do a story at a hospital.

The next day colleague David Muir made it to the hospital. An NBC News crew believes it witnessed a man’s murder on a street in the French Quarter, where the good times once rolled. No serious injuries were reported among the network news ranks. A CNN cameraman broke a bone in his foot. Two NBC News employees came down with dysentery, one of the dangers that follow floods. “It is really becoming a health hazard,” said NBC News VP David Verdi, who stressed: “We have great experience with such maladies.” Jack Womack, CNN/U.S. senior VP of domestic news operations and administration, said CNN is dispatching a field health expert to New Orleans.

All of the news organizations were frustrated by communications nightmares. Cellphones and BlackBerrys were largely out of commission or had spotty reception. Satellite phones were the most reliable method of communication, but they often presented their own problems. Many worked only from satellite trucks that were running, but because precious gas had to be conserved the trucks could not remain running merely for the sake of communications. “We’ve been skirting technical problems every step of the way,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” ABC News was rushing to deliver buses leased to cover the 2004 election campaigns in New Orleans, thus offering ABC News’ troops portable newsrooms as well as habitable space in which to rest. One NBC News satellite truck positioned outside the Superdome in New Orleans was disabled when something under the water punctured the fuel tank and a tire.

The cameraman on the truck, Tom Baer, and special events bureau chief Heather Allen, after watching a desperate man fail to convince authorities to allow him to take his 2-month-old lab-pit bull mix into the Superdome, took the pup into their truck after exchanging contact information with the man. At the end of the week, the pup, dubbed Spritzer in honor of the weather, was still calling the satellite truck home.