What Houston newsrooms can learn from Hurricane Katrina

Twelve years ago today, a curse named Katrina lashed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. More than 1,800 people died. The storm caused $108 billion in damage. It was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

For Sandy Breland, a former TV news director in New Orleans who witnessed the destruction firsthand, it has been difficult to watch Hurricane Harvey wreak havoc on Texas over the last few days.

"I watch the coverage from Texas and Hurricane Harvey," Breland said. "It is heartbreaking to watch, and it brings back memories."

Breland is now the vice president for news at Raycom. But on this date in 2005, she was news director at WWL-TV New Orleans when the storm moved ashore.

"I watch that coverage from Houston and there is no doubt that those reporters and photographers are covering stories of victims when they themselves are victims as well," she said.

Anzio Williams was the news director at WDSU in New Orleans when Katrina hit. Sitting in his office at WCAU Philadelphia, he remembered how much his employees lost in the storm.

"There were so many of my people who lost everything," he said. "Norman Robinson, one of our anchors, was on the air when a chopper flew over his neighborhood showing the damage. He said, 'you should be able to see my house right there,' and there was a crack in his voice."

When Williams got to his home days after the storm, he found a window blown in but everything else intact. When he came home again a week later, the house had been ransacked. What the storm didn't take, looters did.

"In a story like this, and like we see in Houston, there is a story on every corner. In every person," Williams said. "One of our anchors had a granddaughter who was missing in the storm. I told him to take a photographer and find her."

He developed the ability to tell when somebody was totally spent.

"You could see it in them," he said. "That is when you send them home. A lot of people who cover these storms grew up in the city they are working in. This is their home. So the work they are doing on TV, they are doing it for their city."

Texas newsrooms are running on adrenaline right now, Breland said.

"In Katrina, I found it was several days, even a week later, when the initial crisis passed, that the signs of wear started to show on the staff," she said. "They have an incredibly important job to do for the community and they are putting that responsibility first. When you are putting your work first, you don't have the time to pay attention to your personal situation. But eventually, they have to."

And, she said, news organizations have to be prepared for that. WWL rented apartments for people to sleep and shower. Newsrooms always supplied food and some brought in crisis counselors.

"For people who didn't lose anything, there was a kind of guilt," Breland said. "They would say how badly they felt for their co-workers. It is like a survivor's guilt."

One of the best things that came out of Katrina coverage is a new response among TV stations to crises, Breland and Williams said. Big news organizations now send replacement crews to supplement local stations when natural disasters occur.

Williams, who manages the NBC affiliate as well as the Telemundo station in Philadelphia, sent six of his staff to Houston.

"They said to send them over the weekend, we sent them Thursday," Williams said. "I know they needed to get on the ground, learn something about the area before they started reporting."

Hurricane Katrina changed the way Williams thinks about serving viewers during a crisis.

"Sometimes, when we were going 24/7 for weeks at a time, we might let an interview run five or six minutes," Williams said. "We were just trying to stay on the air. When we put a phone number on the screen, I would holler 'why did we only put that on for 15 seconds? Keep it up for 30 or 45 seconds.' The viewer probably is watching on their phone and needs to grab a pencil. Give them time to do that."

His voice grew louder as he spoke. Old news director frustrations die hard.

Houston stations will notice a change in their teams after a crisis like the one they are covering, Williams said.

"We at WDSU were close, but that story made us closer." he said. "You know we slept in the same newsroom. We had air mattresses in the edit rooms, I learned that two air mattresses fit very well in my office. We played cards, we cried, we broke down in front of each other."

Those who came to work at the station after that had to understand they were coming to a place that had a public service mentality, Williams said. News coverage after that was not just about covering the news, it was about serving the community that needed his station. That may have been hard for new people, who were not there when the storm hit.

After Katrina, around 30 station employees left WDSU. They lost their homes and possessions and had no reason to stay.

But there's another reason that disaster coverage prompted so many journalists to leave New Orleans stations, Breland said.

"There wasn’t an exodus of people because they feared another hurricane," she said. "Rather, we had several reporters leave for larger markets (Dallas, Boston, Denver) over the course of the following year because of their elevated exposure and experience in covering Katrina. Our reporters were on the air all the time, everybody everywhere saw how good they were and hired them away."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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