Katrina 10: Two stations, one studio

As someone who studies media, I was fascinated by local coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Television stations in the affected region began broadcasting uninterrupted coverage ahead of the storm, and many continued for almost a week afterward.

The situation was particularly unique at WAPT, the Jackson, Miss. ABC affiliate (which, full-disclosure, I would later work at for a brief time). The night before landfall, they welcomed sister Hearst station WDSU from New Orleans, and for days, the two news teams covered two cities on one network.

Hearst issued this release in September of 2005, describing the scene at WAPT and in Jackson generally. It doesn’t appear to be available online anymore, so for the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I’m reposting it below:

HURRICANE KATRINA
Candy Altman
Vice President, News/Hearst Television
09/13/05

It is Wednesday …the first Wednesday after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. There is a frantic energy in the air and the halls are crowded at WAPT in Jackson Mississippi, where there is no running water and phone service is barely operable. I turn the corner walking swiftly toward the WDSU makeshift newsroom, and there I see the story of Hurricane Katrina in a microcosm. Longtime New Orleans anchorman Norman Robinson, a rock of a man in personality and stature, is crying uncontrollably. It’s his 8-year-old granddaughter. He can’t find her. She is the light of his life, and she was staying in an area damaged by the storm

And so goes another day in the new world of WDSU-TV, Hearst’s New Orleans television station. Reporters, photographers, producers, technicians all covering a story that dramatically impacts their own lives under working conditions which can best be described as primitive. Forced out of their home base by the threat of rising floodwaters and a tide of violence, the television station never stopped broadcasting, whether it was over the web or over the air. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. This coverage re-creates the meaning of service to the community.

HOW IT ALL WORKS

It began Sunday night, as Katrina was approaching, when it became clear that WDSU’s downtown New Orleans location would be in danger of receiving extensive damage. The station, in consultation with upper management, decided to shut down operations at 8PM central time. But that did not mean the station would be off the air. (Only 5 or 6 people would stay for the short-term, and they, too, ultimately had to leave when looters in pickup trucks with automatic weapons started circling the station.)

Through use of our satellite network, and our sister stations, we worked out a plan to keep WDSU on the air using our other facilities and other on-air talent. Until we could get WDSU personnel to the nearest station in Jackson, Mississippi to broadcast, WESH in Orlando (with 45 minutes’ notice) took over.

For several hours, WESH broadcast continuous coverage of Hurricane Katrina for the WDSU audience. When anchors and crews arrived in Jackson, the broadcasting switched to that station. For several days, WDSU and Jackson’s WAPT broadcast together … co-anchoring, sharing meteorologists, sharing facilities and personnel. This at the same time Jackson itself was experiencing the Hurricane. 80% of the city lost power … including the television station. All water and phone service went out. That meant porta-potties and occasional cell phone use as both stations stayed on the air continuously. (“On the air” meaning on the web those first few days for WDSU … the transmitter in New Orleans flooded out.)

In the days to come, as people ventured out of their homes in Jackson, they met mile-long gas lines and a major gasoline shortage. Hot food was scarce. Station personnel lived on power bars, peanut butter and jelly and cold cuts ( while they stayed fresh in a cooler.) The very narrow hallway at WAPT in Jackson turned into a communal commissary. A station designed for a small staff now doubled its size. Hotel rooms were tough to come by, and getting them each day was a chess game with hotel sales management. Gasoline became so tight the only way to guarantee transportation for news stories and visiting personnel was to rent cars that came with a full tank of gas.

Keep in mind, this is happening as the employees of WDSU realize for the first time that many of their homes have been damaged or destroyed. They are all far from their families. They are looking at the city they love and wonder whether it will ever be the same. They see fresh video of their neighborhoods while anchoring on live television, and see their own homes under water. They always maintain their composure.

For the better part of two weeks, personnel from all of the Hearst family have traveled into five locations: Jackson, New Orleans, Orlando, Houston and Baton Rouge. From the moment the impact became clear, news departments were offering up their best personnel. No room at this inn for slackers. If you saw the makeshift newsroom, crawling with wires, and everyone … I mean everyone … working out of a space smaller than an average studio, you’d understand what I mean. Everyone who has helped out says “thank you” for allowing them to be part of this extraordinary team. It has been the worst of times for WDSU and WAPT, and yet, their finest hours.

WDSU News is now a regional operation … with the station airing its signal on independent stations around the region to service the evacuees who find themselves longing for New Orleans news and living in another city. (Houston, Jackson, and working on Baton Rouge) And the web has been the content link since the beginning, with both stations live-streaming their content and getting unprecedented viewing online. Engineers at Hearst are working to build a makeshift transmitter as quickly as possible to get the WDSU signal back over its own airwaves in New Orleans.

As of this writing, people are back in our New Orleans station … a small group …living at the station, sleeping on air mattresses, waiting in line at the police station for fresh water showers, and longing for a hot meal. It’s a spartan camp. My colleague Brian Bracco is there and has been sending me and Fred Young nightly notes … here’s an example from Saturday, September 10th:

It seems even disasters take the weekend off. Activity around the city seems to have slowed down.

Washer-Dryer up and running. Dan is now working on building a shower. Dan says construction begins tomorrow on permanent housing. (It’s a joke.) Should be done by the end of the week. Guards doing laundry with guns strapped to their legs. Big shipment of gas and diesel tomorrow…police escort…

Tomorrow is Sept. 11th…. a lot of memorial services and they are opening one of the parishes and a couple of more next week.

Still searching for electricity and rooms. Internet is our lifeline to the outside world as we catch up on news.

This note a bit shorter because hot food is being served and the last two nights they ran out and guess who missed out. Tonight I will be in the front row.

Tomorrow say a prayer for all those affected

LEADERSHIP

Leadership in this crisis has come in many forms: leadership at the station level, by Mason Granger, General Manager of WDSU, who put the safety of his people at the top of his list, in addition to serving the community. WDSU News Director Anzio Williams had to balance coverage needs with the personal needs of his staff. WAPT General Manager Stuart Kellogg turned his operation upside down in order to keep WDSU on the air, and, at the same time, kept his own station on the air with continuous news coverage for a solid week. WAPT News Director Bruce Barkley took a small staff and empowered them to lead the market. Terry Mackin, Fred Young and Marty Faubell mobilized our triage effort at the corporate level. So many more worked countless hours to help out any way they could.

Leadership came at every level and in every part of our operation … but the tone was set at the top.

David Barrett several years ago listed 10 Leadership Values for the company — the things he wanted all employees to think about as they did their jobs. Many companies have leadership values. Many times, they are pieces of paper that get lost in day-to-day operations. Our company lives those values, and that has never more evident than during this crisis.

Hearst Television established a Foundation to help the WDSU employees impacted by this storm, offered interest free loans for immediate cash, and, of equal importance, offered support services and moral support.

That support came in the form of a visit by David, Steve Hobbs, Terry Mackin and HR coordinator Robin Morrow, who flew to Jackson the Friday after the storm to meet with employees and answer questions; to reassure them that the company stood with them … to help them cope. It came in the form of David, Steve and Terry hanging out in the hall, just listening as people talked about their new lives and their fears. It came in the form of the group bringing clean shirts after David cleaned out his closet of all the TV-logo shirts he’s received. It came in the form of bag loads of toiletries, including toothbrushes, toothpaste, Tylenol, and chocolate! (My request!) It came in taking out the garbage …literally, so that others could work. It came by coming at all.

FINAL NOTE

So what do we learn from these kinds of experiences? We learn just how much people want to help and we learn what our co-workers and leaders are made of. We learn that sometimes the darkest night sees no light … and sometimes the light returns when you least expect it.

Which brings me back to the beginning … to Norman Robinson and his granddaughter. Norman feared the worst …that his granddaughter was one of the many lost in this storm. He was preparing to leave with a WAPT crew to do a house-to-house search in Picayune Mississippi. He left the station … and late in the evening, his cell phone rang. His granddaughter was safe and well. He left the next morning to see for himself, and later that afternoon brought her to WAPT. As he walked the hall with this beautiful 8-year-old, there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen. A happy ending for his family. A smile brought to the faces of his colleagues, who, perhaps, saw in that reunion, hope for their own futures.

We continue to learn from this experience. But perhaps the greatest overall lesson is this: Food, water, shelter, power, the love of family and friends, and the importance of our work as journalists will never be taken for granted again.

[This post is part of a longer piece, Katrina 10: Our World Changed and Brought Us Closer Together (Among Other Stories)]

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