Monday, August 29, 2011

Remembering Katrina - In front of and behind the camera

For those of us along the central Gulf Coast, August 29th is one of those dates that will always have special significance.  Just like 9/11 will always signify the horrific events of the terrorist attacks, or December 7th stirs memories of the bombing at Pearl Harbor, each year August 29th gets us thinking about where we were, what we were doing, and how Katrina changed our lives.

I could write an entire book on my experiences during the historic storm, but I wanted to share a few of the memories that still stand out for me today.

I worked both Friday, August 26th and Saturday, August 27th covering the evening shows for WAFB.  It was during this time that we really began to get a grasp on the significance of the threat from the blossoming hurricane.  But I don't think it was until Sunday afternoon that I first felt fear for what could happen in south Louisiana.  I had just looked at the satellite image below when Katrina was at peak intensity, with sustained winds up to 175 mph.  I took a moment to walk away from our Storm Center and gather myself...it's the first time in my 13-year broadcast career that I remember getting chills when looking at something weather-related.

Visible satellite image of Hurricane Katrina near peak intensity on Sunday, August 28, 2005.

As I walked down one of our main hallways at Channel 9, I heard a few laughs and saw a few too many smiles for my liking.  It prompted me to fire off an email to our entire building asking everyone to consider the gravity of what we were facing.  In reality, no one was doing anything wrong...it was just a moment where I considered that my hometown could be wiped out and my family could lose everything they had.  I was angry, but not at anyone in particular...primarily just Mother Nature herself.  I held on to that email for a long time, but I wasn't able to locate it for this writing.

Katrina hit early on the morning of August 29th and our wall-to-wall coverage of the aftermath continued for days on end.  Once the storm passed, our coverage quickly changed from a weather focus to news covering the devastation in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast.  That left the Storm Team with little to do...just providing support in any way we could.

Feeling the need to get down to New Orleans and get a look at my hometown for myself, I approached our News Director, Vicki Zimmerman, about the possibility of putting on my reporter 'hat' and giving our weary crew in New Orleans some relief.  She was receptive to the idea, but the logistics took some time to work out.  It wasn't until Friday evening, Sept. 2nd that I made my way down to LaPlace with our crews to begin work in New Orleans the following morning.

Saturday was of course an eye-opener in New Orleans.  Water everywhere...people walking aimlessly and looking lost...and yes, even seeing the body of a Katrina victim on the streets.  It was not easy to see so much of the city I grew up in and loved in ruins.

After spending all day working on stories in the city, I asked my photographer, Cliff, if we could make a couple of stops in Metairie on our way back to our base in LaPlace.  Our first stop was at the 17th Street Canal levee breach.  My elementary school -- St. Louis King of France -- is 2 blocks from the breach on the opposite side.  It's an area I'm extremely familiar with.

Standing on the Jefferson Parish side of the 17th Street Canal, across from the breach that flooded Lakeview and a number of New Orleans neighborhoods.
We then went to check on family members' homes.  First stop was my Grandparents'...it looked fine.  Next stop...my brother's...no flooding or significant damage.  Final stop...my Dad's house...the home I grew up in.  This house is only about 3 blocks from the 17th Street Canal levee breach, but on the non-breached, Jefferson Parish side.  However, in what proved to be a massive failure of Jefferson Parish leadership, pump stations were not manned during the storm, allowing much of the Parish to flood from rainwater, and not breached levees or surge.  I walked into the house only to hear the dreaded 'squish' of wet carpet.  The water had since drained, but mold was already 3 feet up on most of the walls.  Below is a picture of the house taken by a neighbor who stayed.

 Picture of my childhood home (house on left) in Metairie taken on August 29, 2005.

While the first day was quite a test of my emotions, it was actually the following morning, Sunday, Sept. 4th that was most memorable.  We had 2 crews that set out pre-dawn to cover the latest in the city.  Jim Shannon was working with photographer Joe McCoy.  I was working with a photographer on loan from our sister station in Huntsville by the name of Jeff Gray.  We gathered on the street car tracks on Canal Street to come up with a plan.  Jim and Joe decided they would head in the direction of the 9th Ward to see what they could find.  Jeff and I would head in the direction of Charity and Tulane hospitals where there had already been some remakable stories.  Below is what Jeff and I found before even making it to the hospitals.

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The story is a rough cut because we had some audio problems and also had to slap it together in a short amount of time to get it on air, but it did end up prompting an FBI investigation.  At the same time Jeff and I were having a gun brandished in our direction, check out what Jim and Joe found headed into the 9th Ward.  This was my favorite story (particularly the end) that any of our reporters did during Katrina.

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As you can see, Sunday, September 4th, 2005 is an unforgettable day for me.

New Orleans now has a level of flood protection that surpasses anything ever seen in its history.  However, we've yet to see it tested and there are still weak spots.  While you might consider Katrina a once-in-a-lifetime storm, we never really know.  Ask those who experienced the same sort of flooding with Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

My hope is that the city will continue its comeback and that our elected officials have learned from mistakes of the past.  Sure, New Orleans has its problems, but the culture, the character, the people are unsurpassed anywhere in this country.

Check back tomorrow...I'll let you know what I think about those people who are saying Irene was 'overhyped'.

2 comments:

  1. very moving and well written.

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  2. Great story - very moving. I used to live on the Jefferson Parish side near the 17th Street Levee breach as well until Katrina. I grew up in that area too and I also went to SLKF, along with my brother who had a Kevin Caparotta in his class - small world!

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