One Station Stayed on the Air
How WWL New Orleans staffers kept broadcasting throughout Katrina, despite their own devastating losses
How WWL New Orleans staffers kept broadcasting throughout Katrina, despite their own devastating losses
With Hurricane Katrina barreling toward New Orleans on Aug. 28, Carl Arredondo, chief meteorologist for CBS affiliate WWL, pulled aside station Executive News Director Sandy Breland. The monster hurricane was six hours away, he said, suggesting that the time had come to evacuate the news studio, which is in the city's French Quarter. Breland, a New Orleans native long familiar with ferocious weather blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, moved quickly to implement a disaster plan that had been years—and millions of dollars—in the making.
“We had done news stories on the scenarios if a major hurricane hit, and we knew how bad it could be,” says Breland. “We had to plan for the worst.”
When the worst arrived in the form of Katrina and the hurricane's hellish aftermath, TV and radio stations in New Orleans joined the staggering exodus from the city. (Some stations are back on-air using another outlet's signal, while others quickly found temporary homes, as NBC affiliate WDSU did in relocating its news operation to sister stations in Jackson, Miss., and Orlando, Fla.)
Only Belo Corp.-owned WWL, the city's top-rated local-news station, managed to stay on the air the entire time, broadcasting under its own power. More than three-quarters of the station's employees lost their homes, and most have been too busy reporting on the disaster to file insurance claims or register for disaster relief. But the staff stayed on the job, providing a lifeline of information to anyone in the wrecked city with a battery-powered TV or a radio that picked up local stations carrying WWL's audio feed.
And the station's reporting reached displaced New Orleaneans in several cities, including Dallas and Houston, where Belo sister stations began carrying WWL. “People called and said, 'I am in Dallas, and the next time you send the chopper up, can you go over my house?'” says station President/General Manager Bud Brown.
WWL's ability to keep broadcasting was the result of preparations that began five years ago with the construction of a multimillion-dollar transmitter designed to withstand a major hurricane. The bunker-like base stands 15 feet above ground on concrete pilings, and the 1,020-foot tower is designed to resist winds up to about 140 miles per hour. A small foyer can serve as an emergency studio, powered by a massive generator drawing on 10,000 gallons of fuel. The facility has Internet access and even a shower.
Another crucial element of the station's planning: an arrangement Breland made last year with Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication in Baton Rouge to use the journalism school's studio in the event of a disaster. The university also promised to supply food and housing. As for the station's headquarters on N. Rampart Street in New Orleans, WWL bought large generators and arranged for emergency fuel supplies. The station also stocked its supply closets with food and water, bought two-way radios, and purchased cellphones from multiple carriers. Arrangements were made with other Belo stations to send in reinforcements, including helicopters from KHOU Houston and WFAA Dallas.
Despite the intricate planning, WWL has been strained to the limits in trying cover the country's worst natural disaster. The operation has been split among three locations, and, at times, Internet phones and text messaging were the only reliable means of communication. The station's crews have been working more than 18-hour days and often sleep in satellite trucks or on the newsroom floor.
Yet WWL has managed to produce more than 200 hours of non-stop live coverage. “The hallmark of great journalism is that you keep broadcasting even when your ability to communicate is most threatened,” says LSU journalism-school Dean Jack Hamilton, who helped prepare for WWL's arrival at the school and watched the news operation in action.
As they continued last week to cover the hurricane's aftermath and the first faint signs of New Orleans' recovery, WWL managers, reporters and crew members—several of them breaking down in tears as they spoke—provided B&C with an exclusive look at what it took to keep the station on the air.
As Hurricane Katrina rolls across the Gulf of Mexico, with the storm track aiming squarely at New Orleans, WWL starts continuous, commercial-free news coverage. All news and engineering staffers, about 70 people, are called in and told to expect to stay for at least several days.
In the early afternoon, prompted by Arredondo's warning about the approaching storm, Breland divides the staff. Twenty employees head for the LSU studio in Baton Rouge, and 20 others go to the transmitter site across the Mississippi River in Gretna, La. Twenty-eight staffers stay behind at station headquarters—with instructions to evacuate to the Hyatt Regency hotel 15 blocks away if conditions become unsafe.
At the LSU studio, WWL Director of Technology Rick Barber feverishly prepares to go on the air. Technicians scramble to link up the feed. Journalism students are recruited to operate cameras. Barber pulls up the weather radar on a laptop computer, then positions it so that a camera can focus on the screen. (As the storm moves closer overnight, the radar image will stay on-screen for hours while anchors provide information and commentary.)
The WWL crew in New Orleans broadcasts until midnight, then hands off all anchoring duties to the LSU team as the hurricane rages outside. They evacuate to the Hyatt Regency (which is connected to the soon-to-be notorious Superdome), where New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and other local officials are holed up. The WWL staffers spend the night in a third-floor ballroom with other hotel guests, watching the station's coverage on battery-powered TVs. In the field, crews hunker down in emergency shelters and parking garages, waiting until conditions improve and they can resume shooting video.
Anchor Sally-Ann Roberts, a 28-year WWL veteran (her sister, Robin Roberts, co-anchors ABC's Good Morning America) leads the coverage. “We were reeling,” she recalls. “We knew we'd lost our houses, and mine was under 9 feet of water. We were covering a story that we were part of.”
In the early morning, a four-person team ventures from the Hyatt Regency to the station headquarters to assess damage. They report debris in the street but no flooding. With the station able to operate on generator power, the hotel contingent returns and resumes broadcasting. They begin editing interviews that the Hyatt team had collected overnight and tape from crews returning from the field.
After 11 a.m., crews head back out into the city and the surrounding parishes. In the Ninth Ward neighborhood, reporter Jonathan Betz and photographer Willie Wilson watch the rising flood waters swamp roofs and trap terrified residents. Wilson says that the devastation in New Orleans was worse than that of any hurricane he has covered in his 37 years at WWL. His own house sustained only minor damage, but two rental properties he owns were destroyed.
“You can cover other people and empathize with them,” he says, “but it's not the same as when it's your city.”
In a segment that will air repeatedly on cable news networks throughout the day, WWL Promotions Producer Chris Merrifield, in the field with a crew, wades into chest-high water to rescue a driver from a car about to be swallowed up by the floodwaters. That night, about 50 staffers sleep at the Rampart Street facility, in sleeping bags and on air mattresses—some bought by the station as part of its disaster preparations, others lugged in from home by employees.
Shortly after 8 a.m., reporter Dave McNamara, who is married to Breland, and a news crew attempt to go to City Hall to obtain a permit to take a helicopter aloft. As they drive down Canal Street, a main thoroughfare near the station, they are turned back by rising waters. News arrives that the nearby 17th Street levee has been breached, and Breland orders a second evacuation of Rampart Street.
“We knew we had to get out of there fast or we would be trapped,” she says. Staffers frantically grab supplies—cameras, laptops, cases of water, cans of beans and PowerBars—and search the building with flashlights to make sure no one is left behind. At this point, about 50 people are at the station, and they pile into about 30 vehicles. Half of the convoy heads to Baton Rouge; the other group goes to the transmitter site. Broadcasting is split between LSU and the transmitter site, where anchors sit on folding chairs and interview staffers coming in from the field.
In Baton Rouge, Roberts continues to work, despite anxiety about her mother, who had refused to leave her home in Biloxi, Miss., which also was hit hard by Katrina. Then, talking off-camera to reporter Lucy Bustamante, who has just come back from the field, Roberts hears good news: Bustamante ran into Roberts' sister, Robin, who was reporting in Mississippi for ABC, and found out that the women's mother was safe. “I went through the roof with joy,” Roberts says. “As we cover this story, our attentions have been divided in so many ways.”
Throughout the day (and in the weeks that follow), the station simulcasts its coverage online. Today its Web site attracts 10.2 million page views, a record for the site.
As looting and violence in New Orleans and the surrounding area escalate, Belo and WWL executives decide to evacuate the transmitter site. None of WWL's crews have been attacked, but several were rattled as they attempted to cover the lawlessness. McNamara recalls one unsettling incident, the looting of a supermarket that “was almost a party scene, a shopping spree to take whatever you want.” The crew started shooting video but backed off when men started shouting angrily at them. As they left the scene, the WWL crew tried to flag down a police officer, who simply drove past them.
“The transmitter was secure, but we couldn't get out to cover stories,” says Brown. Armed guards provided by Belo's corporate-security company in Dallas and local police accompany the team on the 90-minute drive from the transmitter to Baton Rouge.
With nearly 200 WWL staffers and crews from other Belo stations now in Baton Rouge, they have outgrown the LSU studio. Last night, WWL moved to local public-broadcasting affiliate WLPB. In addition to offering more room, its studio is better equipped for handling promotions, graphics and other tools of the trade. To better manage the unwieldy staff, Breland teams out-of-towners with WWLers and maps out all the assignments on a massive dry-erase board.
As evacuees pour into Baton Rouge, the city's population doubles, and housing is scarce. Some WWL and Belo employees are assigned to LSU dorm rooms, others to rented apartments or Embassy Suites hotel rooms. Belo brings in doctors to fill prescriptions and give tetanus shots, and crisis counselors are made available to employees.
With New Orleans' evacuees scattered around the country, Belo makes the WWL signal available to stations in other markets. More than 30 outlets pick up the feed. Sister Belo stations, including KHOU and WFAA in Texas and PBS stations in Louisiana and Mississippi, simulcast WWL. Yahoo streams the coverage online.
As conditions in New Orleans improve, WWL decides to send a small team of engineers back to the French Quarter with security escorts. They report that the WWL building survived unscathed by floodwater or looters. Technicians refuel the generator and power up master control and parts of the newsroom.
Anchor Dennis Woltering is the first on-air WWL employee to return to the Rampart Street headquarters. He reports from the parking lot. The studio is still in disarray from Tuesday's hasty exit. Belo brings in air conditioners, an RV, and food and water from Dallas, and staffers begin staying overnight in the headquarters. Armed security guards are on hand to protect them and the fuel supply.
Although a sense of disaster and tragedy still hangs in the humid New Orleans air and an unfathomable amount of work remains to be done in resurrecting the city and the lives of its scattered inhabitants, one small, reassuring glimmer of normal life appears on WWL tonight: The station airs The Late Show With David Letterman, its first entertainment programming in almost two weeks.