As the enormity of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast became clear, TV news organizations worked for a second day to stitch together coverage from the battered region of what one FEMA representative described as the most devastating natural disaster ever to strike the U.S.
In New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss, among the hardest hit locations, reporters struggled to convey the devastation caused by still-rising flood waters and storm surges, pictures that bore troubling similarities to the coverage of the Indonesian tsunami.
“This is nature. There is no power, no phone service. It is a miserable situation,” said WDSU New Orleans meteorologist Margaret Orr, who has worked at the Hearst Argyle-owned NBC affiliate for 26 years.
Local TV stations in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., and many other markets, are continuing wall-to-wall coverage for a third day, although many have had to improvise.
WDSU is broadcasting out of its sister station WAPT in Jackson, Miss, while Belo’s WWL New Orleans is temporarily holed up in student broadcasting facilities at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Both have been broadcasting and streaming live coverage on their web sites.
In Mobile, Ala, WPMI is broadcasting once again after being knocked off the air by a lightening strike. The station had been broadcasting on its local sister Clear Channel radio stations, but finally restored its own operations around 2 p.m. Central Time Tuesday.
Improbably, WLOX Biloxi has managed to stay on the air despite flooding in its newsroom and offices and losing parts of its roof. Sister Liberty Corporation stations have been maintaining the WLOX web site.
The national news networks fanned across the region, trying to get new pictures and reports out and collecting footage from viewer's video cameras, and cell phones. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC devoted almost all of their coverage throughout Tuesday to the aftermath of a story that was being told by viewers in numbers likely greater than any previous breaking news event.
As it did after the terrorist attacks in London in July, MSNBC is airing segments called “Citizen Journalist” with stories, photos and video sent in by viewers. One such video from Mississippi showed cows wandered down a deserted, flooded street.
CNN also aired numerous “Citizen Journalist” submissions after both networks repeatedly asked viewers to submit pictures. For example, Fox News Channel drew 3.4 million viewers, triple its usual audience.
Both CNN and MSNBC also reported record traffic on their web site. Users watched more than 9 million videos on CNN.com Monday, while MSNBC recorded nearly as many, doubling its average web site traffic.
The impact of the story on the journalist's covering it was obvious.
A reporter for WKRG TV Mobile, Ala., wept as she talked with a man whose wife had been lost when their house split in two in a storm surge.
Independent traffic reporter Bill Flowers, narrating airial footage on CNN, came to a shot of the foundations of what had been a house, saying it had been the home of a reporter for a local Fox affiliate who learned of its fate when he saw the video.
James Carville, an analyst on CNN, talked of one sister who had lost her house, and a brother having to move their critically ill father to maintain medical care in the face of power outages.
WDSU reporter Ed Reams said late Wednesday that the station's reporters had left the city and moved to Jackson after his GM feared for their safety when looting began to become widespread near the station's downtown location. "It's hard to cover a story when people are saying, 'give me your money,' or 'give me your camera, I need something to barter with.' "
WDSU also put out the following alert on its Web site, trying to reach reporters it had lost contact with:
"Hearst Argyle Television asks WDSU-TV 6 employees to please contact Hearst-Argyle TV. Call collect 1-212-887-6820 / 1-212-887-6810, or e-mail LLange@hearst.com. Please let us know if you are OK, if you have a phone number or access to e-mail and where you can be contacted."--John Eggerton contributed to this report.