As Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf of Mexico last August, Jack Sander, then president of media operations for Belo Corp., turned the 14th-floor conference room at Belo's Dallas headquarters into a war room. Two of the company's top stations—KHOU Houston and WWL New Orleans—were threatened by the storm, and he wanted to be ready.
Sander understood first-hand the potential if a major storm hit the Big Easy. In the late 1970s, he served as station manager for WDSU New Orleans. “When you live there, you know, one of these days, a storm is going to get you,” he says. “If a storm came up the mouth of the Mississippi, you could be 2-20 feet under water.”
WWL evacuated to a temporary broadcast studio at Louisiana State University's TV station. The station later moved to the Baton Rouge PBS affiliate and even broadcast some news from its transmitter facility. Such moves, plus the location of its transmitter high atop concrete pilings, enabled WWL to be the only station in the market to stay on the air continuously. The coverage was widely heralded, and earlier this month, WWL was awarded a Peabody Award for its coverage of the storm and its aftermath. “People put their personal lives aside to do their jobs as journalists,” says WWL News Director Sandy Breland. “It's an honor to be recognized in this way.”
To keep the coverage going, Belo executives in Dallas, under Sander's direction, served as central command. The company dispatched crews from other stations and ferried in truckloads of supplies: water, diesel fuel, sleeping bags. Every two or three hours, Sander—now vice chairman of Belo Corp.—would lead a conference call with station managers and Belo's Washington Bureau Chief David Duitch, who coordinated the coverage. Four Belo corporate staffers worked the phones to find scarce hotel rooms and housing for evacuated WWL employees and visiting Belo relief crews. “We were trying to take the burden off their backs,” Sander explains.
Sander, his colleagues say, was cool under pressure. “He led the charge and was making decisions at a very difficult time,” says Dunia Shive, who succeeded Sander as president of media operations in February.
“Jack is a great broadcaster, but during Katrina, we saw a real personal side,” Breland says. “His focus wasn't so much on the story, but it was on how we were holding up.”
Key decisions, Sander admits, were made on the fly. With hundreds of thousands of residents evacuated to other markets, Belo started streaming WWL's coverage online but had to make quick upgrades to its Internet capacity. To further stretch WWL's reach, the company supplied the station's feed to Yahoo and other local stations for their secondary digital channels.
“I wish I could say we had all of that in our playbook,” he says, “but sometimes you stumble into opportunity.” (Belo will make online streaming and multicasting part of any future disaster coverage.)
About a week after the storm, Sander and other Belo executives, including Chairman Robert Decherd, traveled to Baton Rouge to survey operations.
In November, they toured New Orleans. Despite having watched hours of video on the storm's aftermath, Sander was still awestruck by the devastation. “We stopped in one area, and for blocks, there was not an inhabitable house,” he recalls. “Some of the city looks like war zones.”
But the experience also reinforced his sense of a broadcaster's responsibility: “This is a local story that is going to live on for years.”
With Belo's television stations and newspapers blanketing the story, Decherd considers it one of his company's finest moments. “Belo was built to do something of this order,” he says. “And Jack enabled that to happen.