Everybody knows what Hurricane Katrina did to Louisiana and Mississippi. Far fewer know how the devastating hurricane and floods prodded broadcasters to pull together through the Broadcasters' Foundation to help rebuild the homes and lives of some TV- and radio-station employees.
Nearly six months after the hurricane, memories are still fresh for Rayanne Weiss, special projects director at WLOX Biloxi, Miss., who spent 10 days living at the television station and covering the unimaginable devastation.
The storm badly damaged but didn't destroy the station. Much of the roof over the news studios was gone. An unused broadcast tower collapsed, smashing into the offices that had held the sales department.
Away from the station, one of Weiss' neighbors called to report seeing vicious waves crashing through the Weiss home. Weiss worried about her mother, who had to be evacuated from a nursing home.
And through it all, Weiss and her husband, Station Director Jimmy McIntyre, stayed on the job, broadcasting vital information over the Internet from a makeshift studio.
Like many people at the station, Weiss was helped by the Broadcasters' Foundation, which was set up to provide short- and long-term help to people in the broadcasting industry who have suffered unexpected losses and need a helping hand.
The devastation of Katrina has greatly widened the foundation's media safety net.
At last count, the foundation has doled out $1,000 checks to 274 people working in the broadcasting industry in Louisiana and Mississippi. At WVUE New Orleans, a Fox affiliate owned by Broadcasters' Foundation honoree Jeff Smulyan, 10 employees got assistance from the group, which in part funds itself through the Golden Mike dinner.
Since 1995, the foundation has given away more than $2 million, with half a million dispersed in 2005 alone. Last year, at the time of the Golden Mike gala­—before Katrina hit—the organization was assisting 28 families or individuals monthly, plus other victims on a one-time basis.
“I'm not a typical victim,” Weiss stresses. “Compared to a lot of people, we've been lucky. We have staff members who are still in FEMA trailers. There are a lot of other people around here who are still waiting for a trailer.”
But she says, “We truly couldn't have carried on without the Broadcasters' Foundation and all the other groups who helped us.”
Celia Faulk, an administrative assistant who has worked at WLOX for 25 years, and her husband fled their home, which is located just a few blocks from a bayou.
When they were finally able to return following the storm, there was so much debris, the one-mile walk took two hours. They arrived to a grim sight. Although the Faulk home was 15 feet off the ground on stilts, a storm surge dumped more than 3½ feet of water inside. Their home was gone—”everything except the walls,” Faulk says.
“We have insurance, but it doesn't cover everything,” she adds. “Sixty or 70 people at this station have received much-needed help from the Broadcasters' Foundation. I just can't thank them enough.”
Faulk still wakes up in the middle of the night, remembering what the storm took away: family mementos, 20 photo albums and other keepsakes, and all of the family belongings.
Yet both Weiss and Faulk remain optimistic about the future. Weiss just moved into a new home, and Faulk hopes to rebuild hers—somehow, someday.
Says Broadcasters' Foundation President Gordon Hastings, “We realized almost immediately that there were many people in our industry who had suffered devastating losses from Katrina and that we had to do something to help them.”
Just days after the storm, board member Richard Foreman jump-started relief efforts with a $50,000 matching grant. Within 48 hours, it was matched by other broadcasters. “The outpouring of support was overwhelming,” Hastings says.
Working with companies that owned stations in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as with local associations, the Broadcasters' Foundation quickly identified broadcasters in need.
“It was really a quick and painless process,” says Weiss. “Government agencies could learn a lot from them.” Meanwhile, Hastings says the foundation is still getting requests for aid.