Little Caleb was in New Orleans visiting his father when Hurricane Katrina struck. In the chaos that followed, a shelter volunteer in Houma, La., saw the toddler's picture on CNN and was able to reconnect him with his worried mother outside the hurricane zone.
Two-year-old Kalise was in limbo in Mississippi, in part because she misspelled her name for the shelter staff caring for her. But once she was featured in People magazine and her picture and correct name popped up on CNN, a viewer helped reunite her with her family.
Tia, 13, was evacuated to Texas while her mother landed in Mississippi. Neither knew where the other was until a classmate at Tia's new school saw her picture on CNN and went to the principal.
Those are just a few of the stories of children and families reunited after Katrina because of efforts by CNN, says Susan Culler, VP of development and communications for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The center reunited 5,192 families after the storm. While all the broadcast and cable news networks contributed, “CNN really stepped up to the plate in a really unique way,” Culler says. On May 9, it received one of the Center's 5th Annual Hope Awards.
CNN created a Victims and Relief Desk to get key information out and regularly showed videos of people looking for their families. Then, three weeks after the hurricane, CNN flashed a hotline phone number and devoted a third of its screen to pictures and information about missing children—for 40 straight hours, from 7 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17 to 11 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18.
“The number of calls we got because of that, that led to reunifications, was extraordinary,” says Culler. “The call volume just skyrocketed after they started this coverage.”
Seeing the tragedy unfold, CNN simply couldn't do anything else, says Susan Bunda, senior VP of news for CNN/U.S. “Our folks saw what people were going through,” she says. “And whether it was the small gesture of 'I need to give them this bottle of water because they need it more than I do' or the larger opportunities … they were victims and needed help.
“The idea of the Victims and Relief Desk was to make sure people knew what resources were available to them and how they could find their loved ones,” Bunda says. “When we decided to put the pictures up on the screen that was about, we have the vehicle to show all these faces and names, all we need is for people to watch.”
How much journalists should become involved in the Katrina story was a topic of much discussion at the time, but not at CNN, Bunda says. “I don't think we ever got stuck in a heated debate about what to do. I think people just knew in their guts: Do the right thing.”