When Hurricane Katrina’s mammoth eye churned toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, news directors and editors thrust into her path readied their buildings and employees for her aftermath.
They braced for the roaring rain, whipping winds and fierce storm surge with contingency plans, generators and extra manpower in place. They knew that when calm returned, life would become a 24-hour, adrenaline-charged mission to report the devastation and inform the public.
But as much as these veteran journalists prepared, they could never have anticipated the emotional and financial tolls. The Category 4 killer made landfall early Monday, Aug. 29, leveling the coastal landscape into a wasteland of rubble.
Five news officials who led staffs through Katrina demonstrated bravery, ingenuity and empathy following her wrath. Above all, they remained dedicated to their professions.
Sun Herald continues 121-year tradition
Soon after Katrina moved through Gulfport, Miss., Stan Tiner joined neighbors outside to fight 40-mile-per-hour winds and clear a maze of trees covering his road.
Tiner, executive editor and vice president of the Sun Herald, chain-sawed his way to the end of his street, continuing to cut trees all the way to the newspaper building. Tiner didn’t know what he would find, but he knew he had a 121-year tradition of continuous publishing to uphold.
A city police officer working near his subdivision entrance reported two restaurants a few blocks from the newspaper on DeBuys Road were destroyed.
“We were the Sun,” Tiner said. “The Herald was blown off. There were leaks in the roof, water on the floor, but the building was pretty intact.”
The 50,000-circulation Sun Herald covers Mississippi’s six southern counties. Katrina’s flooding and Category 4 winds damaged or destroyed 75 percent of all structures in coastal Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.
Tiner said newspaper editors had a bad feeling about Katrina and monitored reports from Weather Underground bloggers to prepare. A skeleton staff arrived Sunday, Aug. 28, and put out Monday’s edition, which was delivered in limited areas Sunday afternoon.
“We had about five people stay,” he said. “This building had never gone through a Category 4. Previously, we had people stay in the storm as part of their job. It was strictly a volunteer act.”
A group of designers and editors also headed for a sister paper in Columbus, Ga., and volunteer journalists from different Knight Ridder newspapers trained to handle disasters waited in Montgomery, Ala. They mobilize and moved in Monday, Aug. 29, despite a dark and devastated coast.
“They had chainsaws, satellite phones, gasoline, food, water and cash,” he said.
Tiner, who arrived about 4 p.m., and a few other devoted staffers started gathering information and photographs during the final hours of daylight Monday and resumed the frenzied quest early Tuesday.
Those who waited out the storm kept a generator running, which powered a few lights and computers. They sent stories and photographs to Columbus, where the design team created eight pages documenting Katrina’s fury.
Columbus’ press printed the Tuesday edition at about noon and trucked copies to the newspaper. About 20,000 copies reached readers in shelters and other gathering spots.
The delivery force became reporters and photographers who distributed copies out of their cars. By Wednesday, a 24-page newspaper with nearly all news content and storm stories hit the streets.
“It was a powerful linkage between newsroom people and readers,” Tiner said. “There was such a hunger for information. It looked like all of our institutions were down, but the paper was delivered.”
The paper gradually raised daily press runs, climbing to 42,500 by the Sept. 3 edition, and within a week returned operations to the Sun Herald. It gave away papers for the entire month of September and printed more than 80,000 copies in one day.
For a time, guards had to watch the generator’s fuel supply. The Fire Department also provided water for the press. The lack of gas required reporters on assignment to figure out how many gallons of fuel it would take to get there, Tiner said.
Knight Ridder also sent a counselor, which stayed with the staff for several weeks. About 12 newspaper employees lost their homes, and most everyone had some sort of damage.
“If somebody holds up their hand and says ‘I need to go out of the game,’ you say ‘OK, take a day or two off,’ ” he said. “Everybody was very strong and powerful about doing their jobs. We cried a lot.”
Tiner, a 30-year newspaper editor, said the stories of courage and destruction, of life and death, have taken the reporters writing them to the pinnacle of their careers.
“Over the course of several weeks, well over 50 volunteers came through our newsroom, people just instinctively doing journalism,” he said. “Most journalists got into journalism to serve humanity and serve the greater good. It has reinvigorated them and renewed their spirit as to why they became a journalist.”
Tiner also said the business model for the Sun Herald has changed but believes the region will rebound in the long term.
“I think we’re going to come roaring back in two or three years,” he said. “We have a beautiful, clean landscape to build on.”
TV station becomes regional network
Anzio Williams, news director of New Orleans’ WDSU Channel 6, an NBC affiliate, found himself driving an RV loaded with $4,000 in supplies from Orlando back to the flooded city Friday, Sept. 2.
Thanks to satellite capabilities and the station’s owner, Hearst Argyle, WDSU anchors were able to broadcast from sister stations in Orlando, Fla., and Jackson, Miss., throughout the week. Williams, who became news director in January, made the call to lock the station and leave the city as floodwaters approached Tuesday, Aug. 30.
The station, a few blocks from both the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, started 24-hour coverage at 5 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, and was the only one pressing the mayor to call for a mandatory evacuation, he said.
Williams told his nonessential people to leave prior to the storm and had reporters and cameramen positioned on the ground in New Orleans “where we thought we would be safe.”
Williams stayed with a few other employees at the station in anticipation of their reports.
A team of 12 camped in the Superdome shelter.
“We were the first to report the roof was coming off the Superdome,” he said.
The station sustained little damage from the hurricane, and crews worked through Monday reporting on the storm and relaying information to the anchors.
A crew sent to an emergency management center in St. Bernard Parish stayed too long and had to flee to the roof due to floodwaters and wait for hours. Two of the station’s vehicles remain stranded there.
“That Tuesday, we were getting back out on the street, but the water was getting closer,” he said. “We weren’t far from the Superdome. For safety reasons, we decided to abandon the building.”
Finally, water overtook the station’s transmitter. WDSU went off the air for a day in New Orleans, but continued to stream all of its live coverage through satellite transponders.
Because Hearst Argyle invested in satellite space, which allows stations to go live anywhere, WDSU still reached evacuees in Houston, Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson, Miss.
“We became a regional network,” Williams said. “All these New Orleans people that were displaced were able to watch hometown news with anchors they have grown to love.”
Reporting crews continued to drive into New Orleans during the day. Williams dropped off some staff at the Jackson, Miss., station, then headed to the Orlando station, where he was formerly news director, to make preparations to re-enter New Orleans.
Williams and two others returned with the large RV packed with ice, water, food, batteries, flashlights, a generator and extra fuel.
“Everyone needed to have shots, satellite phones,” he said. “We had to be self-sufficient. We had enough to sustain us for two weeks here in the building.”
Thirteen station employees and the SWAT team members called the station their home for two weeks. They slept on air mattresses, set up a makeshift shower in the parking lot and ventured to Baton Rouge to buy a grill.
About 10 percent of employees lost everything, Williams said. All of them are back. Hearst Argyle has continued to pay for hotels for displaced employees and send producers, photographers and anchors to help.
Despite losing viewers temporarily, Williams said he is proud the station reached people through the Web site, radio stations and other TV stations broadcasting their signal.
Williams hopes to have the station’s transmitter fixed in the next few months.
WDSU continues to use satellite transponders to uplink its signal and an independent PAX channel is carrying it for New Orleans residents who don’t have cable or satellite television.
“It’s a prime example of how being part of a good company and a company committed to journalism can really set you apart,” he said. “If we were a small little company, we couldn’t have pulled this off.”
Williams said he is a much better leader for having led a team through the disaster. The flooded parts of the city remain a mess, while suburban areas are fine. The station continues to adjust its coverage, replaying news conferences and extending news bites to make sure viewers stay informed.
“One challenge is how do you continue to motivate people,” he said. “Right now, our focus is on how do we give out good, quality, useful information in a clear and understandable way.”
Radio station owner one of last on air
Rip Daniels, station manager and chief executive officer of WJZD, a 6,000-watt radio station in Gulfport, Miss., that plays blues and urban contemporary music, continued with his daily talk show Monday, Aug. 29, in the midst of Hurricane Katrina’s harshest hours.
Lighting struck about 11 a.m. and fried his signal.
“I’m quite honored to be the last one standing,” he said. “Not only was I doing a talk show, but saving lives, finding out where people were in serious danger, where water was rising.”
The 37-year radio veteran lost electricity about 4 a.m. and switched to generator power inside the two-story, split-faced concrete-block building four miles from the coast. Daniels built the station to stop a .50-caliber rifle and said it became a shelter and temporary home for several of his 25 employees.
“Obviously, it helped out in a hurricane, too,” he said. “I thought the tower was going to come down, but it didn’t. We did get some roof damage and rising water. The automobiles in the parking lot were submerged.”
After being off the air for two days, Daniels’ engineer rigged a system to broadcast at 100 watts. Daniels also operates the American Blues Network from the station, and programming is rebroadcast in 50 markets nationally.
“He used little more than a generator, two roach clips, wires and an exciter,” Daniels said.
By Wednesday, his engineer managed to get the transmitter to work at half power.
Daniels contacted friends who ordered a new transmitter, and it arrived the next week.
In the days and weeks following Katrina, WJZD “became an information warehouse,” broadcasting around the clock and sometimes simulcasting local TV station reports.
Employees worked during daylight hours chasing stories and collecting basic necessities. “It was a challenge,” Daniels said. “I organized people to go on a scavenger hunt every day for food, water, ice, fuel. My staff and others who were here were just champs.”
They visited shelters with celebrities and directed relief trucks to appropriate neighborhoods. WJZD, which has a predominantly African-American audience across southern Mississippi, is rated No. 1 in its market and pressed FEMA, American Red Cross and other disaster agencies over the slow response in those communities, Daniels said.
“They were being underserved,” he said. “It was a pretty interesting dynamic for us to be in.”
Four employee families lost everything and lived at the station for most of September. Daniels also owns apartments in the area and has provided some of them with housing. One family had yet to move out as of mid-October, so Daniels has kept sleeping there, too.
“There’s no such thing as normal,” he said. “There’s a new normal. I still don’t have certain equipment, an equalizer, nothing to monitor with.”
Daniels is the station’s main moneyman and worries about the region’s recovery. He believes the economy will rebound, but that communities and businesses will face tough times for a few years.
“You have to balance optimism with depression every day,” he said. “If you don’t have business savvy, you wouldn’t survive this. Sixty-five percent of advertisement (casinos) is gone. We’re having to be very creative.”
Through it all, Daniels considered his journalistic responsibility and the importance of the Emergency Broadcast System.
“We have a public trust I take very seriously,” he said. “I don’t care if it was an atomic bomb; our job is to get the information out to people who are powerless. I’ve always heard a leader is a person who goes his own way only to arrive there to find he’s been followed. I’ve gone my own way, and my employees trusted me and followed me.”
Chef cooks up hot meals at TV station
The hurricane preparation plan at Biloxi’s WLOX Channel 13, an ABC affiliate, kept about 50 people who stayed in the station safe as the slow-moving storm made landfall.
The station started coverage about 6 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, and provided live, 24-hour reports without commercials for the next 12 days, according to Dave Vincent, news director. He had crews in bordering counties and called them in later that evening.
“The water started coming up,” he said. “We went to generator power about 8 or 9 p.m. Sunday. We had one here and one at the transmitter 40 miles away.”
The newsroom’s roof blew off while they were on the air about noon Monday, and staff moved operations to a smaller studio in the station. A 20,000-pound concrete tower landed on the sales area, Vincent said.
“We were one of the few stations in the entire south that never went off the air,” he said. “There were 100 things that could have gone wrong, but they didn’t.”
WLOX used the large generators to transmit for more than a week. Many employees slept at the station for two or three weeks and remained dedicated to informing frightened and displaced residents who had generators and battery-powered TVs.
Radio stations also carried WLOX’s live segments, and all the media outlets shared information, supplies and in some instances facilities, Vincent said.
The station’s owner sent additional crews for a month to relieve the weary broadcasters.
“You work on adrenaline the first week or so,” Vincent said. “It’s a draining thing, seeing all this destruction day after day.”
Vincent arranged for a chef to cook during the storm, and he prepared hot meals for the group for more than two weeks. When his food supply ran out, Vincent had it trucked in.
“When you’ve got a storm going on, food is so important,” he said. “It’s a little thing they can look forward to to keep them going.”
WLOX had 10 employees who lost everything, he said. An evening anchor, who lived south of the flood-prone railroad tracks, wanted to sleep in her bed and decided to go home Sunday night.
She awoke to a flooding home that finally exploded. She had to jump out of a two-story window and spent three hours in the water. The storm surge flattened her street.
“She saved her dog, but she couldn’t find her cat,” Vincent said. “(Oct. 18) the cat was found around where their house used to be. Miracles do happen.”
Vincent has been at the station 29 years and news director since 1981 and said the storm made them all realize material things are immaterial.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “Our newsroom is still in our other studio. We’re hoping to get back in by the first of the year.
“All of us here at the station are trying to rebuild our lives. The hardest thing as a news director is you want everyone to be safe, and then try to keep the product going. These people were just marvelous. They kept working even though many of them had lost everything.”
The station’s first return to normal program was an ABC Monday Night Football game played on Thursday, Sept. 8.
“We got into journalism to serve the public good,” he said. “It was great to see a group of people come together and do a good job, an excellent job, of serving the community.”
Editor ‘has a ball’ after two reporters don’t show
Will Sullivan, managing editor of the Picayune-Item in Picayune, Miss., lost his only two reporters when they didn’t show up for work. He found himself attending news conferences in the days after the storm.
Katrina’s eye passed over the 13,000-population town near the Mississippi-Louisiana border. Sullivan said the relief from the hurricane’s onslaught lasted about an hour, during which time he went out and took pictures.
He monitored the storm from home and started walking to the newspaper about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30. Katrina’s force downed trees and utility poles and damaged buildings, but the area escaped the deadly storm surge that flipped interstates, flattened homes and flooded casinos along the Gulf, Sullivan said.
“We lost a portion of the roof,” he said, noting there was a hole above where he was sitting.
Being inland protected Picayune residents and others who fled there, and the town has exploded to more than 30,000 people. When Sullivan arrived, he and the publisher, who had stayed at the newspaper building, began preparations to publish Tuesday’s edition.
“Before the storm, we had bought a small generator that would run two computers and a couple of lights,” he said. “We planned to put it on a disk.”
The Picayune-Item, with a circulation of under 10,000, publishes about 9:30 a.m. for a noon delivery. Sullivan said he knew there was no way to make that deadline.
“The publisher and I both carried cameras,” he said. “I talked to more people. We put out a four-page paper.”
Due to a lack of staff and equipment, they decided against publishing Wednesday and combined the information to make Thursday’s edition after owner CNH of Birmingham, Ala., sent a big generator and “a hefty supply of diesel fuel.”
The paper, which normally prints five days, printed every day and gave away the paper for two weeks.
Sullivan’s five-person newsroom shrunk to three when his reporters didn’t try to return to work for two weeks. He became the primary news gatherer. The sports editor laid out pages, and an intern stayed on to help write stories.
A reporter from a larger paper in the chain also volunteered for several weeks and, along with the lifestyles editor, wrote survivor stories.
“I came into this business to write, not to be an editor, so I’ve been having a ball,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve been going crazy. It’s been a zoo.”
They filled the newspaper with information about storm damage, shelters and distribution sites. Sullivan, without access to the Associated Press, used the radio to report on outside events.
The paper is printing more daily copies, but circulation continues to be an issue. Former carriers can make more money doing clean-up work, Sullivan said. Surprisingly, advertising hasn’t been a worry.
Marla Miller is a features writer for the Muskegon Chronicle in Muskegon, Mich.