No single event shook the nation like Hurricane Katrina did in 2005. No single TV news network covered the catastrophe like NBC.
Chief anchor Brian Williams and the staff of NBC Nightly News were the first to arrive in New Orleans, long before their competition caught wind of the historic storm’s magnitude.
When Katrina struck, Williams found himself stuffed in the Louisiana Superdome, witness to desperation that still hasn’t blown over completely.
“The story started in that dome,” Williams said. “We watched the storm rip the roof off — and the metaphor is now clear to us all — we watched it peel back the layers of our society and expose problems that we wanted to think didn’t exist.”
As much as NBC tried to prepare for the hurricane, deciding early to commit as much time and intensity to Katrina as 9/11, nothing could ready Williams for the sights of a city that will never be the same.
“I watched Americans die for lack of food and water, in my own country, before my very eyes,” said Williams to one reporter. “If this disaster doesn’t lead us into a national conversation on the subjects of class, race, urban planning, the environment, Iraq and oil, then we have failed.”
Thanks to the efforts of Williams and the NBC news staff, Hurricane Katrina got everyone talking about change, even President Bush.
“I have learned since that our newscast was the first element dubbed onto a DVD and given to the president so he could understand the seriousness of the situation in New Orleans,” Williams said. “The president who famously and rather proudly said that he didn’t watch television news learned the hard way: This was a television story.”
The visuals that NBC broadcast during Katrina’s aftermath were unforgettable. But the network used words wisely to help tell the story. Williams’ reporting was poignant and stirring, so much so that Frank Rich of The New York Times equated his efforts to Walter Cronkite’s Vietnam coverage.
Rich’s co-worker at The Times concurred.
“Mr. Williams, his presence in New Orleans from the start of the story, as well as his authoritative, frequently passionate reporting on the toll of the disaster, had colleagues, competitors and outside analysts suggesting that the hurricane story may have provided him a defining moment as a network reporter and anchor,” said Bill Carter.