News media grapple with peril storm poses

Hurricane Katrina

August 29, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

With the exception of war and its deadly unpredictability, hurricanes probably pose more danger to the journalists covering them than any other kind of story.

As the behemoth Katrina headed toward the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama yesterday, reporters and their editors were confronted again with a fundamental problem: how to cover a lethal storm without getting killed.

"The first thing we tell them is `Don't be a hero,'" said Nancy Lane, CNN's news director, as she concluded her fifth conference call of the day yesterday in preparation for the storm. "We don't need any heroes."

CNN was typical of news organizations that saw no choice but to deploy reporters and camera crews into the heart of an area sure to be pummeled by Katrina, a hurricane 400 miles wide, without knowing how and when their stories might emerge, and whether the journalists would be safe.

"You have to consult with your troops," said Lane, whose network deployed more than 70 people to the coast as Katrina churned in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Safety is always the first thing. If they didn't feel safe, they'd get on the road," she said.

Some local New Orleans stations were doing just that.

In the newsroom at Fox affiliate WVUE, an employee who answered the telephone yesterday morning said he and others were preparing to leave the station's headquarters on Jefferson Davis Parkway en route to their sister station, WALA, in Mobile, Ala., 143 miles to the east.

Other New Orleans television stations, such as WGNO, WWL and WDSU, likewise decided to move some of their reporters and their expensive satellite trucks out of town, most to Baton Rouge, about 80 miles to the northwest, and in at least one case to Jackson, Miss., 195 miles north.

Early yesterday afternoon, CNN editors decided to move American Morning anchor Miles O'Brien from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, not so much because of safety concerns but so that the network would have someone on the air at the time of Katrina's expected landfall early today in New Orleans, where power was expected to be out and conditions deplorable.

"We want to make sure we can maintain our presence on the air and not have everybody sitting in New Orleans, where the likelihood of getting knocked off the air, or, in the worst case, somebody getting hurt, is pretty good," Lane said. "The odds go up in a storm like this."

Another CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper, was headed for Baton Rouge by plane yesterday afternoon.

On his CNN.com blog, O'Brien wrote that he had initially planned to stay in New Orleans throughout the storm.

"The hotel location near the French Quarter in New Orleans was good for our personal safety," he wrote. "We could operate out of the fourth floor in an interior hallway during the worst of it, but parking the satellite truck would be a problem. Since the streets of New Orleans sit mostly below sea level, it would very likely become a satellite submarine as the storm water surges into the city."

Using satellite phones was an option, O'Brien said, "but even that was not assured." So O'Brien, who doubles as the network's space correspondent, called Sean O'Keefe, the former NASA administrator and now chancellor of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who said he would steer the CNN crew to the campus TV studio and its recently installed fiber-optic link.

"We can go set up our satellite truck there and stay on the air throughout the storm," O'Brien wrote on his blog. "We will be close enough to cover the story, but far enough to stay on the air and remain safe."

Other CNN correspondents, including John Zarrella and David Mattingly, remained in New Orleans, evidently with the intention of riding out the storm. But in the absence of the network's satellite truck, Zarrella, who was staked out at the Superdome, went on the air by borrowing the equipment of Houston's NBC affiliate, KPRC, a gesture for which CNN anchor Fredericka Whitfield expressed thanks from her desk in Atlanta.

Mattingly, at the New Orleans waterfront, had to settle for a satellite phone -- also known as a digital newsgathering kit -- which transmits a grainy, jerky image through a computer.

There is little doubt that some reporters get a thrill from tackling dangerous assignments, although most will acknowledge at least some fear.

On Aug. 24, 1992, as Hurricane Andrew was lashing Miami and the Florida Keys with gusts of 160 mph, WTVJ-TV reporter Kerry Sanders and photographer Steve Schneider took cover on the floor of their news van parked under a railway overpass.

"The way we were rattling back and forth, it almost felt that 15 men were on the front bumper and 15 men were on the back bumper, all jumping up and down and shaking the van," Sanders said later, according to an article the next week in Electronic Media, a trade publication.

The pair could have recorded what was going on outside the van, the article said, but chose not to.

Jim Cantore, a reporter for the Weather Channel who has covered "two [dozen], maybe three dozen" hurricanes since Andrew in 1992, advised caution.

"When you have a 140- mile-an-hour hurricane, it's important to be in a place where we are in position to cover the storm but can stay out of harm's way," he said in an interview with the Pensacola News Journal published June 6.

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