The Eyewitness News 8 New Orleans crew arrived safely home in Las Vegas Monday afternoon.
Sept. 16, 2005
Day Seven -- New Orleans
Seven? Really, it’s been seven days on the road?! ‘Guess what they say is true about time goes by when you’re having fun. The six of us HAVE had fun with work and with the situation, and with each other.
Friday is no different, well, that’s not true, ‘cause on our minds – foremost on our minds is that THIS….IS the last day. Still many live shots, writing, editing, phone calls, and maybe rain will have to pass by before we’re “free”.
Slept till about 8:30…all the while Brian and Mark were up and doing live shots for the morning show. They’re both hard workers, and not complainers.
Everybody was remarking right off the top of the day how humid it was. No question. The air was oppressive.
The big event of the day for me was Senator Harry Reid’s arrival in town. In fact, his visit would bring him within a block of our Satellite truck location. At 10:30 we headed down to a location across from the Harrah’s where the Navy has a mess line set up.
In minutes the Senators arrived. Yes, Senators. Twenty of them, including many prominent ones. Senator Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman, John Warner and more.
Reid was casually talking to some NV National Guardsmen when I walked up. His public relations person had advance notice we were coming, and I knew the Senator would likely give us a good interview, but I was surprised at the very warm welcome he gave me, turning from the soldiers, he smiled and said, “Well, look who it is!”
We did an exclusive one-on-one interview for the next ten minutes, then milled around while videographer Adam White captured some cover shots of the event.
All the senators made short statements, then their “handlers” herded them off.
Two things of note:
1st: While I was watching the spectacle of Senators and military men ‘n’ women milling about under the tents on the World Trade Center grounds by the mess line, I heard a voice talking to me, casually making a comment, and I looked up to see it was Richard Shelby, the Senator from Alabama. I don’t know him, never met him, and yet for the next few minutes, we had a very comfortable conversation. There’s a reason why these men and women get elected. They’re personable. He later granted me a cordial interview for our news.
2nd: I’m not one of those who worshipped at the altar of America’s “Camelot” in the 60’s and 70’s – the years of the Kennedy’s -- and yet I couldn’t help but stand and stare at Ted Kennedy only several feet away from me as he sat and chatted with some military types. He’s an American icon…and the things he’s seen. The people he’s influenced. The personal pain he’s suffered. This was the BROTHER of President John F. Kennedy, and Atty Gnrl Robert F. Kennedy – both assassinated in the most public of spectacles. He didn’t look all that good…sunburned and ruddy-faced…what appeared to be skin cancer forming on his nose, but wherever he went, and whenever he spoke, he commanded instant respect.
The rest of the afternoon was rote. Writing, editing, voicing our stories, and then sharing them by e-mail with the home office in Las Vegas.
Oh, and Brian and I both had a live presence in the Noon newscast. For our last day, there’s no slacking here. In our minds it seemed as if the station was going to squeeze every last cent of their investment in this trip out of us before we left.
Everyone’s tired and dragging, and the weather seems to reflect that. Sitting in the RV resting this afternoon, we heard an usual noise we couldn’t identify until I pegged it as raindrops on the roof. Yep…muggy, hot, sweaty and now rainy too. The live shots for the evening could be interesting. But I revel at the prospect of rain. That’s the one thing I miss as a Las Vegas resident: the sound and the smell of rain.
The time from the noon news to the first live shot of the evening at 4 seemed to pass quickly. And once the series of newscasts begins at 4 o’clock, the time truly flies by.
I really want to do a good job with the live shots. I’m not that practiced at doing live ad-lib in the field, ‘cause I so rarely get the chance, but I like to do it, because it’s a challenge, and it helps me polish my craft. The shots go well. I have to remember to remind viewers to read these blogs, and to give some outgoing “perspective” on what it was like to be here for the last week. That’s been requested of me from one of our news managers.
I welcome the chance to give that kind of perspective…it shows a more “human” side of a usually stiff news presentation…but considering ahead of time what I might say, I realize that whatever comes out is going to sound cliché. I manage to deliver it with what I think is an acceptable level of genuine-ness, though, and all the live shots at 4, 5, and 6 go well. We’re done!
That’s it. Two sweaty, hot, hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone weeks of reporting one of the nation’s worst tragedies is over for us, and the consensus is that we earned our stripes…that we stood with the best of the media here in the middle of a tough, huge story, and held our ground. That’s such a fulfilling feeling for most broadcast journalists.
We did our usual stowing of the equipment after a live shot, but there were smiles all around, and a little more enthusiasm. John Turner had spent much of his time during the day taking down our little gazebo and stashing things we were done using…so there wasn’t all that much left to do.
We set out a host of gas cans in all sizes that we felt we no longer needed and didn’t want to take with us. Most of them were full, and we invited some cops across the street to take what they wanted. We also set out a couple of cases of bottled water we had as surplus.
Brian Allen got out his disposable flash camera and began taking all the pictures of us and the camp that he had forgotten to take thus far, and we all started to agree that the best way to celebrate our finish was to walk about two blocks to the Sheraton.
The Sheraton was the only place in town that claimed to have a bar open. When we got there it was surreal. In the midst of all the calamity, here was this oasis of cool air, a running fountain, and a functioning bathroom!! They even had a working escalator. We felt as if we were in the presence of opulence. All the while we sat in those comfortable easy chairs around a polished wooden table, a wonderful heavenly lightning show was taking place outside. The two-story glass front of the Sheraton offered a wonderful view of the show, and added to the mystique of the appreciation of the evening.
After two rounds of drinks, and a lot of “shop-talk” (whenever people in broadcasting get together in a social setting, they always incestuously talk about their work), we realized we were all pretty tired and hungry.
When we walked out the door, we realized it indeed had rained. We make the short walk back to the RV on shiny wet sidewalks. We’re giddy about being done, but a slight tinge of disappointment resides on the edge of that, because there are still 1700 miles of road between us and home. All the gas cans, and the two cases of water we had set by the curb were now gone. We’d been gone about an hour and a half.
We agree to get up at 6 a.m., and hope to hit Oklahoma City by the end of the day. Every single one of us plans to take an hour shower in our own motel room. What a luxury!!!
This will be my last post. Thank you if you’ve read this far every night or morning. I’ve enjoyed fleshing out the story of such a big event as a journalist. There’s so much more that I didn’t say, chief among them the pain I feel in my heart for these people who have lost everything. Americans have a short memory, and when the next big story comes along, Katrina will tend to fade into the background of the country’s consciousness. That’s too bad, ‘cause the victims of this storm will require the support of the rest of us for many many more months. Pray for them, and pray for our safe drive home.
Sept. 15, 2005
Day Six -- New Orleans
Today was not a good day for Adam White.
You work with the same people everyday and you develop rhythms. Expectations and understandings are reached. A routine sets in. Sometimes friendships are formed and sometimes not, but in the everyday work environment, it’s OK if things don’t become more interpersonal, ‘cause it’s just work.
BUT take those same workmates, and put them in an environment where they not only have to work together, but LIVE together for days on end, 24 hours-a-day, in close quarters, and the whole paradigm changes.
Sure, you say, but REAL professionals should be able to do their job, regardless. True, true, but the enhanced personal challenges still remain and the outcome is not always nice. Tempers flare, and character idiosyncrasies that can be overlooked in the time of a normal work shift might begin to seem larger in a 24-hour association.
That’s why I’m so glad I work with the people I do. Gee whiz, they all do their jobs so well – I mean TOPS, and then at the end of the day, when we’re all beat, and we face porta-potties, and uncomfortable cots, we could be very irascible. But we’re not, instead we all just joke and kid and buoy each other up. I’m lucky to be here with this crew.
Today was not a good day for Eyewitness News 8 photojournalist Adam White. It didn’t begin that way, in fact Adam was so convinced it would be an “easier” day, that he wore shorts instead of cargo pants, knowing he wouldn’t have to face the ever-present possibility he might end up in the dangerously filthy flood waters.
We left casa KLAS around 9:30 to meet a Las Vegan at a local church. She was arranging for a truckload of donated goods from Southern Nevada to arrive and drop the stuff that had come so many miles. The Celebration Church campus where the donation center was set up was an impressive operation. Volunteers in orange shirts scurried around making sure hurricane victims found the basic essentials they were looking for, all while trucks were coming in and dropping-off more donated goods.
Joelle Jarvis and her friend Scott Sullivan (both from Vegas) met me and explained their commitment to this task. Scott keeps a home in both Las Vegas and Baton Rouge, his home of origin. He’s been working on relief efforts ever since the storm, and both of them seem totally committed to sustaining it for weeks and months to come.
Halfway through my visit, Teresa Mathews shows up with her daughter. Teresa is the driver of the big Budget Rent-a-truck that has come all the way from Las Vegas full of generously donated gifts. Most of the articles were donated through people who work at Helen J. Stewart School in Las Vegas, a special school for challenged kids. She seems absolutely devoted to making sure the donations get to the people who can really use them. She did. In fact, most of the water, and food, and clothes, and diapers she brought were probably gone by the end of the day.
All the while we were there, we were making phone calls trying to touch base with Ray Guinta, a pastor at Central Christian Church in Henderson. He and his other volunteer workers (remember Connie Morton from yesterday?) have been making runs with flat-bottom boats into flood-damaged neighborhoods searching for survivors. We really want to go with him. Certain government entities seemed to keep getting in the way of that when we wanted to tag along with the Nevada Task Force One team, and we thought it would be great footage.
We agree to meet at the University of New Orleans campus, but it’s hard to get to, ‘cause it’s surrounded by all the flooded neighborhoods. This is where Adam’s bad day begins.
We go back to casa KLAS so Adam can get his waders and change into pants. This far into our assignment to New Orleans Adam has been here the longest – from day one, and I think he really didn’t want to face the muck again. He doesn’t complain, though, and before long we’re trying to wind our way through the streets of New Orleans with a street map to get to the University.
We go this way and that…turned back time and again by reeking black flood waters. Huge, old Oak trees are strewn across almost every block of every neighborhood. The mess seems impenetrable. We’re undaunted. We call Ray. We try new turns and avenues. 45 minutes later we finally find a way to break through and arrive on the campus. No Ray. We can’t raise him on the cell phone, which is spotty.
We drive around some more and finally run into him and a colleague in an abandoned parking lot. They’ve “acquired” a flat-bottomed boat with a 15-horsepower Suzuki engine that works great. It’s on a boat trailer, and they have a Chevy Trailblazer with a hitch. Perfect! Adam scowls…grabs his boots, his gloves, a special backpack with extra equipment and watches while we maneuver the boat into the water off an impromptu ramp that used to be a regular street.
Our news operations Manager – John Turner – can see that Ray has good intent, but little experience with boats, and kinda takes over the launching. He almost falls in the yucky water at least twice, but his balance saves him. No one wants to get A SINGLE DROP of that water on them.
Out come the anti-bacterial wipes. Everyone wipes over and over. In the end we couldn’t have made the boat launch work without Turner, but he’s got a good nose for news, and he REALLY wants this story to work. Adam hops in. The engine starts, and off they go for about 5 minutes. They can’t get under a viaduct because the water’s too high.
Back to the impromptu boat ramp. Turner works his magic, almost falls in again and again, but he coaxes the boat back on the trailer, and he drives it 300 yards to another spot. Turner muscles the boat off the trailer a 2nd time (almost falls in again), and the two WE CARE workers and Adam hop in again. This time they’re off for good. They’re looking for a house where reportedly 4 elderly people don’t want to come out. Ray says sometimes a more “churchy” approach works better than soldiers in uniforms. They’re gone for a half-an-hour. I nervously look at my watch, always mindful of deadlines.
We wait and we sweat. Connie Morgan from yesterday’s story joins us with another WE CARE volunteer. It’s hot. A reporter from the local newspaper, the Times Picayune, joins us with his camera and tells us how weird it is to be part of a town – his town – that is now destroyed. His family is staying with in-laws in Georgia. We talk to Adam on a two-way. They need directions. We wait and sweat some more.
Finally we see them in the distance coming back down a different street. They get close enough that we see they have rescued….a dog…not people. It’s OK, though, the dog is a cute little black Lab puppy who is soooooo happy to be with people. Another adult black Lab is swimming behind, and pulls himself out of the water without a care in the world. That remains to be seen, but we are all smiling because the excursion has a happy ending…except Adam.
In the course of things, Adam has been splashed generously with the black, stinky water. He’s, uh, well, he’s quiet. Very quiet and brooding. But it doesn’t last, and he agrees to operate the videocam for a quick interview…before throwing off his gloves, putting his camera away, and telling us all how he got wet with THE WATER. The water we all tried so hard to stay away from.
We agree to go immediately over to the National Guard d-con (decontamination) shower stall they have set up only blocks away. The place where we did a story yesterday. It’s embarrassing, but he doffs all his duds, and steps into the make-shift tub the soldiers have. He submits to being sprayed with bleach, worked-over with 5-foot long brushes, sprayed again with God-knows-what, and finally (to his delight) gets to take a regular shower with shampoo and everything.
At this point, Turner and I are laughing, taking videotape of his compromised position, and all the time wishing we could be taking a shower too. None of us have had one since we got here. We’ve all been doing “sponge-baths” with baby wipes every day.
Well, it DID turn out to be a good story, and we gave Adam full credit for being such a good sport about it on the air. He’s a guy you’ll never see in a report, but no report here would get done without him. He’s solid. He wasn’t mad. He put up with our ribbing, and just kept on doing good work. Cool!
Now do you see why I’m glad I work with this crew?
The rest of the night is routine. Deadlines, live shots, editing, phone calls. Expectations floated and answered.
Brian Allen and Mark Mutchler show up earlier than usual from Biloxi, and our thoughts are all on when we’ll be leaving the next day. But first we have to get through Friday.
Sen. Harry Reid is coming here tomorrow with some other Senators. This is why we’re staying through til Friday. It’s an honor to be interviewing a Senator, but you could understand why we might just be looking forward to getting it all over with and going home to our families. Remember the baby-wipes?
We’ve got six people and four vehicles, and we’re all going by land. The Satellite truck doesn’t go much faster than 60, unless it’s downhill with a wind, so do the math. If we leave Saturday morning, we’ll be lucky to be back by late Monday.
I love driving, and even driving across Texas. I’m not that put out about the journey back, but after flying OUT here, driving BACK seems tedious.
Thanks for reading this far. Please don’t bother reading Brian’s Blog, he’s boring. ;-}
Sept. 14, 2005
Day Five -- New Orleans
I think I realized today what I like most about my job is that no matter where I am, my kids still get to see me every day. How many other people can claim that with their away-from-home duties?
Here’s the problem with that analysis -- my kids are so jaded with my being on the TV that they don’t even hardly watch, even when I’m away for a week.
I mention all this, ‘cause I wistfully watched all the members of the So. Nevada Task Force One team prepare to leave the New Orleans area today, and thought how nice it would be to be able to hug my kids again in a couple of days.
But, no! We’re staying the distance. It turns our Senator Reid is visiting the area Friday with a number of other prominent Senators, and it’s important enough for us to stay and provide coverage.
All that said, let me tell you that this Wednesday started out with a lot of question marks. We had hoped to join the Task Force One team again today to pick up on the trail we couldn’t complete yesterday. But already last night, the team members were indicating to us that today might signal the end of the line for them. They told us they’d get directions from FEMA at 6 a.m.
We got up at 6 a.m. and began making calls to members on TF-1. When we finally got a live person on the line the word was that they wouldn’t really know a final word until 10 a.m.. Wait and wonder some more. In the meantime, I watched Brian Allen do his live shots for the morning shows, and marveled again at what a polished professional he is. We’ve got a good solid group of workers here from KLAS for our coverage, and I make a note to myself to try to find a way to express my appreciation of the way they do their jobs.
As a back-up to a possible failed TF-1 story, we began making calls to another NV-based group we hoped to follow. It’s a mostly faith-based group called WE CAN. We kept running into them here ‘n’ there, especially when we did the story a couple of days ago with the NV National Guard, and their evacuee intake center. WE CAN especially excels in doing one-to-one counseling with those people who are still straggling in from the urban flooding. They encourage, soothe frayed nerves, dispense hugs, sometimes pray, and always support. Everyone from the soldiers to the police appreciate their presence, ‘cause no one else is really seeing to this important need.
We finally get confirmation that the TF-1 team is indeed leaving today. We’re happy for them, but feel a little empty about it, ‘cause we’ve been with them from the beginning -- leaving Las Vegas together and sticking with them almost every day for their work.
Along the way at first, they took a rather traditional professional but sort of stand-offish approach to our close association with them. Gradually, over the days that followed, though, the TF-1 team began to more appreciate working with us, and having us expose them doing their job as well as they do it. They were getting feedback from friends and family back home saying “Hey! I say you on TV tonite!” Their kids were telling them how neat it was to see them doing their job far away. Before long, the TF-1 group was reassuring us that WE were part of THEIR team, and including us in their plans. I’d like to think it was mutual respect.
Of course, much of that respect was earned by Gary Waddell’s early handling of the situation. I stepped into that role, and inherited a lot of good will.
Once the announcement was made, my boss – Bob Stoldal – was also insistent that we go to visit with them and get some “exit” interviews -- record on videotape, their parting thoughts before they hit the road for the long drive home. More about that later.
In the absence of a sure story with the TF-1 team, I finally made contact with the WE CAN person from NV who was handling calls. It was an in-charge-sounding person named Connie Morton. I asked if Connie could come by casa KLAS and maybe we could tag along on her day. She enthusiastically agreed, and within minutes, she arrived. We hopped in our news vehicle, and began following.
Connie, and two others from NV in their rental Ford Explorer led us all through some sections of town just cleared of flood water. It was like looking at scorched earth, and the smell scorched our noses. They were still looking for people stranded by choice or by circumstance – something they’d been doing for days. They’d become quite adept at coaxing reluctant residents out of their homes. Though we searched for some time, we did not find any such people this day.
We made stops here and there at recovery centers, and Connie finally got a lead to go to the New Orleans University campus to answer a call for counseling incoming evacuees.
More circuitous driving around flooded streets, dodging refuse and downed trees. Finally we arrive at a lovely campus bordering Lake Pontchartrain, and a huge assembly hall. There we find friendly National Guardsmen from Massachussetts (you could tell by the accent), and a well-organized receiving operation.
Before long, we began encountering people coming in, many of them with their feet, and shoes and pants full of drying crud from the flood mud. They had a special decontamination bath for them there, and while Connie hugged them and compassionately listened to their stories, the Guardsmen washed them.
Connie and her colleagues worked spontaneously, not knowing what any specific need was, but somehow providing just what it was they did need. Amazing!!
At one point, they formed a circle with a mother and son, and offered up a quick prayer for a family loss. The two were as amazed as they were touched that perfect strangers would care for them like that.
After about an hour, we left N.O. University and wandered across town to the convention center site from our coverage a couple of days ago with the NV Nat’l Guardsmen, and finished our shoot with Connie and the others from WE CAN with a one-on-one interview. At one point during the interview, one of the chief members of the WE CAN staff interrupted us to ask if we could point the camera at a different angle. Apparently one of the evacuees they were counseling in the background of the shot was becoming a little nervous that the camera was pointing his way, and was becoming uncooperative. I was not at all upset. I took it as a perfectly simple sign that WE CAN was living every second their motto to put the victim first, not the advantages of any dubious Public Relations exposure.
We had barely gotten back to the Satellite truck when we got the word that our boss had respectfully demanded we go out to get the exit interviews with the guys from TF-1. We clearly had the time, and immediately began the half-hour drive to their headquarters at FEMA.
They agreed to meet us outside the FEMA gate, and five very tired, but happy-looking Southern Nevadans piled out of a Ford Excursion in short order. Two or three of the group volunteered to step forward and put themselves through the ordeal of having to say something good about the team with members of the team watching. I was just happy to be able to put faces with the voices I’d been talking to on the phone for the last 3-4 days.
These guys had put themselves through hellish conditions, voluntarily helping absolute strangers, in hot, humid weather for two weeks…and they did it with selfless enthusiasm. I almost envied their tight team comraderie, and giving spirit. If anyone deserved to return to loving families, and congratulations from others in their professional ranks, it’s these guys. Yes, we’ll miss them, and coverage for the next couple of days will seem empty without them.
I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of my work duties for the next three hours of my day… Read my blogs for day 3 or 4 to see that I worked to get my stories on the air in a timely fashion, using the best words, inflections, editing, and videography I was able to muster along with the excellent skills of my videographer, Adam White. I love my job, and I think my live “hits” in the 4, 4:30, 5, and 6 reflected that. It was a good day’s work.
In about an hour, Mark Mutchler and Brian Allen will be making their way here from their day in Biloxi, and our routine continues.
Hey, our food is holding out. The air conditioner works at night, and I think I still have some fresh underwear. What more could a guy want?
Maybe a hug from my kids.
Sept. 13, 2005
Day Four -- New Orleans
Up and at ‘em at 6 a.m. this morning. I actually woke up at 5:30 without the alarm, then fell back asleep till my watch went off. I’m sleeping in the berth above the cab of the RV, so I practically fall out in the morning, doing all I can to not step on the guys sleeping on the bunks below.
No words are spoken as Adam White, John Turner and I get dressed, grab out gear and some food, and head out. It’s 6:26 when we finally get in the Eyewitness News 8 vehicle, turn south on Canal Street and cross over the Mississippi Bridge. It’s still dark.
We’re on our way to meet up with the Task Force-1 team from Southern Nevada, a group we’ve been following since they left Las Vegas shortly after the storm. It’s a crack team made up of Police K-9 officers, Fire Dept. specialists, Haz-Mat, and other unique skills. They comprise one of a very few such teams across the country that consider it a privilege to be invited by FEMA to actually do the things they practice and drill for all the time. Their principle function here in Louisiana is to find survivors trapped in their storm-ravaged homes, and get them out. It’s called Search and Rescue, and these guys to it better than just about anybody else. Here it is a full two weeks since the storm hit, and the team is still finding survivors trapped in their homes almost every day.
The S & R team is headquartered about half an hour’s drive from where we are with the Satellite Truck. They’re encamped with many other such teams in a huge FEMA complex which has taken over the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. The place is like a fortress. No one gets past a huge guard with a pistol at the gate unless they’re authorized. We aren’t.
We’ve agreed to meet the TF-1 team as they drive out the gate at 7am. We sit and wait across the street. We wait some more. One of the guys on the team calls us and tells us they’re almost ready. We wait. We finally call them. He says it’s just a couple of minutes more…that they’re still loading some equipment.
A Public Information Officer for FEMA comes across the street and asks if there’s anything he can do for us. He gives us his card and walks back across the street. Finally at 8 a.m., one hour past the agreed-upon time to meet, they go past us on the highway. Two F-350 Ford pickups loaded with gear, two Metro K-9 Ford Expeditions, and a whole string of National Guard troop trucks with about a dozen soldiers in each one. We fall in line, and begin the convoy south past New Orleans to the swamp country towards the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s already getting hot, and it’s always muggy here. Before long I drift in and out of sleep. Mornings are not my finest hour. Adam is riding in front with the camera in case we come across something that deserves to be shot, and before long the opportunity arises.
Some 25 miles South of N.O., we begin to see utter devastation. No words can convey. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. Our vocabulary does not allow for words that perfectly describe hellish situations. We usually revert to analogies and comparisons. “It’s like Hiroshima after the bomb hit.” Or: “It looks like God was trying to wipe the slate clean.” Yes. All that and more. Most of the residents here live in mobile homes. We see the concrete blocks where the homes rested, but no homes.
After going through several checkpoints, we are stopped at a little (very little, now gone) town of Port Sulfur. There’s a sulfur fire at an old refinery plant there, and the fumes are prompting evacuations. Our entire convoy is turned around, and directed to a position back down the road we just came. We were only half-way to our destination of Venice, LA.
We backtrack about 10 miles, the entire National Guard armory behind us. The soldiers are from Allentown, PA, and are along to provide manpower for today’s rescue operation.
We wait. TheTF-1 guys talk over their options. We wait some more. Finally one of their group goes to help out with the sulfur fire, but the rest of us are struck. We finally realize it’s not going to happen for today’s rescue mission, and we begin our ride back.
Along the way, we stop to tape a stand-up, and get some pictures with our personal cameras of the devastation. We see an entire wood frame home shifted from it’s foundation about 20 feet and hanging precipitously over the edge of a big ditch still filled with flood water. Down the road apiece, we see huge river barges coaxed way up on top of a levy by the storm surges. Barges are like icebergs, you usually only see the very tops of them when they’re in use. Sitting like huge dead bricks on the berm like that is unthinkable.
A woman drives by in a mini-van. She stops to talk to us, and it turns out she was a former resident of this mobile home park. She says her place is now wrapped around a tree, and she didn’t have insurance. She doesn’t seem terribly upset, but clearly her life has been unalterably changed. There are bits and pieces of people’s lives strewn all across an open field that used to be a neighborhood. Unbelievable!
We take more pictures and then head home. Along the way, we stop for gas at a convenience store. Regular gas is $2.79/gal!!! I’m dying for a fountain soda, but that’s the only part of the store that seems to be inoperable.
I sleep in the back seat of the news vehicle on the way home. It’s hot and I’m grateful for the air conditioning in side the SUV. When we arrive back at casa KLAS, I go into the same routine that’s always expected: log tapes, write stories, voice stories, edit stories, and send scripts back to producers back at the station via e-mail. The endless phone calls back and forth between us and KLAS in Las Vegas begin.
Denise Brodsky, former school district trustee drops by unexpectedly and we chat whether her house will survive the storm (it will), and how she’s expecting a large sum from Harrah’s to help out with her Untied Way needs in nearby St. Charles Parish. She’s full of energy, and it’s good to see her.
A few minutes later, another visitor drops by. He’s a minister who runs a nationwide network for Christians in the media. He’s been making the rounds of the various media camps to offer assistance and counseling. It’s good to see him. We talk about the toll reporting such stories can take on a human being. We share a short prayer, and then he leaves on another call down the block.
I do live reports at 4, 5, and 6. Then we do a new story for the 11 o’clock news and send it via satellite. I’m essentially done for the day, but our other crew, Brian Allen and Mark Mutchler haven’t even returned from their Biloxi trip yet.
I make a few personal phone calls to catch up on things at home, and talk to some friends. I also heat-up a boxed meal and eat. I must be burning more calories than I’m taking in during this trip. These are long days, but it feels good to work this hard and get so much done. Tomorrow, we’ll try to catch up to the Task Force again for the mission we couldn’t complete today.
This is not like rebuilding homes, but somehow I feel like I’m doing my part to help out all the poor souls who’ve lost their home, and everything else in this tragedy.
Sept. 12, 2005
Day Three -- Evacuation Staging Area, New Orleans
Only three days! No sleeping late Monday. It’s a regular news day, and lots will be expected of us before the sun sets. After waking, washing down with wet wipes, and eating an orange, Videographer Adam White and I decide to try to follow up with some of the Nevada National Guardsmen we met from the night before. They told us they were at their post not far away, and we figured with a little driving around we'd find them.
John Turner, our coordinator on this field trip is busy making phone calls early-on in the day, and bids us goodbye as we climb in the Eyewitness News 8 news vehicle, and head off into downtown New Orleans streets.
Within 5 minutes, we drive right into what we're looking for. Just across from the N.O. Convention Center – where so many suffered for days after the storm – the Nevada National Guardsmen flag us down as we drive by. It’s their last day manning the intake facility for storm survivors. They readily accept our suggestion that we stick with them for a couple of hours, to see how they do their job.
Although this evacuee staging area has handled ten's of thousands, the survivor influx is down to a trickle of a few a day. Nonetheless, says Capt. Troy Armstrong – who gives us a foot tour – each person is important. Armstrong is a supervisor for Child Protective Services in Las Vegas as a civilian. He says his Military Police training is perfect for dealing with the survivors because of their experience in interpersonal relationships.
Captain Armstrong gives us a complete narrative of what it was like the first couple of days, when the angry crowd at the Convention Center practically swamped them upon their arrival. He tells us how each person is patted down for weapons, given food, water, and medical care before being sent over to a bus or helicopter for transport to the local international airport and the next stage of their life.
It’s hot and humid, and the Guardsmen give us cold water. It’s their last day on this job, and they're excited about going home. One of the Guardsmen is a Metro police officer as a civilian, and he tells us in a couple of weeks, they have National Guard training in Italy…not so bad! Another of the Nevada National Guardsman is a Nevada Highway Patrolman. I ask him what the MRE’s are like (Meals Ready to Eat). He can't believe I've never eaten one, and gives me a whole box of them from a huge cache of hundreds of boxes. It’s the food they've been handing out to the evacuees.
We tape some survivors coming into the camp… they're treated gingerly… but made to submit to a patting down, and a search of their bags. They're given food and water, and medical care if needed. It’s a smooth operation, and some Puerto Rican Guardsmen are training with them to take over when the Nevada guys leave.
We also talk to some people who are providing counseling for the survivors as they come into camp. We talk, and agree to meet with them on Wednesday to do a story about how they do their job.
I tape what we call a “stand-up” in our business. I walk and talk to the camera to insert some information into a later story for the 11 o'clock news. Finally, we've done all we can. We shake hands, wish the Guardsmen well, and head back to casa KLAS, the home of Eyewitness News. Along the way, Adam and I stop to get pictures of a N.O. Police car that has been stripped down to the rims, and all the dashboard electronics are gone, windows smashed, a total loss.
As soon as we hit camp I get to work for the next two hours logging the comments on the tape, by typing them into a laptop for our use. I also log all the shots Adam has made, so the tape editing process later will be smooth.
Once the tapes are logged, I begin writing the stories for the 4, 4:30, 5, 6, and 11 o'clock newscasts. That’s the easy part. Logging is the time-consuming and hateful part of the job.
While I'm composing the stories, I grab one of the MRE’s, and heat up the main entree: Chicken Cacciatore. It’s pretty good. The package also contains strawberry jam, crackers, a strawberry powdered milkshake, matches, plastic spoon, moist towelettes, chicklets gum, powdered cider mix, tea bags, oatmeal cookies. Yes, I think that’s all. Amazing really. I wash it down with a Diet Coke.
Typically everyone pigs out on these field trips, eating anything and every junky think they can get their hands on but I decided before I left to commit to eating healthy. So far, I'm keeping my promise, but it’s not easy. Especially later, when we discover that we can eat along with all the police and military at a sumptuous food line provided by the cooks on the IWO JIMA. T-bone steak, potatoes, beans, etc. A hearty meal, but I'm down to almost no red meat, and I decide to have some beef jerky and a granola bar instead.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. While Adam is editing our story, I'm trying to find a way to send a copy of the script to our producers at the station. But our Internet access is down, and I have to find a complicated work-around through my cell-phone. Unbelievably, it works, and the people back at the station are mostly happy. Calling back and forth to the newsroom is always a challenge. We must've made 30-40 calls to them during the day. No detail is left to chance. It’s all error control, and making sure we understand each other’s needs and wants for the news that night.
We're done waaaaay ahead of time, and take a collective sigh of relief, ‘cause it’s two hours or more before we have to hit our first live transmission for the news at 4pm, which is 6pm here. We make more calls to newscast producers to make sure we understand all the cues and times, and titles for all the people to identify in the newscast. They have to know what words I'm going to use to cue them into the videotape that they have to roll from their end. I'm not going to say much more about that. It’s a complicated process, and it involves endless communication between everybody even then sometimes things go wrong.
Like the 5 o'clock live…it went wrong. The 4 o'clock live report, the 4:30, went without a hitch. Right after the 4:30, though, the generator in the Satellite truck went kaput. By the time we figured out what the problem was, our Satellite window to do the 5 o'clock live report had passed. In a sense, we still had a presence on the news, ‘cause our taped report had already been sent to the home office on an earlier feed. Gary Waddell introduced the story without my live presence, and away you go. Some among us got mad about that. It’s frustrating sometimes.
The 6 o'clock news live report went without a hitch, though, and after that, I got busy writing and voicing the 11 o'clock taped report. It doesn't require a live presence, ‘cause the news managers at KLAS want us to “pace ourselves” and not burn out.
I make some calls to set up the next day’s story. It requires we get up at 6 a.m. to follow the So. NV Search and Rescue team. So much for “pacing ourselves”.
I don't care. Sure, it’s a lot of work, and sweaty work here in Southern Louisiana, but any journalist worth his salt wants to be here, and I AM HERE. I don't intend to waste the experience. Might as well throw myself into it.
Brian Allen and Mark Mutchler show up at our live site. They've been filing stories from Biloxi, but the live truck they've been using got pulled by CBS. Now they've got to work out of our camp, but there’s not enough beds for everyone, and they're not happy about covering Biloxi from New Orleans. It means a lot of driving, and and uncomfortable night’s sleep.
They've got to write four stories and edit four stories beginning at 9 p.m. for tomorrow morning’s newscasts, and we're all getting tired. Satellite truck Engineer Bob Hauck rocks silently in his seat waiting for us to get it all done. He can't go to bed until we're all done editing our stories, and sending them back to Las Vegas. He’s an affable patient man, but it means a long day for everybody in some way.
John Turner is a part-time Boulder City policeman besides being our operations manager. He’s been over talking to the mish-mash of police from all over the country. While he’s there, Steven Seagall – movie star – shows up all decked out in Kevlar and with automatic weapons and pistols. He announces his intention to go out on patrol with the night-shift cops, and they all swoon, star-struck. Can you believe this? The line between art and reality gets really blurred here sometimes.
I know I'm leaving out some interesting tidbit from the day – like how some of the out-of-state cops claim men in N.O. Police uniforms are looting. No one knows if they are real N.O. cops, or just posers.
We also wondered today why such a high presence of military. They say they're sticking around until the utilities are turned on. Apparently, city fathers are afraid there will be gas explosions when the electricity is restored. There’s also broad reports of them being shot at.
We'll end day three here. It’s been mostly fulfilling, and I've learned gobs about the human condition under stress. I've also learned a lot about my news colleagues, and I'm proud to be on this team. We've all worked hard today.
September 11, 2005
Day Two - Canal Street, New Orleans
Videographer Adam White left casa KLAS with Satellite truck engineer Rich Czarny before anybody else could wake up. By 6 a.m. they were on their way back to the International Airport in Jackson Mississippi.
It’s about a three-hour drive through the rolling hills and thick pine forests of Southern Mississippi. Rich had an 8-hour wait before his scheduled flight, but knowing Rich, he'd finagle a flight well before that. Adam brought back Bob Hauck, our replacement Satellite Truck engineer. He told us with excitement that he had stopped to do some laundry. Ah, the joys of clean clothes!
Operations Manager John Turner got up later in the morning and made some coffee, and began cleaning up some of the garbage that had begun piling up in the Satellite truck, and generally acting like the neat-freak that he is.
I admit it, I slept late, but justified it with the excuse that I hadn't slept in the previous 24 hours, and besides I couldn't shoot anything with my videographer gone. By the time I woke up, John was beginning to wonder if I was still alive. I got dressed, and John and I walked over to a place along the river called “RIVERWALK”. It’s a plaza usually packed with tourists, but today, there are only occasional soldiers and police patrols.
Reaching the river, we immediately noticed the armed boat patrols going up and down, across the river, prompted, no doubt, by the presence of the immense IWO JIMA amphibious assault ship docked along the wharf. We took some pictures, but couldn't get too close. We watched as a helicopter landed on its deck.
We turned, and walked North on Canal street for about a mile far enough to reach a location where we began to notice water marks on the buildings. We saw abandoned cars with water sludge probably 3-4 feet up the side. We saw parked cars that had piles of bricks fallen on them from the storm damage. We saw storefronts with windows broken- in and goods stolen.
Everywhere there were parked tanker-trailers with tanks full of fuel. We also noticed many portable air conditioning units sitting outside big skyscrapers, air tubes projecting out at all angles, pumping cold air into offices that we could only imagine were being repaired after the storm blew in windows. Generators of all shapes and brands are running everywhere, but we could tell that electricity was on in some buildings. We also noticed water leaking out of a fire hydrant, so they must be testing whether city water is working. I picked up the receiver of a pay phone on Canal Street, and got a dial tone, so obviously some services are back up and running.
We walked as far North as we could until we ran into water standing in the streets. It’s ugly water, black and smelly.
There are foreign TV crews here everywhere. Yesterday a crew from Korea asked if they could interview me. I had only just arrived, but they insisted. They asked me – through an interpreter – many questions about racial problems in America, and very few about the situation in New Orleans. After a couple of questions, they seemed satisfied, and thanked me profusely while bowing.
Early afternoon Adam arrived with our new engineer, Bob. We did some more house-cleaning, and I began blogging while Adam took some much-needed sleep. We tried to make contact with people and places in LV who might have a presence here, but struck out on most of our attempts. The Eyewitness News 8 theme here to is to chronicle the experiences of Nevada people helping out, not to cover the greater national story of the water pumps, the politics, and the survivor evictions. We finally made contact with the So. Nevada Search and Rescue Team – Task Force 1 – camped outside the city about following them the next day.
In the afternoon, some Army National Guard soldiers from the 72nd Military Police Company based in Henderson came by, introduced themselves, took some pictures with me, and agreed to come back in the evening so I could interview them for the live report on our 6:30 news that evening. One of them told me he had grown-up watching me on the news, and remembered the day PepCon exploded. He was in 5th grade then, he said. Now he’s a soldier in the Nat’l Guard.
John and I took another walking excursion after that to the N.O. Convention Center where thousands of city residents took refuge when the storm hit. Much of the garbage in they left in the street had been cleaned up, but we could see through the windows the desperate makeshift sleeping quarters they had made while waiting, waiting, waiting. On practically every street corner there are armed military guards. They don't mess with the media as long as you're wearing an ID.
On the way back, we noticed the Navy had a huge tented food line set up for any military person who wanted a hot meal. Hamburgers. By that time, we had discovered that the President was either on his way, or had already arrived for his overnight stay on the IWO JIMA. We could see it’s radar array constantly turning 360 just two blocks away from the convention center.
John and Adam took a ride in one of our news vehicles over to the Astrodome. It has been largely left alone since the exodus of evacuees. They noticed that the place had been left as if someone was in a great hurry…car doors left open, food left out, like people were plucked off the side-walk in mid-stride. They also drove through the French Quarter, and found it ghostly quiet. However, they saw many people peeking out of windows in 2nd and 3rd-floor windows…likely they were residents who never left.
We prepared to do our live report for the 6:30 news. Adam sets up the lights and the camera, I prepare my interview with the National Guard soldiers from Henderson who came back, and John makes calls to the producer to clear all the technical details of the shot. The live segment goes well, except for the fact that a snafu has my own sound coming back to me in my ear about 4 seconds after I say it. I have to yank out my ear piece to talk, put it back in to hear questions, then take it out again to make my answers. All in all, it goes well, though. I stay in front of the camera to tape a report for the late news, and we all break down the equipment to end the shoot.
The four of us gather to eat some supper. We have pre-pared meals like meals ready-to-eat from the military. You pour some water on a chemical pack in the bottom of the box. You place the plastic-sealed food on top of it as it heats up, and 10 minutes later, you have a hot meal. It’s not too bad, actually, and besides after a hard day, everything tastes good.
We make calls to our families back at home, and some calls to people trying to set up our coverage for the next day, and with little fanfare, we all go to bed in the RV. End of day two. Tomorrow, the President should tour N.O. right past casa KLAS.
September 10, 2005
Day One -- Travel Day
Reporter Brian Allen and I meet at McCarran about 10 p.m. on Friday night Sept. 9, 2005. Our flight leaves at 12:40 a.m. Saturday morning. Both of us have been up all day. Our “Red-Eye” flight leaves on time, and we get to Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport around 2:45 a.m.
We grab fruit smoothies at the only shop that’s open in the airport, and sit down for a two-hour wait. Our next flight leaves from a smaller hangar. It’s an “American Eagle” flight to Jackson, Mississippi that leaves at sunrise. The plane is smaller – two seats on one side of the aisle, one seat on the other side. We get to Jackson around 8:45. Both of us have had fitful cat-naps on our flights.
At the Jackson International Airport (yes, International), we wait some more. Eyewitness News 8 reporter Atle Erlingsson and his videographer Ryan Oliviera are driving up from Biloxi to exchange places with us.
We wait three hours with our baggage, and finally they arrive. The Eyewitness News 8 news vehicle is COVERED in bugs so bad you can barely see through the windshield. They're tired, and after sharing some important information we'll need to do our jobs, we wave goodbye. They've seen the worst of the initial damage, and done incredible work with very little sleep; now they're off to Las Vegas, and we take over the bug-infested vehicle.
We stop for gas and to wipe off the bugs. We're heading straight South from Jackson on I-55. Within 10 miles, the bugs are back -- just as bad as before. Everybody’s car is covered in them. I think it’s what Southerners called the Love Bug mating season. We already know we're in a different land.
About two hours South of Jackson, we begin seeing broken trees, and damaged road signs. It’s the first indication of Katrina’s fury. The further South we get, the worse the damage. Our next clue that we're drawing closer to New Orleans (N.O.) is that we see more military and police vehicles, and occasional roadblocks. Media vehicles are allowed in, and we press on into N.O…the traffic is minimal. Military and service vehicles, and media.
We call our N.O. videographer – Adam White – to bring us in. He gives us directions to a Winn-Dixie grocery store on a major road that runs into the heart of N.O. The store is right across from the New Orleans Saints NFL team training facility. That’s where FEMA has set up shop. A man sees our Channel-8 logo’d truck and stops to tell us about a story we should cover. He says Forest Service Smoke Jumpers from Oklahoma were the absolute first rescuers to arrive – by parachute to help. He says they're mostly Native American descent, and are the true unsung heroes of this rescue effort. He tells is where they're camped, and insists we should to that story. We thank him for his tip, and we wait. Before long, Adam comes to lead us into downtown N.O. where our Satellite truck is waiting.
Adam leads us into a war zone. Anything tall and not very well built is now on the ground. We see self-storage buildings stripped of their walls and roofs, only the cells rooms sitting with people’s stuff in them, laid bare. Many of the main thoroughfares are underwater, so Adam has to lead us on a circuitous route over Huey P. Long Bridge across the Mississippi River. We see Utility repair trucks everywhere, and they're from everywhere: New Jersey, Oregon, Minnesota, etc. Plenty of out-of-state Police cars, too. We are surprised to see some convenience stores open in the N.O. metro area. They're selling gas for less than $3/gallon, and there are no lines. We see endless helicopters, dump-trucks, and blocked roads.
Finally we cross the Mississippi again, back into the heart of downtown N.O., and it brings us immediately right past the Convention Center where so many waited so long in those first few tense days just after the storm hit. Much of the debris has been removed from the street in front of the Convention Center, though, and we find out later that much of the day’s activity by military organizations has been spent in trash pick-up.
Adam leads us to our Satellite truck sitting on a brick plaza that is the entryway into the Harrah’s casino. It’s evening, and there’s a light breeze, and really no objectionable smell. It’s cool…the coolest it’s been all week says Rich Czarny, the huge and capable Satellite Truck Engineer who’s seen the worst of the first few days along with Gary Waddell and Adam. They've been sleeping wherever they could find a spot for a blanket. No showers, water, gas, and food as they could forage it.
We're a little luckier. We're waiting for Operations Manager John Turner and another videographer, Mark Mutchler to drive in from Las Vegas with an RV. Brian Allen drives off to meet them as they hit town. Then Brian and Mark leave to drive to Biloxi, for the other half of our storm coverage. Adam leads John to our Satellite truck with the RV, and Czarny smiles big. He’s a little jealous, but doesn't show it. Mostly ‘cause he'll be leaving the next day to make way for another engineer coming in to take his place. He’s clearly tired, even though he loves his work and the challenge of being here.
We're relieved of putting anything on the air the night we arrive…so we make busy getting our “home” set up. Turner is a master of things technical, and has just attended a seminar of what it takes to keep a news crew happy and healthy while on remote assignments. He spent an hour buying up the Bass Pro Shops store before he left Las Vegas with the RV. He’s remembered to bring everything from camping pillows to plastic forks, to antibiotic hand wipes. We're set: the RV has shower, bathroom, microwave, and sleeps 4 or 5 easily.
I take a walk up and down Canal Street. It’s filled end-to-end with Media Satellite Trucks and RV’s. CNN, CBS New York, FOX: NPR, they're all here, and they scurry around with almost the same fervor as the military. There is virtually no one else here. Military and Media in one of the most desirable tourist destinations in the country, and none of us can really enjoy it.
Our position at the corner of Canal Street and St. Peter’s puts us smack-dab in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in the town. We see endless convoys of military in camo-fatigues. We also see almost every sort of police and para-police agencies you could imagine: INS, Customs agents, Border Patrol, National Guard, NYPD, Harbor Police, Coast Guard, Park Rangers, and emergency vehicles from virtually every state.
Flat-bottom boats are being pulled by trucks up and down the streets. The streets are lined with semi-tanker-trucks holding fuel. We see a whole string of swamp boats passing us by... the kind with those huge propellers facing toward the back of the boat. The military and National Guard are in camouflaged vehicles, both green and desert camouflage…and they're in armored amphibious vehicles, troop carriers, Hummers, and a seemingly endless array of other military conveyances. We wonder at the show of force, but are told there are still neighborhoods where people are still sniping at authorities from the windows.
Everywhere men in Kevlar vests, carrying automatic rifles, with pistols at their hip walk by. They wear black t-shirts with an identifier on the back:“Security” “Police ICE” or SWAT. Harrah’s is now the command post for police and military, so they all file past our Satellite truck at some time or another. That, and the fact that a long string of Port-a-potties across from the command post drive a constant stream of people past our casa KLAS, which is the Eyewitness News 8 home away from home.
We're all tired. We fall into our sleeping berths and none-too-soon. Adam and Rich have to get up at 6 a.m. and drive back to Jackson, Mississippi so Rich can fly home, and the next engineer, Bob Hauck, can come and take his place. As I fall asleep, I say a prayer of thanks for the men who invented portable generators and air conditioning.