Journalists taking Katrina's lessons

Past missteps inform Gustav coverage

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans three years ago Sunday, it wasn't just local and federal officials who learned they needed to do things differently.

Faced with one of the biggest stories of a generation in the aftermath of the hurricane and the levee break in New Orleans that killed at least 1,600 people, the news media discovered a number of things that they're now employing in the coverage of Hurricane Gustav.

Before Katrina, hurricanes -- even the big ones -- were considered stories that lasted only a day or two. There were the preparations and the hurricane hitting land, and then a brief period of coverage of the aftermath. But Katrina hit with such force and devastation that the TV networks weren't as prepared as they could have been for the enormity of the story, the requirements for keeping crews safe, fed and housed, and bringing video from the disaster region.

"What we learned the last time (during Katrina), that's all front and center now," said NBC News President Steve Capus.

Late last week, the networks begin quietly pre-positioning satellite trucks, producers and technical staff as well as staples like fuel and food. Hundreds of journalists and support staff arrived beginning Friday and in waves through Sunday. Top talent -- including Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, Brian Williams, Shepard Smith and Anderson Cooper -- arrived over the weekend as well instead of covering the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

During Katrina, the networks found through bitter experience that they weren't prepared. There wasn't enough food and clean water for the journalists covering the aftermath; some got dysentery.

Housing was also a problem, with some sleeping in their cars or under highway overpasses. And in New Orleans especially, news crews were faced with danger and, in some cases, gunfire.

"We've definitely learned lessons," said Fox News Channel vp news editorial product Jay Wallace, who was in New Orleans during Katrina with Smith. "No one thought we'd be on the ground that long, so it took a few days to coordinate sending down trailers for the staff to sleep in."

This time around, Wallace said, Fox News Channel is driving in RVs from Texas just in case they're needed.

ABC News senior vp Kate O'Brian said Sunday afternoon that the network prepositioned food and crews.

"We put holds on RVs and on boats and helicopters, and security people if necessary, nurses and hazmat people, all sorts of things that we did not think about the last time because we didn't know," O'Brian said. "I pray to God we don't need those, but if we do, we're ready."

The aftermath of Katrina was the first time that armed security guards were needed during news coverage in recent memory.

Network execs say they're not afraid to deploy them, and in some cases are, but declined to discuss plans in detail.

But one aspect of safety -- being safe when the storm hits -- is getting a lot of attention. O'Brian said that in New Orleans, ABC News picked a hotel to hole up in that was high above flood stage with boarded-up windows and interior rooms not facing the outside.

"We've been looking hard about where we want to put people," O'Brian said. "It's a really interesting line that you have to walk, to have people be able to show as much as possible what the storm is like without putting themselves in danger."

Capus said that NBC's contingent -- including Williams, Lester Holt, Al Roker and Ann Curry -- were all veterans of Katrina.

"These folks know what they're doing in addition to our incredibly talented technical staff," Capus said. "They will be in a position to ensure their own safety."

That message is getting through loud and clear to Fox News Channel staff as well.

"It's safety first. Yes, it's an amazing story, but we have to take care of all of the people who work with us and for us," Wallace said. "If the [hurricane] models are showing something catastrophic and you feel you're in harms way, we tell our staff that they need to get to higher ground and be in a safe place."