Katrina lessons shape Gustav strategy

News media prepared as Gulf Coast weathers storm

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It's the second hurricane in four years that NBC's Brian Williams rode out in New Orleans.

In 2005, Williams anchored "NBC Nightly News" from New Orleans and shined a light on the devastation and tragedy left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 2,000 people were dead, and there was gunfire off in the distance. On Monday night, the "NBC Nightly News" set was about 200 yards from that very spot, and New Orleans had survived another hurricane, this one Gustav.

But this wasn't the same, mostly because the severity, timing and location of Katrina was far more devastating. Another factor was that the residents of New Orleans -- and the national media -- learned some valuable lessons.

"It's sad. It's desolate," Williams said by telephone Monday from New Orleans. "But the good news behind it is that the evacuation worked."

Williams said it was a little dicey during the storm Monday morning but that he never really felt in danger, unlike in 2005, when he watched the roof peel off the Superdome. "There was no similar moment here," he said.

Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith, who drew praise for his coverage of Katrina in 2005, agreed that it was a different New Orleans and Gulf Coast that dealt with Hurricane Gustav. He said that wind-wise, Gustav was comparable to Katrina. He was closely monitoring the Industrial Canal and said that there were some close calls.

"The crew had everything packed and ready to go because we didn't know how many minutes we had to escape the city" if the levees broke," Smith said. He said the storm made landfall in a relatively unpopulated region and that it weakened as it went inland.

"Just all around, you either get lucky or unlucky," he said. "I think unless your house was damaged, New Orleans was lucky (Monday)."

Smith praised the response to Gustav, saying that the National Guard and state authorities were ready and that the vast majority of residents left.

"The response to this storm is the polar opposite of the response to (Katrina)," Smith said. "They were ready, and people got out and it was impressive."

Williams and Smith were among the many networks stars who left the Republican National Convention coverage in St. Paul to travel to the hurricane zone. He said that because of the storm and the convention, it would likely be a "split-screen week." But he looked forward to returning to St. Paul and the convention.

Katrina has left quite a mark in the news business. It 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 region to New York.

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

Late last week, the networks quietly began prepositioning satellite trucks, producers and technical staff as well as gathering such staples as fuel and food. Hundreds of journalists and support staff arrived beginning Friday and in waves through Sunday. Top talent -- including Williams, Smith, Katie Couric, Charles Gibson and Anderson Cooper -- arrived over the weekend as well instead of covering the convention.

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 also was 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 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," she 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 in recent memory that armed security guards were needed during news coverage. 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.