Lessons learned in Katrina wake

Nets forced to re-examine their natural-disaster plans

Two years after Hurricane Katrina forever changed the Gulf Coast, its echoes still reverberate throughout TV journalism.

When Hurricane Dean formed this month as the first major hurricane in the Atlantic basin since the 2005 season ended, the networks leapt into action using plans that have been honed and honed again since Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, leaving nearly 2,000 people dead and ß1 million or more displaced.

"Katrina was a particularly poignant and compelling appraisal of what we do," said Paul Slavin, senior vp news coverage at ABC News.

Soon after the disaster, the networks broke down their responses to it — what went right and what went wrong — and found that the plans they had made in advance for a natural disaster didn't scale when faced with a story of Katrina proportions.

"There were a lot of operational and technical and editorially honing that I think Katrina just made us attack with more vigor," Slavin said.

NBC and CNN, in particular, have shown their commitment to the region with the establishment of full-time bureaus in New Orleans. NBC's Brian Williams, who this week made his 14th visit to the region for "NBC Nightly News," said it's a significant resource commitment that hasn't been easy but has been worthwhile.

While the networks spend millions to keep their crews safe in Baghdad, it took the violence and rioting after Katrina to bring such lessons home when gun-toting security personnel accompanied journalists into the deteriorating conditions in and around New Orleans. Packing enough food and water — which usually are concerns just for foreign correspondents — became a major priority as the networks hired convoys to supply their crews. That has all become part of coverage plans now, Slavin said.

Each ABC News bureau, for instance, has a designated producer whose job it is to respond to a breaking-news story. And a so-called "go pack" is on hand and checked regularly to make sure it's up to date. The network also drills constantly by simulating a disaster, firing up a control room and putting an anchor in a chair to make sure they are ready. Soon ABC News will go the extra step of a divisionwide drill that will include a simulated disaster and a chartered plane taking staffers to the scene and broadcasting live — all a legacy of Katrina.

CNN vp editorial coverage Nancy Lane said Katrina caused the network to look closely at its preparations for hurricanes. CNN staffers surveyed the entire Gulf and southeast coastlines for a better picture of the infrastructure and places that can be used for reporting that will pay off in prep time saved in case of an emergency.

"We do that for conventions, for debates," Lane said. "Why don't we do that for major events before they happen? We have an entire database."

CNN also has been working with a private company on a live streaming camera that can be placed on a beach and can withstand storm surges and often provide live coverage without an operator being around.

"In the storm surge, it's always too dangerous, and we don't want to put anybody in harm's way," Lane said. "These live cameras can probably survive the storm and stay operational through it." The cameras, which are battery-powered and waterproof, can provide video live and recorded. CNN has a handful of them for use this hurricane season.

Katrina's aftermath has changed coverage decisions as well. Williams brushes aside criticism that NBC has devoted too much time to reporting the story. To Williams, Katrina is too important a story to ignore. He doesn't apologize one bit for his many trips to the region.

"I'd always rather have people enjoy everything we do, but our job isn't like that," Williams said. "We've got people who write us and tell us that we do too much on Iraq. That's always going to be with us in the news business."

Williams is stunned by the fact that 1.2 million homeowner claims have been filed and 99% remain to be settled. He said that 1 million people were displaced by the storm, which not only affected New Orleans but also other cities that absorbed them. And it's always going to be a case study in what happens when a government doesn't respond well.

"If we bear guilt for not doing enough in the run-up to the war, I would argue that Katrina was the journalistic counterweight," he said. "We have done our jobs, and whether or not people like to see it, we have done our level best in trying to hold public officials accountable."