10 Year Anniversary of WWL’s and WLOX’s Katrina Coverage
Matt Shedd - 8/27/2014
Sometimes local news teams don’t get enough credit.
When we see footage of Hurricane Katrina 10 years later, it’s easy to forget that a lot of the people who recorded that footage were enduring perhaps some of the worst days of their lives.
They broadcast the stories and images of their homes and neighborhoods being torn apart.
To add to that, in many instances the stations lost electrical power, telephone lines, and transmitters - the very tools of their trade.
These journalists showed up to work anyway. We have much of the documentation of Katrina that we do because local news teams simply did their jobs.
On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we want to remember the courageous local news teams of WLOX in Biloxi and WWL in New Orleans, both of whom earned 2005 Peabody Awards for providing live coverage of the hurricane. Their work endures today as vivid documentation of the costliest and one of the most deadly hurricanes in the history of the United States.
“So much was lost,” WLOX’s Vice President and General Manager said at the Peabody Awards ceremony held on June 5, 2006. “Every person in our community was hurt, impacted and struggled with this storm - in a different way maybe, but all of us struggled.”
As this tremendous loss mounted, Station Manager and News Director Dave Vincent said, the nature of their news coverage changed. “I think our role before the storm was really to try to inform the public about the dangers of staying and to try to urge people to evacuate,” Vincent recalls. “During the storm, we were really just holding people’s hands, trying to say, ‘Stay in there. We’re with you. We’re going to make it.’”
Long points out that because of loss of electrical power and telephone lines, WLOX was cut off from the rest of the world and “didn’t know until quite sometime later what the national story was.”
“We were very, very isolated,” Vincent agreed, adding that the damage and lack of resources forced their news team to act quickly and improvise. “All we could do was go out and shoot… bring people in to talk about it, and roll video and have the anchors talk about it. We worked under very adverse conditions for a number of days.”
WWL in New Orleans was also broadcasting during the hurricane, thanks to a contingency plan they had in place for such an event. “We knew it was possible, and in fact lots of people knew it was possible,” Sandra Breland, News Director for WWL said. “We had plans in place earlier - not only for the transmitter site, but for alternate broadcast locations, because we knew that if New Orleans ever did get hit with the big one that we would be a lifeline of information for people.”
This back-up plan allowed the station to stay on the air when other stations lost all ability to broadcast. One of WWL’s photographers, Willie Wilson, said that since communication had been so crippled in the area, speaking directly to the family members of survivors became the news team’s “main concern.”
Breland also remembers that the news team did not want to go off duty even when they had the opportunity. “People kept working and working and working, and even when we got to the point where we would try to give people [time] off, they wouldn’t necessarily take it, and I think it’s because when we were working we were on a mission. We were so focused we knew exactly what to do, but our personal lives were so shattered that when we weren’t working we didn’t know where to start. So work became a focal point.”
These two stations stayed fiercely committed to remaining on the air in the worst of conditions and demonstrated the vital role that local news can play not just in serving their communities, but also calling to the outside world for help. Risking their safety and working while their own lives were devastated, the news teams at WWL and WLOX are both remarkable examples of journalism in its purest and most altruistic form.