As our state, region and nation marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Gulf Coast, many are reliving their harrowing experiences in the days following the levee breaches. For me, 2005 seems like a lifetime ago personally and professionally. Here was a piece of my experience as a young news radio guy during those days.
How Katrina defined the part of my career that nobody remembers
By: Matt Moscona
Every artist deals with the reality that the people who consume their work might interpret a different meaning than was originally intended.
One of my favorite songs by my favorite band is “Alive” by Pearl Jam. It’s lyrics are based on front man Eddie Vedder’s real life experience of learning the man he thought was his biological father was really his stepfather. Also, his real dad was a man he thought to be a family friend who had died before Vedder learned the truth. It is a sad and painful tale of family dysfunction.
Over the years, however, Pearl Jam fans and legions of adoring concertgoers have turned the refrain into a rocking anthem of survival and hope, chanting the words:
Oh I, oh, I’m still alive
Hey, I, I, oh, I’m still alive
Hey I, oh, I’m still alive
Vedder has admitted many times in concert and interviews through the years that his fans have changed to meaning of the song.
Media members face a similar path. Viewers, listeners or readers will largely define a career or personality by their impressions. Granted, I am a small town radio guy, but on a much simpler level, I can understand an audience defining what I do more so than I can. I am known as a sports guy, which is perfectly fine with me. I enjoy what I do and count my blessings daily that I am able to make a living doing something I hardly consider work. Some listeners will approach me and say things like, “I’ve listened to you from the beginning, back in your 1210am days with Condon.”
It is flattering to have people think highly enough of your work to follow your career, but my days at The Score 1210AM in Baton Rouge were hardly my radio beginnings and to think as much amputates my proudest career moment—something I would like to share with you now.
For 16 consecutive days in 2005, 1300AM WIBR provided wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Not once did we run a national feed to take a rest. We were grossly understaffed, but it didn’t matter. When the power went out and people were displaced, local radio was all they had—we were the only connection our desperate, grieving, scared neighbors had to the lives they left in a flooded city, unsure of what exactly they would find when—if–they returned.
I was 23 years-old, eight months removed from receiving my journalism degree and two years into my news radio career. At that point in my life, I was no more qualified to serve as a psychologist for many of the callers I spoke with than I would be to fly a spaceship to the moon. But I did it. We all did.
Our days were broken down into five shifts with a host, news anchor and producer. I would fill all three roles at different times in the day:
1p.m. – 7p.m. – Producer
7p.m. – Midnight – News Anchor
Midnight – 5a.m. – Host
In the middle of the night, you would think people would try to close their eyes and rest, but in hindsight, how could they? Our phone lines never took a break, blinking like Christmas lights for 16 straight days. It didn’t matter the time of day, as soon as one caller would hang up another would occupy that space desperate for information.
At 23 years-old, I was in no way qualified to answer the types of questions I fielded, but I did my best. There was the mother who called to say that she escaped New Orleans with her two small children. They were sleeping in their car in the College Drive Wal-Mart parking lot, unable to go any farther because she was out of gas and money. A Good Samaritan called minutes later, offering for the family to stay with him for the night. We were able to make that connection and make life easier for one family, at least for a night.
Because radio was the only source of information many people had, we had hourly communication with all government agencies, the National Guard, State Police, the Red Cross, the National Hurricane Center, FEMA and every other entity that was trying to provide information. With that access, we had a better idea earlier than most which areas of New Orleans were most devastated. Still, I fielded countless calls that went something like this:
Caller: Hi, I live in (fill in the blank) neighborhood. My grandfather wouldn’t evacuate with us. Can you tell us if he’s OK?
Remember, at this point, the Superdome and other shelters of last resort had not been opened and there was an ever-growing list of missing persons. Still, we could rely on information we had received to know early what we all came to know about Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish and other hard hit areas.
How do you answer that question? How do you tell someone everything about the life they knew was gone? How do you tell them their loved one might be one of the thousands that were drowned in attics or floating in the streets of an abandoned city?
Somehow, our team managed. In fact, we thrived under the circumstances. Two days into our coverage, ABC News picked up our feed and aired little, understaffed WIBR’s coverage on its satellite. I began fielding calls from well-wishers all over the world: Australia, China and most of the 50 United States. The BBC asked me to be a correspondent, providing daily updates in the days following the storm. It was a small degree of validation that although we were grossly under qualified to be doing the work we had been tasked with, we were succeeding.
We told people where they could get ice to preserve food and gasoline to run generators. Restaurants that opened to provide meals for the displaced used us as a vehicle to spread the word. We helped connect family members that had been separated at shelters across the country.
Meanwhile, our staff dealt with many of the same emotional pains that everyone else was trying to manage amid the chaos. Richard Condon’s parents were holed up at the Hotel Monteleone where Richard’s father worked as a manager. Without power or a way out and with violence and looting taking over a lawless city after dark, safety was a constant concern.
My grandparents evacuated to Baton Rouge before the storm, but their home fell victim to the breach at the 17th Street Canal. I can still clearly remember watching video of helicopters dropping sandbags into the massive hole a few blocks from their house, a futile attempt to stop the raging waters that were robbing them and so many others of a lifetime of memories they had built. (Note: My grandparents went back to New Orleans. They lived in a FEMA trailer in their front yard for more than a year while they rebuilt the home they worked their entire lives to own. Both now in their eighties, they still live in that home.)
Ed Buggs—my mentor and the most gifted broadcaster I have ever known—won numerous awards for his reporting. He took a cameraman with him as he accompanied an S.W.A.T. team through abandoned buildings, detailing how law enforcement was attempting to keep order in a lawless city.
Just as the story did not end well for so many in the Crescent City, it did not end well for us at WIBR either. Two months after Citadel Broadcasting acknowledged our efforts at their national meeting of affiliates; they flipped the format at WIBR and laid off the entire staff that dedicated everything they could for 16 days in our region’s most desperate time.
I can’t be entirely bitter. The end of that chapter ultimately led me to my current career path as a sports guy. I’ve been fortunate to cover National Championship Games, Final Fours, the College World Series and hundreds of events most crazed fans would ache to be a part of in some small way.
Still, I doubt anything I will ever do in my career will compare to those 16 days in 2005. At least, that’s how I will remember it, even if nobody else does.
Please take a few moments to share below your memories of the days in Katrina’s aftermath.