Friday, August 29, 2008

Remembering Hurricane Katrina Three Years Later And Preparing For The Looming Threat Of Hurricane Gustav

Hi everyone. Have you recovered from the convention yet? Today is the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Anderson Cooper came at us from New Orleans for a special two-hour live 360 broadcast. Unfortunately, the majority of the show was dedicated to covering the surprising (and seemingly very political) choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as McCain's Veep. Yesterday, McCain supposedly held off on making the announcement in order to let Obama have his moment. Why he thinks it is okay to then trot out his pick on a day that should be reserved for remembering a tragedy is beyond me. Of course, not that McCain has ever really showed he cares about the lives ruined by Katrina anyway. After all, three years ago when the storm was pounding the Gulf, he and his BFF George Bush were yukking it up over a birthday cake.

The show tonight was pretty good, considering Anderson Cooper (and most likely others) just came from Denver last night. The Anderson piece on NOLA's readiness for Hurricane Gustav was particularly noteable. Even the political coverage kept me engaged, though that's probably because there was actual news, instead of pundits trying to pretend there's news. But while events of the day pretty much meant 360 had to spend the bulk of their show covering politics, quite frankly, I do not. In honor of this anniversary, I'd like to bring you my memories of watching Hurricane Katrina play out. Because while some have moved on, we should never forget.

I had vaguely been paying attention to Hurricane Katrina as she formed and subsequently hit Florida as a category one storm, but it wasn't until that Saturday that it really dawned on me that New Orleans was in big trouble. The warnings on TV were becoming more dire, but I have to say it was the blogs that really made me start to panic. A poster at Daily Kos was relaying information from a meteorologist at Weather Underground and the things he was saying were terrifying. From that point on, the people on progressive blogs began to organize and offer up their homes to residents fleeing the soon-to-be-hit area. Those that said they wanted to stick it out were begged not to. Lives were no doubt saved. I went to some other less political and newsy forums that I frequented and made sure people there knew how bad it was. Mind you, this was Saturday. How the hell a person from the middle of the country knew of the severity of the disaster two days prior to it hitting, and our president didn't is beyond me.

That Sunday morning I prayed for NOLA in church and that evening I watched "The Day After Tomorrow." The movie choice seemed so inappropriate it suddenly became perfect. The last post on Daily Kos that I read before landfall went something like this: "If this storm hits the way it's predicted and you're still in NOLA, you will die. Get the fuck out now." At the time I thought it was a bit dramatic. I went to bed that night with fingers crossed that the Superdome would hold. The next day I woke to the news that the Superdome roof was coming off. Brian Williams reported from inside.

To be honest, most of the actual landfall coverage is a blur to me. I remember a reporter hiding behind a mailbox during the height of the storm and I remember yelling at him. I also remember Anderson's reporting during landfall, but not that well. I actually don't remember 360 from that Monday, but I'm sure I watched it. What I do remember from Monday night is NewsNight with Aaron Brown and the reporting of Jeanne Meserve. Her description of people crying for help and dogs being electrocuted by live wires . . . I'll never forget that. After the show I wanted to tell people how bad it was, but found I couldn't even talk about it. Throughout Monday afternoon there had sort of been a sense of relief that NOLA missed a direct hit, but after that NewsNight broadcast I knew things were worse than could be imagined.

Over the next few days I did nothing but work (at the time I worked part-time at home) and watch coverage. Mostly I watched CNN, but I also tuned in for NBC Nightly News and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. We all know what went down with the looting and the horror and the violence and the complete government failure. I don't really need to recap that. I also spent a lot of time on blogs where unbelievable amounts of information was coming in. I watched 360 every evening and also watched the expanded NewsNight where Anderson would check in. It was the most I had ever watched Anderson and I was riveted to the coverage. Everyday he looked a little bit more upset, which was exactly the way I was feeling.

The interview Anderson conducted with Senator Mary Landrieu is what made me a fan and stands out as one of my favorite moments of live TV ever. I heard the Senator say that she wanted to thank the former presidents for their strong statements of support and I just lost it. I literally experienced a buzzing in my head. It was like something snapped. Who the hell cared about a statement unless it came with water and shelter? I thought the interview would end up being like all the rest I had witnessed over the past few years--a politician spouting stupid talking points and easily getting away with it.

But this time was different. Suddenly there was this voice. This really upset, angry voice that was saying all the things that I wanted to scream from my living room. It was like Jon Stewart on Crossfire. It was one of those moments. George Orwell once wrote said, "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." And that's what it was. Anderson Cooper wasn't doing anything spectacular--he was just pointing out what was in front of him and what all of us regular people at home wanted to say. But due to massive media submissiveness during the Bush years of deceit, suddenly he had committed a revolutionary act.

Thursday night seemed to be when everything came to a head. I was about to go to bed and was just checking the blogs one more time when I saw a posting about explosions in NOLA. I immediately turned on CNN and saw Chris Lawrence in the dark with some cops. He was standing against a wall, explaining that they had to point the camera light inward, so they wouldn't attract shooters. At that time, they thought the building explosions might be releasing toxic chemicals. I needed to work the next day, so I turned the TV off and tried to go to bed. But I couldn't. Even lying in the dark silence I could still feel the fear in NOLA. It was one of the weirdest feeling I've ever had and I had this dread that when I woke up, everyone in the city would be dead. So I got back out of bed, turned on the TV, and watched for the rest of the night and into the morning.

Very early Friday morning CNN got a hold of Ray Nagin's infamous radio interview. They played it in full. I know parts of the interview were played in clip form over and over, but that was the only time I heard the full interview and it was the only time I heard the ending. The palpable hopelessness of both Nagin and interviewer Garland Robinette was just devastating. As the interview wrapped up, there was nothing but silence. And then crying. Both men crying. To hear an official put the unraveling of our government into words was beyond upsetting. Later that morning, Soledad O'Brien absolutely took FEMA head Michael Brown to the cleaners over the horrible response. To hear him try to say that things were okay, while the horrors were shown to us on the split screen was unbelievably surreal. I can still hear a completely shocked Soledad saying, "but it's Friday. It's Friday."

Of course Bush and the "calvary" came photo-op ready later that day and blah blah blah. By the weekend I was so angry about the situation I was literally experiencing severe headaches and had to take a break from the news. Instead, I spent my time writing my Congressional Representatives a three page letter that detailed my utter disgust with the government's response. (In case you're wondering, yeah, they responded with form letters.) Because the disaster is still ongoing, this post could go on forever. Not to mention all the early memories I've left out. And I would be remiss if I didn't note that many towns besides NOLA were completely decimated by the storm. In the days and months following landfall there was Celine Dion breaking down on Larry King, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard's heart wrenching appearance on Meet the Press, Bush's speech of lies from Jackson Square, and one of Keith Olbermann's first ever commentaries. And so much more, including finger pointing and a nation dealing with the largest displacement of people since the civil war.

Hurricane Katrina and particularly its aftermath was one of this country's greatest disasters. To this day I'm sickened by how little we seem to honor the victims and remember what
happened. September 11th, 2001 is a day every American knows, but what about August 29, 2005? To me, Hurricane Katrina is in some ways actually more painful than September 11th. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." The fact that terrorists would cause terror is not exactly shocking. It's what they do. But our own country's government is not supposed to stand idly by while citizens rot in the streets. The fact that this particular government would completely fail us actually wasn't too surprising, but to watch it play out was incredibly shocking and painful.

As you've already seen, I've included a lot of links to the things I was talking about. Hurricane Katrina also spawned a lot of moving blog posts and essays, many of which I linked in my post on the second anniversary of the disaster, if you'd like to check them out. Like many of you, my thoughts will once again be with NOLA this weekend. Hopefully come Monday I will be bringing you wackiness from the RNC and not something more dire involving Gustav.

Never forget Hurricane Katrina.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eliza:

What a well-done post! It was an excellet recap of the Katrina disaster.

I am in Canada but I remember vividly the emotional impact Katrina had on many Canadians. You can't help but think if this can happen to a North American city, it can happen anywhere. Just the thought of losing everything you have worked hard for all your life in just a few seconds really makes you gain a new perspective in life.

And AC's coverage at the time was riveting. This was when I began to develop an interest in watching news. I had never seen any reporter (and I had seen many good ones) present his/her story in such a riveting and powerful way. It was almost like he made us feel both emotionally and physically what it was like to be there. I was also impressed by the way he connected to people, and immediately took on the role as a persistent advocate for those who had no access to resources, and did not have a voice. It was what journalism should be all about. But unfortunately, I had never seen anyone doing it until AC came along during Katrina.

Let's pray that Gustav will die out before it hits land. Let's hope that people who choose to ride out the storm will remain safe.---Patty

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a very moving post here,thank you.

I think we will ALL remember what we were doing or where we were when Katrina hit....

even though I am in Canada,I was riveted to my tv for days,watching the horror,thinking......this muct be Africa,Rwanda,not the U.S.

It was my first time seeing Anderson,actually,during all this.

I became a fan the night he lashed out at that idiot Mary Landrieu,who sounded like she was giving a damn OSCAR speech with her thank you's!I was furious,but then,Anderson became the voice of so many people,saying what so many wanted to say,in anger and frustration.

You could see how deeply he cared,his compassion,his heartbreak at the things around him,scarcely beieving what he was seeing in his own country,in a place that held special meaning for him,because of his father's roots there.

I could have hugged him that night,I was so proud of him.
I STILL think the work he did from the Gulf Coast for all those weeks is the best he has ever done.

I hope and pray that NOLA and the Gulf will be spared this time.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What a great and moving post on this 3rd anniversary of Katrina.

Like many people that weekend and forward, I was glued to CNN and that was the time that I discovered Anderson Cooper. Sometimes I long for that reporter that he was, as he seems to spend more time behind the anchor desk and doesn't go out and report as much from the field, unless it is for PIP.

I do have to wonder from his blog post yesterday, that if this new hurricane was not headed toward NOLA and the Gulf Coast if he would actually be there. But for whatever reason I am glad that he is there and that he is showing what has been going on and how the preparations are going for the evacuation this time.

Again thanks for the recap and may those people in the Gulf Coast be kept safe.

1:43 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@Patty--Thanks. Yeah, I've actually never been to NOLA and really, pre-Katrina had no desire to go there, but the storm and the city's recovery has been important to me because if it can happen to them, it can happen anywhere.

@anonymous 12:59 PM--Thanks. It seems a lot of people became fans of Anderson after that interview. I think it's because he expressed what so many of us without a microphone wanted to say. Instead of being the authoritative make-you-feel-better anchorman, he was just like us--completely freaked out.

@anonymous 1:43 PM--Thanks. In regards to whether he would have gone to NOLA regardless of Gustav, I just don't know. I do know that at least one of the live broadcasts they've done from the region before was simply because Anderson was giving a speech there, so it's very possible he'd be in St. Paul right now if not for the hurricane.

That being said, one only needed to watch his interview with Nagin earlier this week to see that the man still clearly cares about the people of the Gulf. I would never question that. CNN is owned by a money making corporation and unfortunately many people have moved on from the Katrina story. We don't know what goes on behind the scenes in regards to NOLA trips.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much needed and very moving comments, Elisa! Hope a lot of people read your post, including local, state and federal government officials whose job is to respond to disasters like Katrina... Hope they learned from their mistakes and fewer people suffer consequences of their mismanaged respones to disasters!

12:28 AM  
Blogger eliza said...

@Barbara--Thanks! You want local, state, and federal officials to read the post? Heh, I don't think this blog has quite that kind of reach. At least it looks like they got their act together for Gustav. I guess we'll see how the aftermath goes.

4:08 AM  

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