By Austin Kellerman, RTDNA Contributor
Image after image I see from the Houston area has brought back a flood of memories from early coverage of Hurricane Katrina: people sitting in streets waiting for buses, boaters helping pull people from their homes, and empty cots staged in a convention center. Once again, we were witnessing flooding of historic proportion leaving our fellow Americans defenseless.
When Katrina hammered Louisiana in 2005, I had been a professional journalist for about a year. I worked for the NBC station in Shreveport, Louisiana as a newscast producer. I learned so much while doing wall-to-wall storm coverage as Katrina made landfall. But it was the days that followed that would change the way I viewed our profession.
As the floodwaters rose in New Orleans, people who lived in south Louisiana made their way more than 300 miles north to Shreveport. Hour after hour, evacuees called the television station, many even coming to the lobby looking for info and answers. It sounds odd today, but this was pre-Facebook and Twitter — even pre-mobile internet — so finding critical emergency information didn’t come easy. It wasn’t uncommon for our journalists to come in early and stay late to help people who left their homes scour the web for any information we could track down on their neighborhoods. I found myself spending quite a bit of time working directly with the evacuees.
Often, those conversations ended with bad news. We found out their neighborhood was under water and their livelihood gone. We sat and watched as they cried. We just might have cried along with them. And then we had to hit the reset button and get back to work.
One of these stories was different. I’ll never forget leaving the station late one night and finding an emotional woman in the parking lot asking for help. Her loved one — maybe a son or a brother, I can’t remember — was stranded on top of a building outside of New Orleans, injured. She was no longer able to reach him on his cell phone, and she didn’t think he had much time left. She didn’t know where to turn so she came to the TV station asking for help, asking for anything.
Along with sports anchor Dave Schwartz, we brought the woman inside the station and started making calls. After trying a few dozen times but never being able to get through, we managed to get someone on the other end of the line on a “media only” phone number the state police had given us. The woman was able to give them his location, and later that night, he was rescued. Safe and sound.
Dave was able to do a story of the man reuniting with his family.
We didn’t physically save the guy, but we sure felt like we did. We can’t always feel the impact we make on a viewer through the TV screen. On these days, I felt it. It was personal.
Covering an event like this is tough, but it’s also damn rewarding. We all got in the business because we like to help people. During an event like this, that’s all you do. Information is power, and information saves lives.
They say bad situations bring out the best in people. I think the same goes for journalists.
Good luck to everyone covering Harvey’s aftermath. You’re providing a critical public service and truly making a difference with each story you tell. You’ll have time to nurse your hurricane hangover eventually. For now, just keep swimming.
Austin Kellerman is News Director at KARK/KLRT in Little Rock, Arkansas. Reprinted with permission from his blog.