TV Networks Navigate Floodwaters To Get on Air

CNN's Anderson Cooper reporting from New Orleans.
CNN's Anderson Cooper reporting from New Orleans. (CNN)
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

CBS News sent a boat packed with supplies -- including desperately needed fuel -- to rendezvous with its crew hunkered down in New Orleans.

CNN was securing boats to navigate the flood zones and checked into renting dump trucks (the better to plow through rising waters).

NBC News located mammoth recreational vehicles that sleep six, have working toilets and showers, and are packed with supplies, then sent them off by caravan from Dallas. The network also found a guy in Tennessee with a fuel tanker who is trucking in gas.

Fox News looked into acquiring rubber dinghies but decided that in water so congested with debris, they would be useless.

And ABC News sent Bill Weir out on a boat in Lake Pontchartrain, in hopes he could see parts of the city too submerged to reach by car or by foot.

There is not much of anything left in the soup bowl that is now New Orleans, but there is news. Lots of it. And despite conditions that John Stack, vice president of news gathering for Fox, described yesterday as "like a Third World story," national television networks are getting it on the air nonstop.

The coverage is round-the-clock on cable news, and people are watching: Compared with an average Tuesday, viewership this Tuesday was up 371 percent on CNN, 165 percent on Fox News and 291 percent on MSNBC. The Weather Channel had a three-hour special report. On broadcast networks, Katrina coverage dominates the morning shows, fills the nightly newscasts. Last night, ABC, NBC and CBS all preempted regular prime-time programming to air special reports.

"I never anticipated covering a story in the continental United States like this," Stack, a veteran who has dealt with coverage of wars and famines, said in an interview, "but it's certainly emerging as one."

Men and women such as Stack -- those who direct the news gathering-- have found themselves thrust unexpectedly into a logistical nightmare. As Jack Womack, senior vice president of CNN Newsgroup, put it: "I'm a supply officer now."

Most executives are quick to point out that the television industry's problems pale in comparison with what the people of the region are suffering, but it hasn't been easy to tell their stories.

NBC anchor Brian Williams got his satellite truck trapped in downtown flooding, a tire and the gas tank damaged. His team stayed as the water rose, reporting from the area and waiting for someone to come pull the truck out. John Roberts, the CBS News White House correspondent, spent Tuesday on an overpass over Interstate 10. He had to cut off the satellite feed between transmissions to save gas. Staffers for several networks are sleeping in trucks. Some NBC crew members have started suffering from digestive ailments.

The problems were not limited to New Orleans. In Biloxi, Jim Acosta of CBS and his crew watched their hotel rooms flood as the storm raged. "They were very, very scared," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage. "They were able to get out, but they were very shaken up."

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