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."
In Gulfport, a crew from the Weather Channel was bunking in a house that had to be evacuated. The crew's rental cars flooded. Camera gear succumbed to the water. And while trying to move to higher ground, the satellite truck plunged into a water-filled ditch, trapping the driver for hours.
Once it's reported, getting the information out is problematic. "Cell phones right now are paperweights for the most part," Stack says. PDAs work sporadically, better for some than others. Satellite phones are a lifeline, but there are never enough of them. Most times when a reporter and crew leave the satellite truck to venture out and report, it's basically a blackout situation.
Yesterday, it was mid-afternoon and the producers for that night's "Dateline" special with Williams hadn't been able to reach him all day.
"We know there will be hours at a time where we just aren't going to hear from people," CNN's Womack says.
A godsend for NBC News has been the specially designed communications package on its satellite trucks. Originally developed for coverage of the war in Afghanistan, it allows reporters to make calls and use computers at the truck without having to go through a regular satellite phone. "When you're at the truck, it's like you're working in New York," says David Verdi, vice president of worldwide news gathering for NBC News.
Except, of course, for the issue of supplies.
"There is no food, there is no water, there is no gas," Verdi says. "We have to bring it in ourselves."
The network crews came prepared for what previous hurricane coverage had taught them: Get in place a few days early, before the airports close and the highways are full of evacuees. Ride out the storm. Stay the day after to document the extent of destruction and then move on, with one or two crews left behind to do follow-up.
"We planned for the hurricane; we had people in all the right places at all the right times," says CBS's McGinnis, "but we never thought that the story would turn into what it did. The next day, you're usually covering the aftermath. This story is getting worse. It's getting harder to cover, not easier."
By late yesterday, though, the supply trucks were coming in -- from Atlanta, from Dallas, from Miami. Antibiotics arrived, fresh water, food, fuel. Executives in New York, New Jersey and Atlanta counted on their staffs on the ground to help them find routes into the city.
"They've had to be real innovative and sometimes, frankly, I don't know how they get from Point A to Point B; they just do it," Womack says.
Many travel by foot, some by four-by-four, the lucky ones by satellite truck. Fox News is housing most of its reporters outside the city, where there are still functioning hotels, and doing whatever it can to get them back into the city to report. Williams and his crew are camped out in New Orleans; ditto for Roberts and staff from CNN and ABC News.
Without the resources that the big networks have -- and executives say it's too soon to tally that figure -- Weather Channel employees have been fending for themselves for food and water. None of them have power, says Terry Connelly, senior vice president and general manager. And his budget for hurricane coverage?
"Oh lordy," Connelly says. "Once Hurricane Dennis came through so early, in July, we upped our budget to the level we spent last year, which was a record year with Charlie, Ivan, Francis, Jeanne."
He won't divulge the dollar amount either, but he will say this: It's only halfway through the hurricane season and the budget has been blown. And then some.