In my 35 year career in television and TV News, I have covered my share of hurricanes. Katrina and Sandy certainly proved the most memorable. Here are my most vivid memories of those historic and destructive storms. I present them in honor of those risking their safety covering the disaster in Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey.
I received the assignment to cover Hurricane Katrina the afternoon after it initially made landfall. I was told to fly, alone, with my camera gear to Mobile, Alabama, rent a car, and then drive down Rte. 10 and join the crew the was already stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi. When I got to Mobile, it was late in the afternoon. I had to rent a car with just a half tank of gas because the pumps had stopped working after the storm. No matter. I was pretty sure that I would have enough to make it. I loaded the car with my camera gear and started heading south on Rte. 10 towards my final destination.
I had only heard of Biloxi, Mississippi because of the play by Neil Simon. Now, I would have to find it, alone, in the midst of one of the greatest natural disasters to ever hit this Country. I left the local roads and hit the highway to find my way. It was then that it struct me: I was driving completely alone to a place I had barely heard of with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and virtually no directions! And, just to reinforce my trepidation, I noticed thousands of car headlights leaving the area and absolutely NO taillights going in. Indeed, I would have to make it there completely on my own.
When I finally reached Biloxi (I couldn’t miss it, Rte. 10 runs right through it), it was pitch black and found that the city was smashed! People were like zombies, walking around in a complete daze. That small city was just devastated. Nothing appeared unscathed by the maelstrom. Debris from the storm surge was everywhere. But, I could see lights in the distance which I knew would be both rescuers AND news crews — if I could only get there! It took hours, backing out of impassable street after street, but. with great difficulty, I eventually reached our crew. I spent weeks there covering the aftermath of Katrina. But, THOSE stories are for another day.
Hurricane Sandy was just as dramatic except that instead of traveling to put myself at risk, I could do so right here at home. I was assigned to go with reporter Vanita Niar to cover the storm from Battery Park on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. We took up a position at the sea wall and near the ferry terminal to wait for the eye of the storm to arrive. Over the course of a few hours while we doing our “live” shots, the ferocity of the storm continually increased, threatening to breech the sea wall. Well, eventually the water of the Hudson River did its thing and came pouring over which sent us scrambling to get to higher ground.
With the water rapidly rising, we retreated to a higher point in the park and finished our shift around 2 a.m. The water had risen so much we were not sure how we would ever be able to leave our little, safe “island”. In fact, it had gotten so bad that the Westside Highway which separated us from greater Manhattan had turned from a road to a raging river! I had never seen anything like it. There must have been 3–4 feet of turbulent water coursing down the highway. It may have been more prudent to wait out the storm in the relatively safety of the park but circumstance dictated that we had to try to get back into the City — Vanita had recently given birth to a baby boy and it was essential that she get back to him at their apartment in midtown.
So, we devised a plan: Vanita would take my hand and together we would wade across the river/highway, moving slowly and cautiously. We stepped off from the relatively safety our “live” position and began to make our way across. It was pitch black (the storm had whiped out the power) as we felt our way through the dark water and fierce current. Vanita would occasionally touch something with her feet and cry out in distress. But, she never let go of my hand and we made steady progress. After what felt like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes, we had made it across.
It was then that we realized that only half the battle had been won. We still needed to find our way uptown, a distance of about 3 or 4 miles. And, because that part of the City had been mostly evacuated and the power was out, there was no transportation going ANYWHERE. At that hour, after a VERY long and trying day, the thought of walking 3 or 4 miles just didn’t seem to be a viable option. But, what were we to do?
I felt that our only chance might be to find a police car and beg for mercy!! Unfortunately, the few that we found could not leave their posts to aid a couple of pathetic, wet, and miserable news people. We were just about to give up hope when we spotted a police van. I ran up to the police officer who was driving and asked if he could help us. He said, “sure, hop in”. You should have seen the smile on my face! Vanita and I climbed in to find that we were not alone. Apparently, the van was assigned to drive through lower Manhattan and find homeless people who might be in distress. Perfect! So, we joined a van load of vagrants for our trip back uptown. But, the van was warm and dry and the company, under the circumstances, was just fine.
Vanita made it back to her son and me to a hotel room for a meal and some much needed sleep. The next day, we were at it again — this time I was assigned another reporter and off to Atlantic City we went to continue our coverage. I wound up traveling over 1300 miles covering the storm and its aftermath before it was all over. Again, that’s a story for another day.
I don’t cover hurricanes like I used. Lately, I do so from the comfort of the studio. And, you know what? That’s just fine. I’ll always have my memories.