Hurricane Radio

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katrinaToday is the 29th of August, for many people an ordinary day. For me, and those others who hail from New Orleans, it is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failure that nearly destroyed my city.

In the six weeks after the disaster, my wife, five cats, and I were forced on a cross country odyssey, sans vehicle. Sporadic access to the Internet did not allow much opportunity to keep up with things online. For the most part, it was the radio that kept us in touch with what was going on.

While CNN filled up with soundbites and the other news channels tried to condense an epic tragedy into a mere few minutes of airtime, it was on radio that we actually got any in-depth or accessible reporting. It rapidly became clear that radio was going to be my main source for nuanced reporting.

I remember listening to Nick Spitzer on NPR as he drove into the Garden District of the city a mere three weeks after landfall. His description of the drive through his neighborhood escorted by the National Guard was a radio moment I will never forget. You see, he was my neighbor and he was describing my block and the home whose fate I was as yet unaware of.  Even three years later, talking about this at Advertising Week with my colleague Doug Zanger, it brought tears to my eyes.

Stuck in a small unfurnished apartment in upstate New York, my wife and I had the radio on constantly, even once we had regular broadband. It was on the radio that I heard my first reports from the 9th Ward when the Common Ground organization was born in response to the disaster.

It was on the radio that I heard leaked governmental conference calls that showed the chaos of the response in no uncertain terms. Hearing Walter Maestri, emergency manager for Jefferson Parish, get the runaround from FEMA officials while sewerage filled the streets and people were dying was important to all of us displaced. It showed someone was paying attention, something not demonstrated by the governmental response. [Listen to the episode of Morning Edition with Maestri’s leaked audio here.]

On the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, with Katrina making its way inland from the Gulf Coast, Maestri said on the call: “Things are collapsing.” And questions persisted over who was in charge: “So FEMA will coordinate emergency supplies?” Maestri asked. Soon after, communications were lost, and the next conference call took place nearly two weeks later.

When we returned to the disaster zone, it was WWL radio that informed us of where safe water was, and kept us in the loop. With cell phones and landlines erratic or simply unusable, it was of vital importance.

This is why radio is vital. Cell towers go down, Internet and wireless do as well. When a disaster strikes and your back is to the wall, it is often radio, ubiquitous and easily accessed, that becomes your lifeline. I am sure there are many victims of earthquakes or forest fires who will agree.

Today is August 29th, and I would like to thank radio for helping me get through the events of four years ago.

Image: Charlotte Diem | Used by Permission

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