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Brian Williams: We were witnesses

"In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina" first aired on Oct. 27, 2005, on the Sundance channel. NBC News re-aired the 30-minute documentary on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the storm hitting New Orleans. This is an edited transcript.

"In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina" first aired on Oct. 27, 2005, on Sundance channel. NBC News re-aired the 27-minute documentary on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the storm hitting New Orleans. You can read the transcript below or watch the entire 30-minute video by clicking the link to the right.

We landed at a small terminal in Baton Rouge. And all of our Blackberries, our little e-mail computers, went off.  And through our group it started to spread.

“Urgent Weather Message: National Weather Service, New Orleans Louisiana. All gabled roofs will fail.  All wood-framed low rising apartment buildings will be destroyed.  All windows will be blown out.  The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted.  Only the hardiest will remain standing.  But, will be totally defoliated.  Livestock left exposed to the hurricane winds will be killed.  And finally, water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

Here’s a civil servant using everything in his power, every word in his vocabulary to warn everyone within the sound of his voice, “Folks, a monster is coming.”  That’s how it was when we arrived in New Orleans Sunday night.

My boss said, “I’ve just gotten off a conference call with the National Weather Service and this is the Doomsday scenario.  This is gonna hit New Orleans.”

We made the decision to go.  And, as long as we were gonna go, we were gonna all the way.  That meant get inside that Superdome for this storm.

I think about the faces I saw going in that dome.  What really troubled me, these evacuees were arriving, some of them with children, some of them with very few belongings.  Most of them were obviously poor.  And the National Guard were being quite rough verbally and physically with them.  Not all, but some.

I was disturbed enough to try to look for whoever the colonel was in charge of this event.  I was told, “Homeland Security’s in charge of the event.”  It felt bad. The men were being aggressively patted down.  I asked why?  I was told, “Well, they’re looking for cigarette lighters to enforce the ban on smoking inside the Superdome.”

Once you were inside, you were handed a military meal-ready-to-eat.  Inside every MRE is a pack of matches.  It was that kind of thing that didn’t make sense.

Monday, Aug. 29, 2005
The storm winds started in the morning.

When they lowered the huge corrugated steel doors at the back of the Superdome, we were inside with everybody else, locked inside for the duration of the storm.  It was dark.  The power was out early.  There was no circulating air.  There was only the food we brought.

I slipped on an awful combination of detergent, motor oil, and water on the slick cement ramps going down to the actual field, the turf.

I went down hard.  And I was lying on the Astroturf on my back.  Just gonna take a breather for a second.  And I looked up.  I saw a pinhole in the roof of the Superdome.

And that pinhole, lo and behold, grew larger and larger.

It was welcomed at first.  Here’s how perverse the atmosphere was inside the Superdome.  People welcomed the hole in the roof because it was a source of daylight.

I took a picture with my cell phone camera of the roof of the Superdome.  We were able to transmit that picture somehow to the “Today” show.  And they put it on the air.

There was a noise that I described on the air as an arriving New York City subway train. You heard some shrieks in the stands.

With every hole in the roof, you think that’ll be the end.  That’s got to be the height of the storm. That’s got to be the end of the damage.  And it just kept on going.

We took this storm seriously — at its height we were getting reports of gusts 130, 140- 50 mph flying over the top of the Superdome.  We knew we were having a big blow out there.  We knew we were in the middle of a massive hurricane — one look at the radar would tell you that.

The living conditions in the Superdome went from grim to untenable, unlivable, very quickly.

We’d heard the story of a man killing himself, falling from the upper deck.  It got so awful inside that Superdome with the lack of toilet facilities, the lack of food, the lack of privacy.

I’ll never forget the people we met in there.  What I can’t shake is the feeling that some of the people we met and got to know aren’t around anymore.

What I can’t shake is knowing how kind and decent most of them were.  A lot of people were getting along, helping each other.

I can only shudder to think about the people I had to turn my back on when they opened the doors for the media to leave at the end of the storm.

I remember that first night.  Monday night.  The hurricane had blown over.  We looked back at the Superdome — half the roof had been ripped off.  We looked back at the skyline, all the windows at the Hyatt hotel had been blown out.

We were stunned to look around and see what it had done.

Remember the most important thing in New Orleans, those streets were dry.  You can replace windows.  But, you know, water, like toothpaste, can’t be put back in the tube.

One of our correspondents used the words — “they dodged a bullet in New Orleans.”

The president later repeated it when he was trying to defend his administration’s response to this.  He said the media people kept saying, “We dodged a bullet.”  I guess we’re guilty of that, but not of what happened next.

I remember saying on the air, hoping somebody would hear me, somebody in authority, “those people are still in there.”

Those people were still in the Superdome.  This was just day one and I found it outrageous, no one had told anyone anything at the height of the storm.

I get that there was no power.  But where were the bullhorns?  Where were the National Guardsmen to say, “Folks, the bulk of the storm is over.  We understand the damage so far is not severe in the city of New Orleans.”  But they somehow didn’t deserve that.

I kept putting myself in their place.  It’s part of who I am and I can’t help it.  I’ve been married for 20 years.  I’m a father of two kids.  And I’m enough of an idealist to believe that string of presidents I’ve grown up with telling me that we’re all of equal value, that if you take my two kids and their two counterparts in a family of color in New Orleans, that those children have the same worth, the same value.

And, it’s gonna take a long time to shake one of the lessons of this story, which was that I didn’t see that there.  I didn’t see people of equal value.  Starting with the treatment of the people in the Superdome.

I remember on Monday night’s broadcast we had a live interview with Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, who was full of assurances.

We wrapped up Nightly News that Monday night — and headed back to our hotel — knowing that there would be more to cover the next day, but thankful that the streets were dry. 

Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005
I think I set my alarm for 5:00 a.m.  I had to get up and report for the “Today” show. And I went to the window that next morning.  And I remember thinking, “What the hell is that?”

There was, as best I can describe it, there were shards of light — going across the street.  Like someone had put up a disco ball over the French Quarter overnight,  And I knew exactly what I was looking at.  That was water.  The levees had given way overnight.  Our story had changed while we’d been asleep.

Later, we heard the first window break.  One of the producers with us was saying, “Don’t make eye contact.  Look away.”  I saw one young man with a nine millimeter coming’ out of his pants.  He had no shirt on.  That was a wake up call.

And, people started unabashedly going inside these stores and coming’ out with eight pairs of Nikes. 

I remember one store across from us sold luggage and sundries.  And I remember thinking, how convenient.  People were stealing the luggage and then using it to load up and cart away the sundries.

And no matter what you read, I’m here to tell you -- because I looked many of them in the eye.  It was people of all races.  Mostly young, but not exclusively.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005
The point of Katrina is that because of a natural disaster, one, and because of the government response, or lack of it, two, human behavior degraded in New Orleans that day.

I remember seeing wild eyes that day.  Desperation.  The inability to feed yourself or your family.  Really, the common sense which gets clicked off.  And, we don’t become recognizable to ourselves or our families anymore.

For awhile, we were all in the same boat.  And this should be stressed.  The media had no special incoming helicopter drops.  We had the same problems with food and water supplies.  But our network found a way to get supplies to us.

I remember seeing a box of Slim Jims and thinking, “That’s better than any restaurant meal right now.  That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”  We were desperate for food and drink. But not like the people we were seeing in the streets.

The assumption always was, you know, “They’ll be coming. They must be on their way.  They’ll be coming.  Food and water will get here instantly.  And anytime now, the federal government will name a place, a safe haven, where everyone can go.  This can’t last any longer.” And that, of course, was the assumption every day.

At night, Tuesday into Wednesday, the only lights in the city were red and blue.  It was strobe and revolving lights — on the tops of police cars.  It was clear already there weren’t gonna be enough cops.

And the cops were driving by as people were emptying out these stores.  It was not good.  We started to feel that if we had food, we shouldn’t eat it publicly.  If we had water, we shouldn’t drink it in front of anyone else.

Everywhere we went, every satellite shot, every camera shot, we were at the height of the violence and the looting and all the reports of gunplay downtown, well, who’s bathed in the only lights in town?  It was us.

We had to ask for federal protection service guys with automatic weapons to just form a ring and watch our backs while we were doing Dateline NBC one night.

We made a decision the French Quarter was no longer safe. Things were getting too dicey and we pulled out to the suburb of Metairie, La.  I’ll be candid.  We heard CNN pulled out. That had some influence on our decision.  We had no weapons. We don’t work that way.  That has to separate us as journalists.  But it wasn’t safe.

Cars were king.  If you had transportation out of town to high ground you might eat, you might get some water.  So here we are driving through town in our rental cars.  Eight troopers had to cover us by aiming at the men in the street just to tell them, "Don't think of doing a smash and grab and killing this guy for the car."

I carried a case of Vienna sausage, cans of Vienna sausage, as collateral in case we had a smash-and-grab cracking.  I was gonna offer it to someone in exchange for my life.

Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005
Every crisis has a breaking point. When Joe McCarthy was terrorizing people on Capitol Hill, there was a little lawyer from New England named Joseph Nye Welch, who one day said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”  Tony Zumbado was that guy in this crisis.

Tony, who’s been a cameraman with us for a long time, returned from the Convention Center and we knew he had seen something horrible, and he was asked to recount his experience on live TV.

Tony Zumbado: It was unbelievable. Dead people around the walls of the Convention Center. Laying in the middle of the street, in their dying chairs, where they died right there in their wheelchair.”

All Tony did was bring his credibility and a life’s work and his honest face and his great ability as a cameraman.  And he stood there at the edge of his emotions, probably hungry and thirsty himself.

He was bearing witness to what he had seen and what he will take to his grave.

The government couldn’t tell us that things were OK. We were there, standing next to the things that were not OK.

Remember bodily functions, all human hygiene came to an end, babies reusing diapers.  Anything you can think of that you do over the course of a day bodily, it was being done where you sat or stood. Take a moment and figure out where you’re gonna find food without refrigeration, if you don’t have a source of food. 

And take a moment and think how desperate you would feel. Well, that was the backdrop. I couldn’t believe that people were starving and going without water in the United States, for lack of an air drop.

There was absolutely nothing that would lead you to believe this was the United States.  It didn’t feel like we were home. People say that in this crisis, the media found their voice.  People start seeing these television reporters that we’ve come to know, these docile creatures, turned into monsters.  What happened was, I had the director of FEMA on live television.

I remember asking Michael Brown about the thousands stuck at the Convention Center.

NBC Nightly News -- Brian Williams reporting: “Why can’t some of the Chinook helicopters and Blackhawks that we have heard flying over for days and days and days, simply lower palettes of water, meals-ready-to-eat, medical supplies, right into downtown New Orleans? Where is the aid? It’s the question people keep asking us on camera.”

Michael Brown: “Brian, it’s an absolutely fair question, and I got to tell you from the bottom of my heart how sad I feel for those people. The federal government just learned about those people today.”

So if people saw outrage, if people saw first person reporting and anger in our eyes, we had been there.

The Today Show - Campbell Brown reporting: “Why didn’t you do anything? You’re the mayor of this city. Did you call the federal government for help, did you ask the state for help? When did you make those calls? Don’t you bear some of the responsibility for what’s happened here?”

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin: “Look, there’s going to be plenty of blame to go around. I made calls to everybody.”

People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.  Here’s the difference: We beat the first responders to Hurricane Katrina.  That made us witnesses.  And that gave us license to come at these government officials who were in the other side of that screen, the split-screen America we lived through for a week there, who were saying, “You know what?  Everything’s fine.” 

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Aug. 31, 2005: “We are extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government...”

And if it isn’t fine, it’s gonna be, because here’s the assets we have on the ground. Here’s the assets we have moving into the area. We became witnesses.

Fri., Sept 2, 2005
When the day dawned on Friday there were signs of a change. There were finally signs that the cavalry was arriving, that this relief -- long promised -- was starting to trickle in. And people lives were going to get better.

The early heroes of the crisis were those Coast Guard helicopter pilots.  We watched so many of those pictures on TV.  The young, the old people — clearly scared of heights — being told to look straight up.  The roof top rescues were astounding.  People are alive today because of those rescues.

The politics of all this are very simple. If we come out of all this crisis and in the next couple of years don’t have a national conversation on the following issues: race, class, petroleum, the environment, then we the news media will have failed by not keeping people’s feet to the fire. Some adults performed poorly in this case.  People should know that and remember that.

I will remember all of the dead for the rest of my life.  When you come around the corner and see a body facedown within sight of the Superdome on a city street with children and adults walking by it, you know something has come unraveled.

I think of the people we met inside that Superdome.  I think of the wild-eyed people in that city who were scrounging to stay alive, to find anything to eat or to steal, to cash in for something they could convert into food.

I think of the faces.  I think of the babies.  I think of the elderly.  I think of the people who, just a few days earlier, had dignity, had their lives, weren’t defecating where they stood, weren’t reusing their children’s diapers.  I think of people living on interstate highways on cement.  And I can’t get their faces out of my mind.  But I shouldn’t, either.

They are a part of who I am.  That’s pretty much the way it should be.  I felt I had a privilege, an honor, of representing them.  It was an honor to be with them in the Superdome.  It was an honor to represent their interests, to do their pleading, on national television.

I think this is going to change our society for a good, long while.  I think it should, actually, for a lot of reasons.  It has changed my life.  It’s changed what happens when I close my eyes, try to go to sleep.

And we have to learn that the last 100,000 faces out of every major American city are going to look a whole lot like the souls we came to know in New Orleans.