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Inside Dateline: Katrina story is personal

NBC news producer: The story of hurricane Katrina is personal for many of us in the news business.


Katrina: Far more than “a report” from the ground (Adam Gorfain, Dateline senior producer)

Sometimes, it's personal. Four years ago this weekend, I watched the World Trade Center towers collapse, knowing my wife —then a Dateline producer—had gone to the buildings to report for us shortly after the first plane hit. I was a just a few miles north at our NBC headquarters, but I might as well have been an ocean away. I had no way of reaching her.I didn't know she was safe until many hours later, after she'd trudged, covered in dust, to our offices.

Today, the story of hurricane Katrina is personal for many of us in the news business.

"When this city hurts, people who lived here hurt," Correspondent Hoda Kotb told me this afternoon from New Orleans, where she spent many years as a news anchor. The sounds of  New Orleans music, she says, have been replaced by the thrum of military choppers. The city, she says, has become a kind of ghost town.

And she's worried. She does not know where an elderly neighbor of her fiancee's is. His name is Gene Lala, 76 years old, a World War II veteran. She's gone to shelters trying to find him. So far, she's had no luck.

Her fiance's New Orleans home, near one of the levees that was breached, has been flooded. He got out before the storm, but much has been lost. Though Hoda did learn that her college diploma, which had been at her fiancee's, had survived the flood. A neighbor spotted her at a local store and told her it had been found and moved upstairs away from the floodwaters to dry out.

Hoda sounded tired.

"What is today? Wednesday?" she asked. Then she remembered it was Friday. She's been there since a few hours after the levees broke. She's coming back to New York soon, where she will meet up with her fiance, who will try to start his life over again up north.

But as she leaves, she has a strong desire to do one thing. Born, most likely, of her instincts as a reporter, and as a former resident of the once-great city.

"I really want to come back," she said. I'm sure she will.

Correspondent John Larson says this story has taught him how fragile we all are, and how much we depend on one another.

"You're intersecting people who need you all the time," he told me today from the hurricane zone, where he's been reporting for days. "You can't help but be swept up in it."

I spoke with John by phone today as he headed toward Gulfport, the venerable coastal town which was torn to shreds by the fury of the storm. I have always thought that the satellite pictures of the swirling storm as it approached the coast made it look like a giant, awful buzzsaw. The blades were deadly.

John acknowledged that the story has been difficult emotionally.

"The first few days were very hard," he said. "We all shed tears."

He says it's been impossible not to become involved on a human level. One day, on a deserted beach, John and his crew saw a woman approaching in the distance. As she got closer, they could see she was in trouble. She said she'd been released from a hospital after treatment for a leg injury, and was now trying to walk home. John said the walk was seven miles. And from the look in her eyes, John and his team knew she needed help.

They got her in an air conditioned car, gave her some food and water, and got her to safety.

In the small town that is the subject of John's report on Dateline tonight, he found the mayor trying to run the government from a sewage plant, one of the few buildings that could provide adequate shelter. John said the man had just had knee surgery, and needed medication. So John and his team got him to see a doctor.

John's not bragging about this. He's just pointing out that the need is everywhere. And proving that in rare times like these journalists must always be accurate and fair, but they can also be human beings who want to help or suffer losses themselves.

Sometimes, it's personal.


September 9, 2005 |

Katrina aftermath: What went wrong

You've seen the pictures. You've seen the devastation. But tonight, Dateline brings you something you haven't seen: For the very first time, an in-depth look at what went wrong.

We'll take you minute-by-minute through the crisis and the response. Why did it take so long for help to arrive? Were warnings ignored? Did officials drop the ball? Dateline's Stone Phillips reports.

Also, it may seem premature to talk about rebuilding, with the suffering and the loss from the Katrina tragedy still so fresh. But that's exactly what the storm's victims have to do. We'll take a look at one Mississippi town, whose residents are asking..."How do you face the future, when your past is left in ruins?"

And a special report from NBC's Tom Brokaw, who is with the 82nd Airborne Division on duty in New Orleans, to keep the peace and help in the rescue effort.

Join us for a 2-hour Dateline NBC, tonight at 9, 8 Central, after the "Shelter from the Storm" benefit concert.

September 7, 2005 |

Why they won't leave (Ann Curry, Dateline co-anchor)

Despite the massive efforts of rescuers to comb the city of New Orleans, they haven’t yet been able to get everyone out. One reason: some residents just won’t go.

Yesterday, I spent some time out on a boat with a Navy medic, who’s doing his level best to convince victims who are sick — and need treatment — to leave. If they don’t, they could die. So why would they want to stay? I got an idea an idea after I spent some time with medic Sean Person on a boat as he tried to rescue more hold-outs.

At New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, much of it still underwater eight days after Katrina hit. Water is not the right word—it’s a black, foul-smelling  toxic soup, where bodies still lie uncollected. The navy told us, above all don’t get wet.

Pearson is a 35-year-old medic from the Navy ship Tortuga, which steamed up the Mississippi to help out in New Orleans. Pearson and a team of sailors took small boats into the Ninth Ward trying to evacuate the last of the stranded residents but are finding some still don’t want to go. Pearson says people who stay here risk serious health problems from waterborne diseases, including hepatitis, and potentially deadly intestinal infections.

We reached a bridge surrounded by the black water, where people are camped— some for up to eight days. Medic Pearson tries everything he can think of to get them to come with him. He even offered to bring them back if they did not like their accommodations. He kept getting turned down. Nolan Barrett, who is 77 years old, says he just feels more comfortable and near his home.

In the end, Sean Pearson can’t force anyone to leave but he also knows one of the men on the bridge might lose his leg to infection if he doesn’t get out.

“I’m not going away,” he says. “As long as this ship is docked here, that man is going to see my face every day.”

Another reason some people don’t want to take help? Mistrust of authority. Pearson says people shy away from his uniform.


September 6, 2005 |

A special Dateline tonight

As the water level finally recedes in New Orleans and concerns rise about the safety of those who cannot -- or refuse to -- leave the city, Stone Phillips and Ann Curry, out with Navy Seals, report live on the very latest developments.

Hoda Kotb tells us about some of the last hold-outs along uptown's Napolean Avenue, spirited New Orleans residents, finally giving in to rescue and finding they are grateful.

Carl Quintanilla is in St. Bernard Parish, where the water is still high, going along on a rescue mission targetting those who wanted to evacuate before the hurricane but couldn't.

John Larson goes out with a Hazmat (or hazardous materials) squad on its first mission since 9/11.

NBC News Chief Science Correspondent Bob Bazell explains why, even though things are getting better in many ways, the risk of health hazards is on the rise.

And Keith Morrison looks at how shelter crowding could spawn a health epidemic of its own.

Join us tonight, 8 p.m./7 C.

September 5, 2005 |

The littlest victims (Keith Morrison, Dateline Correspondent)

NBC's Keith Morrison

BATON ROUGE, LA.— In a long grey hallway, an office corridor in a building in Baton Rouge, volunteers are trying to keep the attention of little kids focused on their plastic toys — trying to wheedle information from them. Some of them are so tiny, so young, that just a name is hard to pry free.

They are all in the midst of the most frightening dislocation imaginable.  They don't know where their parents are.

They are orphans of the storm.

A shelter set up for missing children is 80 miles from New Orleans, to them it might as well be the moon.

The older ones tell you what happened — they are serious, trying to be mature, with worry etched on their faces. 

I met three teenagers plucked from their roof after three precarious days, their parents left behind, sent somewhere else.  At least that's what the kids think must have happened.   They don't really know.

But it’s not hopeless. A 6-year-old boy, Diamonte, is the eldest of six. He led the others to safety before they were taken to a shelter At first when he said his mother's name was Katrina, the volunteers didn't believe that could be so. Their pictures were posted on the Web site of the center for missing and exploited children. Later, he was reunited with his mother who was frantic for him, waiting for him on the airport tarmac in San Antonio, Texas.

His mother name is Katrina. And the little kids he saved were his cousins, and so other mothers had reunions too.

But there are others. One girl said her name is Macey and that her dad is a church pastor.  She thinks maybe he's in the hospital.

Officials at one shelter said they've received hundreds of calls from frantic parents. They're going to reunite them... at least they hope they will.


September 5, 2005 |

For $200, some hope (John Larson, Dateline correspondent)

GULFPORT, MISS.— Almost everything about the storm is worse that expected, and everywhere you go, life is upside down. For example, in Gulfport, you find a two hour waiting line is not for gas, or food — but at a bank. Banks have been closed since the storm, and people are desperate for cash.

When the power goes out and communication lines are cut, banks are immobilized. They can’t check or transfer accounts. So they lock the doors.

We saw the two-hour wait in a Hancock bank that was open, and met one business owner trying to get cash for people’s payrolls. “I got a lot of people I’m trying to get money for,” says the man we spoke to.

Wayne Smith, who been waiting in line an hour, says, “I got $3 on me. That’s all I got.”

And forget about using your credit cards — they’re no good for  a hundred miles. “With no electricity, they don’t take American Express or Mastercard. Cash is needed for the necessities of life,” says bank vice president Salvador Domino. He’s opened his bank, even though he can’t check people’s accounts. Which means he’s mostly trusting people not to steal from him.

“They’re standing in line, thirsty and hungry, smile on their faces. They’re the greatest people in the world,” says Domino.

After offering any ID, everyone is allowed inside, where there is a $200 limit. It’s not much, but for many it feels like a million. To these people who have lost almost everything, $200 is survival and hope.

The bank will handle about 4,000 people, and then close. For those here, it makes life seem almost manageable.  The world outside, of course, is far from it.