Watching Hurricane Gustav on Television

The anchors hunt for drama as New Orleans faces another potential disaster.

Anderson Cooper

Around 10 a.m. ET on Monday, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers announced that the city of Houma, not New Orleans, would be getting the brunt of Hurricane Gustav’s wind and rain. On the other side of the screen, a slicker-wearing Anderson Cooper stood beneath a wrought-iron balcony in the French Quarter, his hair tousled by the wind but otherwise relatively unperturbed. “When do you think it would be safe for us to start driving, you know, to go to Houma?”Cooper asked the weatherman, sounding antsy to get closer to the action. A few minutes later, the action came to him—the broadcaster made famous by Katrina had to go off the air when his satellite truck was threatened by gusting winds.

For most of the morning, Cooper’s satellite malfunction was one of the few signs of Gustav’s destruction. But after early optimism that New Orleans had escaped mostly unscathed, water started lapping over the floodwall that hems in the Industrial Canal. This isn’t the same scenario as Katrina, when water broke through the levee and swamped the Lower Ninth Ward. This time, whitecaps crashed against the opposite side, testing the scour protection—concrete walls designed to prevent the dirt erosion that plagued the levee system three years ago—that’s been installed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As shots of the white water looped on TV, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called in to a pair of local TV stations, which are staying on the air by streaming live online. The mayor and the state and federal governments have all done a far better job this week than in the run-up to Katrina, and not just because they all set such a low bar the first time around. The National Guard got in and pretty much everyone in the city got out before the storm got too close—a very impressive feat to pull off in a single weekend. With the people of New Orleans mostly out of danger, the mayor, understandably, sounded more composed than in 2005, listing the water levels and power outages in various parts of the city. (Another reason for Nagin’s relative relaxation: Only one person had been caught looting. Nagin told CNN that this lone criminal was “sitting on a bus, handcuffed, getting ready to go to Angola prison.”)

After this straightforward reporting, the mayor reported his main concern: three vessels on the loose in the Industrial Canal, including a barge ramming against the levee wall. Nagin, who isn’t known for his high journalistic standards during natural disasters, having spread unverified rumors about murders and rapes during Katrina, followed up by saying that the barge had just arrived in the waterway the previous day, a serious breach of protocol with a storm coming. The newscasters expressed outrage; there was speculation that federal charges would be brought. A few minutes later, Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange came on to explain that an out-of-commission barge “that’s basically scrap” had been docked for weeks and had now been corralled by a tugboat. One crisis averted, at least temporarily.

With no pictures of abandoned people, the cable news channels, too, were fixated on the barge. (As far as people in peril go, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera did generate a false alarm, yelling out, “There’s a person, there’s a person stranded! … Look, there’s a person in the water!” It turned out to be a guy who was secured with a lifeline going after a wayward propane tank.) On Fox, Shepard Smith proclaimed that the tugboat drivers “may have just saved the city of New Orleans,” noting that a barge had caused the devastating breach that swamped the Lower Ninth Ward in 2005. It’s not clear that’s what really happened, though—it’s possible the barge didn’t cause the damage during Katrina, but rather floated through a pre-existing gap in the levee.

Despite these not entirely trustworthy proclamations, television news operations—like the municipal, state, and federal government—were much better prepared for Gustav than for Katrina. The cable networks deployed giant, telestratable maps with the relevant levees annotated, with CNN’s touch-screen wizard John King zooming and scribbling from the floor of the Republican Convention. CNN also had Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who was in charge of the military’s relief efforts during Katrina, in its studios reporting on the state of the levee system and water levels throughout the city.

As of early Monday afternoon, Honoré and the Army Corps of Engineers all thought the Industrial Canal wouldn’t overflow its banks, and that every other levee around the city looked solid. St. Bernard Parish, which was completely submerged during Katrina, looked fine; officials doing a drive-through survey found a single broken window. As of 3 p.m. ET, CNN was breaking in with reports of anarchist groups protesting at the Republican Convention and speculating on how Gustav would affect the production of Tabasco sauce. The local stations started wondering when residents would be allowed back in.

But having gone through Katrina, it’s impossible to watch this coverage without remembering that the horrific levee breaches came after hours of optimistic reports. With so many reporters working the story, pessimism is there if you search it out—and if you choose to believe all of the unconfirmed reports that inevitably pour in. CNN’s Gary Tuchman has been alone in saying there are holes in a levee protecting the Lower Ninth Ward, which could herald major flooding. At 3 p.m. ET, some on New Orleans’ WWL radio said that we wouldn’t see the peak of storm surge for another 12 or 15 hours. On WDSU television, a civil engineer said that the “waterfall effect” at the Industrial Canal means “that we’re not built high enough. As long as that water keeps building up, there’s no way to stop this.” There were also scattered reports of more barges on the loose.