“We are sometimes wacky thrill seekers. But when you stand in the dark, and you hear people yelling for help and no one can get to them, it’s a totally different experience.”
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some television reports indicated that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. Information about the levee breaches was almost non-existent. But viewers who heard correspondent Jeanne Meserve‘s report on CNN knew something terrible was unfolding.
“It’s been horrible,” Meserve told viewers of NewsNight on Aug. 29, 2005. “You can hear people yelling for help. You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come.”
One viewer called Meserve’s beeper “the riveting, heart-wrenching phone report I’ve ever heard on televsion news.” The next day, NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown said he had received over 600 e-mails praising Meserve’s report. And David Carr said she offered “a prescient look into the week that was to come.”
Meserve said she received many e-mails about the report, too.
“It appears to have been the first time many people have heard what was happening and understood what was happening,” she says.
She adds: “I wish more people had been listening, particularly people in operations centers around the federal government.”
So how did it happen?
Meserve flew into New Orleans with producer Jim Spellman on Saturday, before the storm hit. She covered the evacuation of the city and watched water seep through the streets as Katrina came ashore.
Mid-afternoon on Aug. 29, a CNN producer at the Superdome called in and said she needed a crew. When Meserve arrived at the ‘dome, she saw City Council President Oliver Thomas.
“He was bringing soaking wet elderly people to the dome,” Meserve says. “I turned to him and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said ‘My city is dying.’ And I said ‘What are you talking about? Show us.’ And he took us to Interstate 10.”
Two boats were bringing survivors to an I-10 overpass overlooking the eighth ward.
“Not far beyond us, I-10 sank underwater,” she recalls.
Meserve called into The Situation Room around 6pm and told viewers that New Orleans hadn’t dodged a bullet.
Cameraman Mark Biello went out on one of the boats, and Meserve stayed on the interstate and talked to survivors.
As night fell and rescue attempts were abandoned for the evening, she started hearing the screams.
“We couldn’t see anyone. It was dark. But we could hear them,” she says. “I wandered off by myself and just listened, horrified.”
Meserve and her colleagues waited hours for Biello to return.
“I thought we had lost him,” she says. “I thought he might be dead.”
Biello fractured his foot as he helped pull a rescue boat over submerged railroad tracks. But he eventually made it back to the interstate.
After the rescue efforts were suspended, the CNN crew packed up and went back to their hotel. Meserve finally established a landline connection to Atlanta, a few minutes before the end of NewsNight. She didn’t have anything scripted.
“I just wanted to communicate the breadth and the depth of what was going on, and the human tragedy that I had seen unfolding in front of my eyes,” she says.
After several minutes of narration about what she witnessed in the eighth ward, she began to sob. Meserve says she didn’t expect to cry on the air.
“It came spilling out of me that night,” she says. “And I’m not altogether happy that it did. I wasn’t sure at the time that it was as professional as I might have liked it to have been. But ultimately I think that might have gotten the point across.”