A Year Of Katrina: “We Were Witnesses”

By Brian 

Viewers didn’t know it at the time, and most still don’t.

But NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams — whose on-the-scene coverage of Hurricane Katrina helped earn NBC a Peabody Award — fell “terribly ill” in the days following the storm.

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, “we did a broadcast from the I-10 overpass,” Williams recalls. “I thought I could stand up, and I got very weak. They started pumping me with fluids and made me sit down on an equipment box for the broadcast.”

In an interview with TVNewser last week, Williams was clearly uncomfortable discussing the illness.

“The only problem I have with it being public… is that I am the last person people should be thinking about,” he says. “I was surrounded by such depravity, watching people try to survive with such great quiet dignity, that I have a real problem with any attention [directed toward me].”

Williams never revealed his illness to viewers. “It was a very closely held thing,” he says. “My only motive was, I didn’t want anybody talking about it.”

His illness never made news. (TV Week came closest on Sept. 5, mentioning that two NBC employees had fallen ill.) But author Douglas Brinkley caught wind of Williams’ condition and described it in his book, The Great Deluge.

Williams “fell terribly ill from dysentery on Tuesday,” Brinkley wrote. “He possibly contracted the disease by ingesting water containing bacteria, while doing a Today show appearance. He was standing next to flood water, sipping distilled Kentwood Water, when he noticed a trickle of brown on the side of the plastic bottle. A few drops of the sewage water had accidentally gotten into his mouth.”

When asked about his sickness, Williams seemed eager to change the subject. His reasoning was clear: “People were dying around me. The last person in my thoughts was myself.”

“Doomsday scenario”

When Williams says “people were dying around me,” he still sounds shocked.

He was sitting at home on Aug. 27 when NBC News president Steve Capus called. Capus, fresh off a conference call with Max Mayfield, was shaken by the predictions of the storm. Williams remembers hearing the word “doomsday scenario.”

Still, Williams thought, he would cover the storm and come home a couple days later.

“I told family and friends, ‘I’ll see you in a couple days,'” he recalled.

He worried that Americans wouldn’t pay enough attention to the storm story because it was happening during the dog days of August. He packed his bags and caught a flight to Louisiana.

“The archetype television story”

Williams was inside the Superdome for the height of the hurricane. He left the shelter to anchor Monday’s Nightly News. He said the vacuum of information in New Orleans was “appalling.”

“To this day, I have never received an appropriate answer as to why, in a city with no information, they couldn’t have simply hired a plane to tow a banner with information on where to go. It would have been the only aircraft over the city, the only source of noise. People would have looked up and word would have spread like wildfire,” he says.

Instead, a disaster of biblical proportions unfolded.

“I think the despair set in around Thursday,” Williams says. “I later learned that our broadcast that night prompted a call to the president by an aide in the West Wing asking if he was watching.” (He apparently wasn’t; an aide burned Bush a DVD of the coverage.)

It happened like a slow train wreck. Williams calls it the “archetype television story.”

“I don’t think there has been a story better told by television,” he says.

For the media, Williams thinks the foremost lesson of Katrina is this: “When we go, we need to go all the way.”

He explains: “When we put our minds to it, we can cover a story unlike any other medium. We still have a vital civic role. We’ve got to remember, we report to the folks in our audience. We serve them. We have our role as watchdogs, keeping government officials’ feet to the fire. It’s undiminished; it has never changed. People say we lost our voice because of what may have been less than aggressive coverage of the runup to the war. I say we’ve always had it. This just made us first responders. We beat the first responders. We were witnesses. We were witnesses to a colossal disaster and a botched response. And that’s what happened.”