Tom Llamas: ‘I Don’t Know How You Cover Any Disaster and Not Have Some Type of Emotional Connection’

By A.J. Katz 

Tom Llamas returned to NBC News in May, a place he called home for 14 years (2000-2014) first as an MSNBC producer, then a 2004 presidential campaign embed, before reporting and anchoring for NBC stations WTVJ and WNBC.

Llamas moved to ABC News in 2014, spending nearly seven full years at the network before leaving at the end of January. Most recently, he served as the anchor of ABC World News Tonight weekend editions, anchored programming on ABC News Live and he was ABC News’ chief national affairs correspondent.

Not even four months into his second stint at NBC News, Llamas has reported a wide variety of stories for multiple NBC News broadcasts, namely NBC Nightly News and Today, and has contributed to NBC’s special and breaking news coverage across the network. He was dispatched to Tokyo last month for NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games, and also has his own primetime program on NBC News’ streaming service.

If that weren’t enough, Llamas subbed in as an anchor for Today, and is guest-anchoring NBC Nightly News all week while Lester Holt is off. On Monday, he did so while covering Hurricane Ida from New Orleans.

The man has a lot going on right now.

We caught up with Llamas on Monday evening, and he updated us on the status of New Orleans, and the status of his hurricane reporting. The native of South Florida has seen more than his fair share of extreme storms over the years.

TVNewser: What’s New Orleans like right now, and how are you and your crew holding up?

Llamas: New Orleans needs help. This is one of America’s great cities and there is no electricity anywhere. In some areas people are being told to expect power outages to last weeks and go days without drinkable water. There is a massive communications problem. AT&T, a major cell service provider, is largely out all over the New Orleans area so people can’t call for help.

We’re all fine. We are here to work and shine a light on what’s happened, to tell the stories of people who just lost everything and really need assistance.

How does Ida compare with other hurricanes you’ve covered?

Ida was such a massive storm. We were feeling powerful winds and gusts  for 12 hours straight. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Katrina. I covered that hurricane from Biloxi.  Both had the power to physically knock you down.

What is the biggest difference in how you previously covered hurricanes compared to now?

I don’t think there are big differences in the way we cover hurricanes. I covered my first major storm in 2005 during a hurricane season that was very active with storms like Katrina and Wilma. I learned a lot that summer.  You always try to stay dry. It’s impossible. You coordinate with your team and make sure everyone feels safe. And then you go out and cover that storm.

Journalists like you are there to observe and report, but there’s also a human element to all of this. Have you found yourself helping anyone in danger down there?

I don’t know how you cover any disaster and not have some type of emotional connection. People are suffering and they need help – you’re witnessing it first hand and documenting it. At our core, all journalists are communicators. To communicate effectively you need to tap into that emotion. The key is to stay balanced but also stay connected to the power of the moment.

Is there a standout anecdote you can tell us that you haven’t had the chance to bring up on TV?

In New Orleans, you never know what you’re going to run into, even during a hurricane.

The day before the hurricane hit we toured one of the city’s busiest Covid wards. New Orleans is in the middle of their fourth Covid wave. We wrapped that shoot, reported on Nightly News Saturday with Jose Diaz Balart. We then headed to our hotel, opened the doors, and walked right into a wedding. This is no joke. There was a wedding and a reception taking place just hours before a life threatening hurricane was about to hit. People were all dressed up, taking photos, and drinking. Some of the guests decided to ride out the storm in the hotel instead of going home. Imagine that. Wedding, party, hurricane, in that order.

Here’s the crazy part. I mentioned that to one of my NBC colleagues staying in another hotel and the same thing happened there. Another big wedding taking place on the eve of a hurricane.

What are must-have tools in a hurricane reporter’s arsenal?

 Solid rain gear. But again, if you’re really covering the storm, you’re going to get soaked no matter what you’re wearing. Plenty of portable chargers.  Plastic bags to hold your cellphone. A comfortable baseball cap. Flashlights, including head lamps. Fill up your car with plenty of gas and carry bottled water.  I’m a big fan of RX bars. If your company has one; a sat phone is a lifesaver when cell service goes out. And get used to taking ice cold showers when you lose power.

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