It was when I heard this last year that I realized something was very wrong in New Orleans. I’ve often wondered what Meserve thought and felt and now she speaks about it to mediabristo……
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.”
“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.”
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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.”
I can understand her thoughts on it not being prefessional but I’m glad she did it as she did. It certainly hit me and informed me. Thank you Ms. Meserve.
And here is Meserve’s report from last year
MESERVE: It’s been horrible. As I left tonight, darkness, of course, had fallen. And you can hear people yelling for help. You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come.
But for tonight, they’ve had to suspend the rescue efforts. It’s just too hazardous for them to be out on the boats. There are electrical lines that are still alive. There are gas lines that are still spewing gas. There are cars that are submerged. There are other large objects. The boats can’t operate. So they had to suspend operations and leave those people in the homes.
As we were driving back, we passed scores of boats, Fish and Wildlife boats that they brought in. They’re flat bottomed. They’ve obviously going to put them in the water just as soon as they possibly can and go out and reach the people who are out there who desperately need help.
We watched them, some of them, come in. They were in horrible shape, some of them. We watched one woman whose leg had been severed. Mark Biello, one of our cameramen, went out in one of the boats to help shoot. He ended up being out for hours and told horrific tales. He saw bodies. He saw where — he saw other, just unfathomable things. Dogs wrapped in electrical — electrical lines who were still alive that were being electrocuted.
The police are having radio problems. At least they were earlier this evening. They didn’t have enough boats. They put out an appeal to various police who had personal boats to bring them to the scene. But the problem was the people who had the boats couldn’t get to the boats to bring them to the scene to go out and rescue the people.
People are out there tonight. One of the EMS workers told us that the water is driving, and I can tell you that when we came back into the city tonight, it certainly was higher here. Whether it’s rising in that neighborhood as much as it has here, I don’t know — Aaron.
BROWN: Jeanne, let me walk you through a couple of things. Are they able — are authorities able to, in any way, communicate with these people who are stranded and scared and hungry and cold and desperate?
MESERVE: They aren’t tonight. When the boats were in the water, as the boats went around through the neighborhood, they yelled. And people yelled back. But Mark, when he came back, told me that — that some of the people, they just couldn’t get to. They just couldn’t get to them. They couldn’t maneuver the boats in there.
Because this had happened before in Hurricane Betsy, there were many people who kept axes in their homes and had them in the attic in preparation for this. Some people were able to use those axes and make holes in their roof and stick their head out or their body out or climb up completely. But many others clearly didn’t have that. Most of the rescuers appeared to be carrying axes, and they were trying to hack them out as best they could to provide access and haul them out.
BROWN: I’m sorry. What…
MESERVE: There were also Coast Guard helicopters involved in it, Aaron, with the seat up (ph), flying overhead. It appears that when they saw someone on a rooftop, they were dropping flares, to try to signal the boats to get there.
BROWN: Is there any sense of — that there’s triage, that they’re looking to see who needs help the worst? Or they’re just — they were just getting to whomever they could get to and get them out of there?
MESERVE: I had the distinct impression they were just getting to whoever they could get to. I talked to one fire captain who’d been out in his personal boat. He said he worked an area probably 10 square blocks. He’d rescued 75 people. He said in one instance there were something like 18 people in one house, some of them young. One, he said, appeared to be a newborn.
And he said other boats were working the same area at the same time, also picking up large numbers of people. And he doesn’t believe they got all of them. And that’s just one 10-block area. I don’t know how big the area is. I haven’t been able to see any footage from the air, but it appears to go on forever. It’s hard for me to comprehend how many people might be out there and how many people’s lives are in jeopardy or how many people may already be dead.
BROWN: It’s — it’s — just stay with me for a bit, OK? It’s what is — for everybody now, what’s very difficult is there isn’t what we refer to in the business as a wide shot. We can’t get — authorities can’t get, we can’t get, we can’t give to those of you who are watching tonight that wide picture of what these scenes are like.
Can you — what kind of neighborhoods are we talking about? Are these middle class neighborhoods? Are they — the homes structurally sound? What are we talking about?
MESERVE: Well, the area where I was, and I don’t know what the other neighborhoods are like, but this was a poor neighborhood. These were very humble homes. Most of them appeared to be only one story high with, then, some small attic space above them. These people are people of not much means. Some of them, I would guess, do not have cars and didn’t have the option of driving away from here. Some of them, I would guess, did not have the money that would have bought them a hotel room.
MESERVE: Clearly, there were many warnings to evacuate, and people were told there was shelter downtown. And I can tell you that the rescuers tell me that everybody they picked up regretted their decision to stay where they were. But clearly, getting out of their homes would not have been easy for these people.
BROWN: How far from downtown or the center of New Orleans were you working?
MESERVE: It’s a little hard for me to judge, because we were traveling in such peculiar circumstances and very low rate of speed, having to maneuver around the boats that are on the — that are on the highway. And I might mention that the — the exit ramps and the entrance ramps to the highway are now going to be used as boat ramps to get those boats into the water to get out and rescue people.
It’s a little difficult for me to judge. I would guess, you know, somewhere between maybe five miles, I would say, to the east of the city.
BROWN: The — you talked about all the water there and the boats there. Do you have any sense of how deep that water is?
MESERVE: Well, I can tell you that in the vicinity where I was, the water came up to the eaves of the house. And I was told by several rescue workers that we were not seeing the worst of it, that we were at one end of the Ward 9 part of the city and that there’s another part, inaccessible by road at this point, where the road — where the houses were covered to their rooftops. And they were having a great deal of problem gaining access down there. The rescue workers also told me that they saw bodies in that part.
BROWN: Any — you mentioned earlier that the water seemed to get progressively deeper. The walkway from this, if you don’t know, is just a question of tide moving in and tide moving out?
MESERVE: Well, I can tell you that the people who were rescued with whom I had a chance to speak told me that the water came up very suddenly on them. They said most of the storm had passed and what apparently was the storm surge came.
Some of them talked about seeing a little water on their floor, going to the front door, seeing a lot of water, going to the back door, seeing more bodies of water, and then barely having time to get up the stairs. One man I talked to was barefoot. He hadn’t had time to put on shoes. Another woman was in her housedress and flip-flops.
As for the water tonight and how fast it may be going up and down, and you know, I may not have the most current information about the tides, but I can tell you that downtown here the water seemed to be, I’d say, six inches or so deeper than it was when I left earlier this afternoon. It may be a totally situation — different situation…
MESERVE: … out where those houses are. But I can tell you, the water certainly did not appear to be going down. And one thing we saw that — that was, oh, I just couldn’t imagine being in this situation, one of the boats had managed to pick up a fairly large group of people.
And it brought them in, and the only — the only land that was above ground were some railroad tracks. And they put them there and then they had to sit there for what seemed to me to be a couple of hours before another boat could pick them up and bring them in to the highway.
And then when they got to the highway, there was no truck to bring them in to the city, and they set off on foot into the city, Aaron.
BROWN: If you mentioned this, I apologize. Do you have — and when I say you, I think people understand — I hope people understand that it’s not just you. You’re working with a crew of people, a photographer and others. Do you have a sense of how many people may be stranded tonight?
MESERVE: Yes. Nobody has a sense of that. And may I say that the crew was extraordinary. We’ve had very difficult situations. Our cameraman is working with a broken foot since 9 a.m. this morning to try and get this story to you. Big words of praise for them and for Mark Biello, who went out and ended up in that water, trying to get the rescue boats over partially submerged railroad tracks. It was a heroic piece of work by CNN employees.
BROWN: Our thanks to you for your efforts. It — you don’t need to hear this from me, but you know, people sometimes think that we’re a bunch of kind of wacky thrill seekers doing this work, sometimes, and no one who has listened to the words you’ve spoken or the tone of your voice could possibly think that now. We appreciate your work.
MESERVE: Aaron, thank you. 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.
BROWN: Jeanne, thank you. We’ll talk later tonight. Thank you.
Jeanne Meserve, been on the team for almost 15 years, I think. She is a very tough, capable, strong reporter, and she met her match on a story tonight.
We’ll take a break. Our coverage continues in a moment.