The Hurricane Station

Through deadly winds, rain and floods - the New Orleans radio station that fought to keep listeners alive during Hurricane Katrina.

On Friday afternoons in the Big Easy, people clock off early.

True to its reputation as America's most hedonistic city, offices empty as bars and restaurants fill up.

On 26 August 2005, many were scrambling to watch their beloved football team, the Saints, play against the Baltimore Ravens in the New Orleans Superdome.

Built in the 1970s, the Superdome sits next to a spaghetti of concrete flyovers. An imposing steel structure with a white roof, it sits in stark contrast to the Spanish inspired balconies with lace-like finishes in the French quarter, where tourists flock.

Next to the Superdome, on the fifth floor of the Dominion tower, a 1980s style skyscraper, Dave Cohen was also winding down for the week.

As news director for the city's talk radio station WWL, he was getting ready to hand over to the sport team, who would broadcast the game live.

All week Dave had been keeping a careful eye on the forecast for this weather-beaten stretch of the Gulf Coast.

A hurricane, named Katrina, had hit Florida the day before, claiming nine lives there.

By Friday morning it had picked up strength and was predicted to be heading towards the Florida panhandle, the north-west strip of the state.

Dave thought the worst case scenario for his home city had been averted. “We can stand down, and stay off of high alert for now,” he told his team.

He had no way of knowing that in little more than 72 hours, New Orleans would be under water and WWL would be the only local radio station left on air.

Diane Newman remembers her first hurricane. She was just eight years old when Betsy's powerful waves whipped the family home in 1965.

Her parents had just bought a station wagon and a brand new freezer. Her mother was so excited she'd stocked it full of fresh meat. But as Hurricane Betsy advanced, and the water rose higher and higher, they were forced to leave it all.

Diane clung to her neighbour's shoulders as he carried her to one of the only homes on their street in the Gentilly neighbourhood of New Orleans with two storeys.

As she sat in his house - looking through an upstairs window - the new car and her home drowned.

Huddling inside in the darkness, Diane and her family listened to WWL for updates.

Years later, when Pan Am flight 759 crashed into the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, killing all 146 passengers on board and eight people on the ground, she turned to the same radio station for updates and information.

“WWL was the epicentre of that event, all the authorities were calling in to share information,” she says recalling the tragedy in 1982.

“That was the moment I chose radio.”

By August 2005, Diane had risen to programme director of WWL radio. A formidable woman with Creole roots, Di, as her friends call her, is a survivor of cancer, an experience she says left her fearless.
Defining herself as mixed race, she works in an office which is predominantly white, running a team of mainly male presenters.

WWL was the first radio station to broadcast in Louisiana, in 1922. “Wide World Loyola,” was started by Loyola University, a Catholic institution, and had to get permission from the Vatican before it went on air.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John F Kennedy appeared on the airwaves, using WWL's powerful signal on the Gulf Coast to broadcast to the Cuban people.

By 2005, WWL was a thriving news, talk and sport station broadcasting from 870 on the AM dial.

But even with a pedigree like that, no-one at the station was prepared for what Katrina was to bring.

“It wasn't supposed to be our storm,” says Di.

Friday 26 August 2005, Katrina is over the Florida Keys. New Orleans is hundreds of miles to the west.

Friday 26 August 2005, Katrina is over the Florida Keys. New Orleans is hundreds of miles to the west.

Not long after 4pm, Dave Cohen's pager began beeping like crazy.

The National Hurricane Center had issued its latest storm advisory, and it didn't look good.

The path of the hurricane had shifted 150 nautical miles west into the north-central coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida would escape the brunt of Katrina's second battering. New Orleans and its surrounding areas would be her target instead.

“They said it was coming straight for New Orleans. And all those things we had feared about the worst-case scenario suddenly came rushing back,” he explains.

Saturday 27 August 2005, gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina heads northwest.

Saturday 27 August 2005, gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina heads northwest.

But with the weekend already under way and Katrina three states away in Florida, many people in New Orleans had stopped paying attention to the weather forecasts.

“Screaming from the rooftops probably would have been as effective,” says Dave.

“Whatever they were doing for that weekend, they had initiated those plans.”

Dave Cohen hails from Chicago, and has been with the station since 1997. He has one of those soothing radio voices which melts in your eardrums. There's a warm and welcoming smile under his neatly trimmed beard. He is smart but not intimidating.

The sport team was still covering the Saints game, but during half-time, Dave and his news crew dramatically ramped up their coverage.

That's also when Dave picked up the phone and called his wife.

“Start packing,” he told her. “You've got to go.”

Monday 29 August 2005 - Katrina hits New Orleans.

Monday 29 August 2005 - Katrina hits New Orleans.


By Saturday morning, WWL had switched to a rolling news format. New Orleans was preparing for the unimaginable.

In each of the city's seven parishes, akin to state counties, evacuation plans were announced.

Commercial breaks were phased out of the coverage.
The station embarked on a frenzied effort to urge people to leave the city.

“People suffered from hurricane amnesia,” Dave explains. The last cataclysmic storm to hit New Orleans was Betsy, a generation before.

Despite the urgent calls to evacuate, many didn't believe Katrina had the power to destroy.

For those too sick or frail to make their exit, the Superdome was to be opened up as a refuge of last resort.

Meanwhile, Diane met other managers at the station to form a plan for continuous coverage during the storm.

As the state's designated “Primary Entry Point” station, it received extra supplies from the US government to stay on air during periods of no electricity - and was also expected to relay official emergency messages.

Wary of hurricanes, the station's parent company had previously created a disaster preparedness plan. It was now being put to the test.

A concrete bunker in nearby Jefferson Parish became Dave's back-up studio. The windowless location - four storeys high with only two doors and little else - used to serve as a waste incinerator.

It was chosen because it was close to the station's transmitter, and considered safe, as it was also the headquarters for the parish's Emergency Operations Center, where some officials would be stationed.
Setting up an additional studio for the storm was a feat in itself.

Dave would be working there with an engineer and two other reporters, sending information back to the team broadcasting from the main WWL building.

Ahead of time they took a small boat and lashed it to the ground with 10ft of rope. It would provide an easy way to get around, once vehicles and roads were submerged.

All the preparations had to be finely balanced - as head of the news team Dave was still covering the evacuation, advising listeners on how to leave town.

By staying, he and other members of staff would be placing themselves at great risk. Everyone at WWL was given the choice. For Dave it was clear.

“As a reporter you have to be able to block those fears and emotions out,” he says.

“If everyone just ran scared and left the city behind, who was going to tell everybody what was happening?”

By Sunday, WWL radio had cleared out its regular schedules for dedicated storm broadcasting.

Katrina was advancing and was about 180 miles south of the Mississippi River, but as every minute passed she became faster, stronger, and ever closer.

Upgraded to the most dangerous Category Five classification, her wind speeds were peaking at 175mph.

As Garland Robinette made his way into work that morning, he noticed something different. A tree usually filled with green parrots was empty. There were no dogs or cats on the street.

It reminded him of the time he served in Vietnam. There, when things were on the verge of getting very bad, strange things would happen. “The birds would go quiet.”

A decorated war veteran, he had, by his own admission, stumbled into a career in broadcasting. Born in rural Louisiana's Cajun country, he worked as a janitor at a local radio station, and was “in charge of urinals”, he admits with a smile.

Garland says he “lied about his credentials”, so he could read weather and soybean reports in his first broadcast role. Later, when a presenter on a TV station in New Orleans got drunk one Christmas and failed to turn up, Garland seized the moment.

By 2005, Garland was a well-known face in New Orleans, as the anchor for WWL's television arm. That summer he was filling in on the radio for his friend, David Tyree, who had cancer.

To reach the studios that day Garland had to walk past the Superdome.

The dome was due to open at midday, but crowds clutching mattresses and sleeping bags were already lining up to get inside.

Other staff involved in the Katrina coverage began to arrive at the station as well - Diane Newman had instructed everyone to be in the building on Sunday morning before the authorities closed highways and access roads.

To her surprise, some had arrived with their families and even their pets, hunkering down in empty studios with blankets and supplies.

As the day progressed the numbers sheltering at the station rose, after the nearby Hyatt hotel, which was often used as a safe haven by the staff, was deemed under threat from gusting winds.

In the midst of all of this, Diane took a call from her father, Everett Newman. On Friday she'd pleaded with her family to leave the city and go to Houston, where they had relatives.

But on Sunday, her father told her they were in the Hyatt.

“Y'all are kidding me - you didn't leave?” she said, before she burst into tears.

“Time to run gang. Time to run,” Garland Robinette told listeners at the top of his broadcast on Sunday afternoon.

As he read out the station's telephone number, callers began to flood the lines. Many were stranded on highways, stuck in unyielding traffic jams caused by the mass exodus from the city.

One man named Marco phoned to say people were running out of petrol - he'd burned three-quarters of a tank by moving at two miles an hour, and had seen a woman in tears after she had been forced to abandon her car.

City officials began calling into the radio station as a way of delivering vital information to residents.

“The gap is closing very quickly for you. If you haven't gotten out, you need to get out,” was the desperate on-air plea from Phil Capitano, the Mayor of Kenner.

As tension built, Garland did his best to reassure his listeners.

We are the beacon, we are the lighthouse, stay with us.”

Regular weather updates on the station warned of a storm of “historic proportions” which would leave most of the area uninhabitable for weeks.

At the same time fears began to emerge that the storm surge could top the levees which protect New Orleans.

The city sits below sea level and the man-made barriers, coupled with a canal drainage system, prevent excess water flowing into built up areas from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain during storms.

By that evening, the station itself was preparing to hunker down, as the winds whipped and whistled outside.

Garland and the engineers began boarding up the glass windows of the studio, live on air.

On Sunday evening, a reporter named Dan gave an update from the Jefferson studio.

The sky is angry, he said, as he looked out at the thick and ominous clouds.

Katrina was on her way - and she would be merciless.

Katrina arrives

Outside of his bunker in Jefferson Parish, Dave Cohen watched as a tree bent into a curve, the winds tugging at its branches.

As Sunday turned into Monday, Katrina made landfall.

First came the huge ferocious gusts, which toppled trees in their path. Then the power lines fell like dominoes, as the electricity cables which held them together dropped to the ground. Traffic lights were ripped from the earth while the rain lashed around them.

As she continued her onslaught on the city, Katrina peeled roofs from house after house, exposing the people left behind to the full extent of her devastation.

Water gushed into the streets, hurtling down avenues like white-water rapids. Debris danced in the air. Homes became submerged.

As Dave broadcast details of the drama unfolding before him, he was approached by an official from the Emergency Operations Center.

“You have two choices - you can come back in and stay in, or you can stay out,” the official said.

They were shutting the doors, afraid that if they were opened again during the storm, they would be ripped off their hinges and the building would flood.

“If I wanted to be alive to tell the rest of the story, my likelihood of surviving was much better in the bunker than it was out in the wrath of Katrina,” he remembers.

And so Dave took shelter, watching the storm play out on monitors - showing feeds from remote cameras fixed to the bunker, as well as from cable TV and the National Weather Service radar.

By the early hours of Monday WWL radio was the only station coming live from New Orleans, broadcasting from back-up generators.

By this point even their sister network, WWL-TV, had decamped to Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, 90 minutes' drive west of New Orleans.

But staying on air after the winds knocked out the electricity was arduous. A back-up generator powering the AM signal had shut down.

The signal was being broadcast on the FM frequencies of its sister stations, but to ensure maximum reach, they needed to get the AM frequency back on.

After the worst of the storm had passed, Dave got the go-ahead to leave the bunker, and travelled with an engineer, Dominic Mitchum, to the WWL transmitter site.

It wasn't far, but the only way the pair could reach it was by wading through water waist deep, including a swamp filled with alligators and snakes.

As the men took precautions to avoid the reptiles' slippery advances, they were attacked by a cluster of floating fire ants.

After storms, the stinging insects clump together in a raft-like structure to survive, and Dave and Dominic had wandered right into one.

The men restarted the transmitter by flipping the switch on the back-up generator, and returned to the bunker. There, they soon noticed parts of their bodies beginning to swell. The ants had made their mark.

Dominic's leg ballooned to the size of his waist. Bunker staff took him to a nearby hospital, one of the few still open.

Dave telephoned his wife to tell her he was alive.

Meanwhile across the city, listeners continued to tune in to WWL. Many on the battery-operated radios they had packed in their hurricane survival kits.

And the calls kept coming.

Amanda phoned from the highway in Mobile Bay - her baby was hungry and she wanted to know where she could find food. Presenters shared numbers on air for nearby service stations.

Those who'd stayed reassured the increasingly worried DJs that they could ride out the worst of the storm.

“I mean, I live in a good brick house,” said one caller. “The only thing I'm concerned about is my roof.”

From her perch high up in the Dominion Tower, Diane Newman could hear the winds whistling furiously as she felt the building shake.

Garland was on air. From his seat in the anchor chair next to a boarded-up window, it was hard to get a sense of the chaos outside - until he heard a crashing sound.

“Voop. Voop. POW!”

“Uh, oh,” thought Garland, “this one's different.”
The giant window covered by the board had broken.

Diane and the station's engineer Joe Polet realised they had to get Garland and his co-presenter out before the hurricane began sucking up everything in its path.

Jo presented Garland with a microphone stand on wheels, and ushered him into the hallway.

To Diane the contraption looked like an intravenous drip - Garland connected to the microphone and wires as he walked along the studio's corridor talking to listeners without missing a beat.

“It was the lifeline, quite literally,” says Diane, “I can still see that IV in my head,” she says holding her right hand up to her mouth as if to mimic Garland on air.

Garland found himself presenting from a control room the size of a small closet.

“I was in there for a long time standing up talking to myself,” he says. “Most of the night, it felt kind of silly.”

As listeners called in, Kristian Garic, a producer, prepared to put them on air - then ran down to the other end of the hallway where Garland was broadcasting, to tell him the name and location of each caller.

All night Kristian ran back and forth, patching in calls before manually passing on information that ordinarily could be conveyed through headphones in the studio.

As the storm hurtled through the radio station, Katrina had also paid a visit to the Superdome, hammering holes in its roof. As thousands sheltered inside, rain poured in.

From the station, Garland could see it.

“The entire top of the Superdome is flapping in the breeze,” he said.

“And your brain just does not wrap around it, 'How is the top of the Superdome just flapping like a big sheet in the wind?'”

By the end of a marathon day of broadcasting, Diane and her team believed they'd ridden out the worst of the storm.

Then, the levees...

By the early hours of Tuesday, large areas of the city were submerged.

Officials had already confirmed that the industrial canal levee had been breached, sending water and destruction into the Lower Ninth Ward.

Callers jammed the station's number trying to make contact with missing family members. Others feared for their own life.

Jim, who was blind, telephoned. His fiancee had escaped but left him behind with just one bottle of water.

Deborah called in a panic - her husband and children weren't answering their phones, and her husband couldn't swim.

Freddie called from his roof. He'd punched his way through the attic as the water rose. But in the dark the helicopters kept passing by, as he waited with his family, including a baby.

Shortly after midnight, Earline Singleton, a grandmother in her 60s, telephoned the station from the Mid-City area. As she sat on a love seat on her porch, she could see cars floating on the water, as it continued to rise around her.

“Is it still rising now?” Jeff, one of the overnight hosts asked.

“It's still rising, as we speak it's rising. It's rising fast, not slow,” Earline said.

An hour later Eric Bishop, who was also in the Mid-City part of town, telephoned WWL. He told listeners he could hear screams for help as he sat outside his house, in the sticky, sweaty August heat.

The water levels were climbing where he was too, and he wanted to know why. He'd been hearing that another levee, along the 17th Street Canal, had also given way.

Call after call reported the same scene - water gushing furiously down Canal Street, filling up the city like a giant bathtub.

At 3am, Dave was still being told by officials that it was too early to tell whether further levees had been breached.


Diane was asleep, upright, in the control room chair when she was woken up in the very early hours of the morning by one of the engineers.

“It's something about the levees breaking,” she was told as she hurried to the newsroom and called Dave.

Dave had received confirmation that more of the city's levees had failed. New Orleans was filling up with as much as 18ft of water, and there was little to stop it.

Military helicopters dropped sandbags the size of trucks into the holes, but they vanished like coins in a fountain. Nothing could stem the flow.

Dave told Diane the news about additional breaches, including at the 17th Street and London Avenue levees.

As she heard the latter, she sighed. “At that moment I knew my family had lost their house again.”

Dave, meanwhile, went on the air with a desperate plea.

I begged anybody left in the city, and I said 'If you can hear my voice and you are in the city of New Orleans, you must leave now or you will die'.”

Diane cast an eye around the room, surveying staff, family members and their pets. Staying in the building was no longer an option. Everyone needed to get out, and fast.

She drew the best route out of the city on a piece of paper and handed out photocopies. In a matter of seconds, people began to scramble for the exits, running down flights of stairs because the loss of power had stopped the lifts.

Dave's location in Jefferson Parish was considered safe, so he would take over the airwaves, anchoring all the coverage, until the WWL team relocated to a new studio in Baton Rouge.

Authorities were monitoring the broadcast as part of their rescue efforts. Officials were invited to visit one of the two broadcast locations to share vital information on the air.

As distraught listeners jammed the phone lines, those who couldn't get through were encouraged to show up in person, to leave messages for loved ones.

Diane's thoughts drifted to her family who were taking shelter in the ballroom of the Hyatt, after power was lost and windows in the rooms had shattered. She called her sister Carol, informing her of the route out of the city.

“Di, let's go,” shouted Garland as he gestured to her.

Reluctant to leave her family behind, she followed, dashing down the stairs to the car park below, wading through 2ft of water to get to Garland's brand new hybrid car.

As the car drove out past the Superdome, through water up to the wing mirrors, it made an unusual noise.

But somehow, the battery powered it through. Garland looked behind to see other vehicles hit the same water and stall.

At the Crescent City Connection, a set of steel bridges which span the Mississippi River, police were everywhere. The road had been blocked and cars weren't allowed across to leave New Orleans.

But after a tense few minutes of Garland pleading their case, the car was waved through.

Officials said the closure was to prevent looting and crime in the city from spilling out beyond, but it's still the one thing Diane finds hard to comprehend.

Why, when so many people were desperate to find safe passage, was one of the few ways out guarded by armed men?

As they drove to Baton Rouge, they listened to Dave Cohen on air as he fielded more calls from desperate listeners.

Dave hadn't stopped for days by now and was surviving on a diet of energy drinks, plastic wrapped cakes and adrenaline.

I just remember thinking we cannot stop. We have to save as many lives as we can.”

At times it was hard to disguise the grief, knowing that many of those who called in would not make it.

A woman named Lynette made a particular impression on him. She'd phoned in while she was holding a three-year-old and a newborn running a high fever. She pleaded for his advice as the water climbed ever higher.

Dave suggested she swim out of the window, and when the water was high enough, get up on to the roof and wave a blanket or sheets.

Lynette's address was shared out on the airwaves, in the hope that someone in a boat or helicopter might rescue her.

He still wonders whether or not she made it.

Katrina's wake

By Thursday Garland Robinette was back on air, from the new location in Baton Rouge.

What was usually a local news station had become one of the only ways to learn what was happening as the country's worst natural disaster unfolded.

Thanks to an “unprecedented” partnership with their competitors, WWL's content was now being heard across the dial on almost all FM, AM and shortwave stations in the New Orleans area.

It was also being heard widely across the US, after permission was given for any other network to retransmit coverage. Listeners across the world were streaming coverage online.

“We're broadcasting at like two o'clock in the morning and Diane came in and she said, 'Go to lines two, three, and four - Sweden, Australia, Africa',” recalls Garland.

“And I said, 'Right. Do we have anybody on?' And she said, 'Yeah - Sweden, Africa, and Australia.'”

Having been away from the airwaves while he escaped New Orleans, Garland had had the opportunity to listen to a lot of WWL's coverage in his car.

Hearing the suffering and the pleas for help was making him angry.

“I didn't really care what I said. I didn't care if the ratings went up or down or sideways. I was furious,” he says, reflecting back on that time.

He railed against the slow response by the federal government, telling listeners President George W Bush's administration had failed the people of New Orleans.

“This is war,” he said repeatedly, as he spoke to callers and officials.

The city was pleading for salvation, but the official response had been slow, and lives were being lost.

Diane was keen to get an interview with the city's Mayor Ray Nagin and began texting him repeatedly.

“We were begging Mayor Nagin to use us - to use the powerful signal of WWL to talk to the people trying to survive this tragedy, and to talk to leaders around the country,” she says.

And so he did, phoning the studio number direct and talking to Garland.

Nagin told listeners he'd spoken to President Bush and the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, asking for help:

“I keep hearing that it's coming - this is coming, that is coming - and my answer to that today is where is the beef? Because there is no beef in this city, there is no beef anywhere in south-east Louisiana and these goddam ships that are coming, I don't see them.”

As the call progressed, Mayor Nagin's tenor became more urgent, more passionate.

“You know, God is looking down on all this, and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price.

“Because every day that we delay, people are dying and they're dying by the hundreds,” he said.

Across the city, people stopped in their tracks as they heard their mayor's uncharacteristic display of emotion.

Eric Bishop in Mid-City recalls scooping water of out his boat with a cup as he listened in.

The world was listening too, and the unbridled, desperate and passionate plea from the mayor helped underscore the suffering in New Orleans.

The interview lasted for nearly 15 minutes. As it ended, both men burst into tears.

There was a pause before Garland called for a break as the news took over.

Diane walked in and hugged him, as both sobbed for the city they loved dearly.

It took seeing his seven-year-old daughter to bring Dave to tears. Throughout the week she had been hysterical, convinced her father had drowned, even though she had heard his voice on the radio, and talked to him briefly on the phone.

She remained sceptical because she knew her father sometimes recorded broadcasts in advance, having sat with him in the car while those pre-recorded reports went out.

“She doesn't believe that you're ok, she still thinks that you were recorded,” Dave's wife had told him.

It wasn't until the end of the week, when he drove up to Alexandria, Louisiana, where his family had been staying, that she was convinced.

“That was the first time I had actually stopped working, stopped the mission, and just hugged and kissed,” he says.

“I cried, too. I cried a lot because you block out all that emotion.”

A decade on, Garland Robinette, Dave Cohen and Diane Newman all still work at WWL.

In their new offices, which they relocated to post-Katrina, glass cabinets are filled with awards they won for their marathon broadcasts.

For them, the trophies are bittersweet. More than 1,800 people lost their lives in the storm, and more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region were displaced.

Families like Diane's were torn apart - after their time at the Hyatt, her parents and her sister Carol moved to Baton Rouge.

Two weeks after the storm, Diane was summoned to Washington to testify before the Federal Communications Commission. She addressed the group of sharp-suited men in clothes she had bought at a Baton Rouge Walmart.

WWL had given “hope to the hopeless”, she told the commission. She spoke about the power of radio, and singled out the staff who worked through the storm.

“Many of our radio family members lost everything they owned. Many didn't know the fate of their spouses, parents, brothers, sisters, friends,” she said.

“But, we did the work.

“We do the work.”