The Weather Channel's Jeff Morrow said he still wonders about a clerk at the Hyatt Hotel in New Orleans who didn't realize the severity of approaching Hurricane Katrina until the network's crew decided they needed to get out of town in order to save themselves and their equipment.
“She said 'Oh, my God! You're leaving? Take me with you,'” Morrow recalled Sept. 1 from his Georgia home. “She was white as a sheet.”
He said the crew would transport her as far as they were going when she declined. She had volunteered to work at the hotel, she said, with tears welling in her eyes, related Morrow, one of the network's on-air meteorologists.
“I wish I knew what happened to her,” he said softly.
Weather Channel personnel have covered much extreme weather but even the most veteran staffers said they were shaken by what they saw and experienced in Katrina's path.
Morrow's crew reported from New Orleans until two hours before mandatory evacuation was declared and the city's causeway was closed. They sheltered their truck at a PetsMart in Covington, La., and got the last available room at a Hampton Inn.
When the power and cell phone service went out, they used generators to hook up to their satellite, and would wave on camera to get the attention of the control room in Georgia before starting to uplink a report.
On Tuesday, people who had left New Orleans for Covington were so desperate for information out of the Big Easy that the crew put one of their tiny monitors outside the satellite truck, and a crowd of about 100 watched it for hours, Morrow said.
Once the crew determined they needed to be in closer contact with headquarters, they began driving to Mississippi in search of both gasoline and an active mobile-phone cell. The satellite-truck driver had wisely filled the truck's auxiliary gas cans, and the crew pulled into a service station in order to empty a can into one of their trailing rental cars.
A Mississippi state trooper immediately approached them and urged them to hide the can. Hundreds of motorists were stranded in the station without fuel, he noted.
“If 50 of them come over to take that from you, I'm not going to be able to stop them,” Morrow related.
The crew hid the can behind their bodies and moved down the highway to fill the tank.
Back home late last week, Morrow said, “It was an experience I'll never forget … [people in New Orleans] really had no idea how bad it was going to be.”
Another crew proved that even when you're privy to the best weather information, the level of destruction could surprise you.
Despite warnings the that hurricane would prompt unprecedented coastal surges, meteorologist Jim Cantore's crew lost two rental cars to the flood. Their satellite truck was saved, though, when the driver piloted it to higher ground and sat in it for six hours as the storm raged, related field producer Simon Temperton.
“He was scared shitless,” Temperton said.
The crew covered Katrina's landfall in Miami before moving to Gulfport to ride out the storm. Logistics were considered: A beachfront hotel (which ultimately saw a riverboat casino washed into its parking lot) was rejected, as was a coliseum, as the crew did not want to be alone as it weathered the storm.
A representative of the local Armed Forces retirement home — a 12-story tower — invited them to set up at the federal facility. The storm seemed to have passed early Monday and the crew took breakfast with their hosts, only to find water engulfing the rentals after the meal.
That prompted the satellite truck bug-out.
The crew spent the rest of the morning carrying veterans and food supplies to higher floors and sandbags to the flooding first floor.
“Self-preservation became more important than TV,” Temperton said. “The priority was to help the people who had helped us.”
“Afterwards, we realized how lucky we were,” he added, as the veterans' facility was the only structure in the neighborhood still standing. “All the people who were acting like goofballs behind our cameras Saturday night probably aren't alive anymore.”
“I got to go home. I lost the keys to my house, but they don't have houses,” Temperton said of the community residents. “They don't have schools, they don't have anything. It's changed everything.”