ABC’s Robin Roberts and Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith, who anchor specials this weekend about the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating Gulf Coast landfall, both had reasons to avoid the topic.
Mississippi native Roberts reported on the hurricane in 2005 while living through a harrowing few hours not knowing whether her mother and sister had survived. Smith was the point person for a network with many viewers who did not want to believe that government mismanagement had cost people their lives.
“The stories that are told 10 years later of what happened to people are very worthwhile,” Smith said. “It’s just very hard.”
Fox News begins the television remembrances at 9 p.m. Friday with “Hurricane Katrina, Storm of a Lifetime.” ABC’s “Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Fox’s chief news anchor was among many reporters who didn’t hide his anger at failure to get help to survivors quickly after the storm, for which the Bush administration was widely criticized. Smith said he received thousands of e-mails from annoyed Fox viewers and expects to get more with the story being revisited.
“Should we have not become emotional because so many people were upset that we became emotional on Day 4 of watching babies and old people die?” he said. “I suggest that those people who were upset because we showed our emotions in watching babies and old people die that they put themselves in a situation where they watch babies and old people die, and then give ’em a call in 10 years and see if they want to (expletive) remember it. I would venture to guess that they would not.”
Smith also has ties to the region but, unlike Roberts, didn’t return for Fox’s Friday special. Fox’s show includes recollections from survivors and government officials, including former FEMA head Michael Brown and Andrew Card, chief of staff to President George W. Bush.
Smith said he believed that a decision was made early in the disaster not to save some people in need, although he did not accuse anyone specifically.
“Do I want people to remember what happened in Katrina?” he asked. “I don’t want to remember it, because what we did was we failed as a society. That’s what we did. All of our leaders failed.”
As the title alludes, ABC’s special is more about rebirth than recollections. The stories of two women provide the centerpiece. Syrena Johnson, plucked from the roof of her New Orleans home after Katrina when she was 15, returned and is working as a chef. Diane Brugger owned an inn in Pass Christian, Miss., and survived the flood that killed her husband and destroyed the business. She has rebuilt it.
Their stories of resilience make the special more relatable to viewers who may not have been through a tragedy like Katrina but go through their own hard times, Roberts said.
“It’s an unfolding story, and I talk about that,” she said. “Locals want to memorialize people who lost their lives, and they want people to see the progress. But they also want people to see that it’s still a work in progress. How long did it take to rebuild the Freedom Tower?”
Brugger hadn’t told her chilling story publicly before, and Roberts played a home court advantage to help get the interview. She’s from Pass Christian, too.
That didn’t feel like an edge a decade ago. Roberts began crying on “Good Morning America” when Charles Gibson asked about her family, who couldn’t be tracked down at the time. Her mother and sister were safe, although storm damage displaced them for a year.
Roberts revisits the story Sunday, in part because viewers frequently ask about it, but very briefly. They are tough memories, compounded by her mother’s death at age 88 in August 2012.
“There is still, 10 years later, so much emotion involved,” she said.
Here are some other television plans to mark the Katrina anniversary:
▪ A BET documentary, “Katrina 10 Years Later: Through Hell in High Water,” debuts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, with news correspondent Jeff Johnson as host.
BET’s documentary focuses on New Orleans. Johnson said there are stories of determination to be found in the wake of Katrina, but “to truly appreciate them, you have to go back.” A man in one of New Orleans’ poor neighborhoods recounts the awful night on the roof of his house, as his 4-year-old granddaughter and his elderly mother both died. The piece tells stories of artists, musicians and a restaurateur who help rebuild the city, and recounts the difficulties in getting schools operating again.
▪ In a CNN documentary, “Katrina: The Storm That Never Stopped,” Anderson Cooper returns to the Gulf Coast to revisit people that he reported on in the wake of the hurricane to see what has happened to them in the years since. The special will air at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
▪ CBS News said it will report on the anniversary throughout its various broadcast and digital platforms, but didn’t offer specifics. NBC News also plans no specials, but Lester Holt will anchor “Nightly News” from New Orleans on Aug. 28 and Al Roker will report for the “Today” show. NBC is notable for what will be missing: Brian Williams was prominent in Katrina coverage 10 years ago and returned frequently for follow-ups. But reportedly some stories he told later about Katrina coverage were part of NBC’s investigation into the extent to which the fallen anchor misrepresented his reporting.
▪ The Weather Channel is looking ahead, not back, with a special, “Katrina 2065,” that airs at 7 p.m. Thursday. Promising “cutting-edge weather animations,” the network will speculate on what would happen if a storm of similar strength hit New Orleans in 50 years.