The hurricane battle to beat Dan Rather
Being based in Detroit for CNN I didn’t have much of an opportunity to cover many hurricanes, but when Hurricane Andrew was done with Florida and crossed into the Gulf of Mexico, my crew and I were assigned to intercept it.
We had been covering a big flower show in Columbus, Ohio when the call came. After apologizing to our PR handlers, they nicely provided us with big golf umbrellas emblazoned with the flower show logo in its purple and white color scheme, which we stashed deep into our Anvil cases. We promised to come back and finish the story when we returned from our hurricane coverage.
After rushing back to Detroit to load up additional gear, we flew to Houston and made our way to Galveston, awaiting Andrew’s arrival. By the next morning we learned the hurricane was tracking further east and told to keep driving till “you and Andrew meet.” In Lake Charles, La, we picked up field producer Kelly Rickenbacker who had covered more than 20 hurricanes for CBS, so we were in good hands. Kelly turned out to be the difference between winning and losing a deathmatch competition with none other than Dan Rather.
Heading east on I-10, we could feel ourselves getting closer to the storm. In Lafayette, we got out to shoot some video and were forced to take cover under our Ford Econoline van when a metal building was blown apart by winds, sending its razor-sharp section of aluminum through the air. Some cut right through trees. We were avoiding them slicing through our bones.
Further on, our national assignment desk in Atlanta instructed us to reach a town called Abbeville where a satellite truck was parked. “Just get out, get in front of the camera, and be ready to tell when you’ve seen for the last hundred miles or so.” Having done that we were back in the van when Kelly learned of major destruction in the town of Jeanerette. He also learned Dan Rather and a crew from the program “48 Hours” was aiming for that town too. The issue? Police had cut off access roads to the Jeanerette but it was clear we needed to get in and tell the story, with the added incentive to get there before Rather and Co. and get our story on the air.
Upon reaching the first roadblock, Kelly suddenly affected an accent that was a little bit of honey, a smidgen of sweetened ice tea, bolstered by the taste of a perfectly fried biscuit. That seemed to be the dialect that spoke to the heart of sheriff’s deputies who were otherwise unimpressed with our plight. They smiled at Kelly, shook his hand, and moved aside the sawhorses blocking the road to Jeanerette. Kelly kept up his act at least two more times and we suddenly found ourselves in the Jeanerette city limits where the affects of Andrew were all too obvious.
We grabbed some shots on our way into town, stopped at a shelter, all the while asking lots of pertinent questions, along with “you see Dan Rather here?” None had. We blasted away shooting as much as we could in the short time we had before hightailing it to Morgan City where the CNN satellite truck was parked, from which we’d feed in our story for the 6 p.m. show.
Knowing there would be no time to look at our video, I kept an informal log of what our videographer Chester Belecki had shot in Jeanerette and while tucked in the back seat of a very crowded minivan..Kelly had taken the big van separately..I scratched out a script and recorded the track into the camera.
Boom..we edited the piece in the satellite truck and fed it in time to make our deadline…beating Dan Rather by at least two hours..and most everyone else. Victory in hand, the desk instructed us to go on to New Orleans, get some sleep, and go home.
Postscript. The poor flower show umbrellas died a quick death after five minutes in the hurricane winds. We did go back to finish the story…about why the much-publicized show was a financial failure.