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Reflecting on Katrina five years later

The irony is as the rain fell, I was actually covering a political story. It was ironic, because the station where I worked in Lexington, KY, rarely covered politics and always covered weather. Yet as the remnants of what turned out to be the most devastating hurricane in modern American history drenched the Bluegrass, our coverage of the weather was almost non-existent.

That was Aug. 30, 2005. A day earlier, of course, Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast. I do not remember much from the day the storm hit Louisiana and Mississippi. I have no idea what story I was covering for WLEX, the NBC affiliate in Lexington. I know that the big story in Kentucky that day was that Gov. Ernie Fletcher issued a blanket pardon for members of his administration involved in an investigation about abuse of power and violating the state's merit system for government workers. The following day, Aug. 30, Fletcher was to appear before a grand jury in Frankfort. My photographer Patti and I loaded up a live truck and made the half-hour drive to the capital city in time to watch Fletcher walk into the grand jury room and reemerge mere minutes later after refusing to testify.

As what was still, I believe, Tropical Depression Katrina, brought heavy rain and wind to Kentucky, the gathered press corps followed the governor back to the capitol building for a news conference. Then we rushed outside in the elements to feed back video and do live shots for our noon newscasts. Afterward, all but one of the other crews from Lexington and Louisville, who always covered politics, went home to put together stories for the evening news. But even with Katrina on top of us, our weather-minded managers back in Lexington told me and Patti to stay in Frankfort to front our 5 and 6 p.m. stories.

I remember it was so wet and cold that we had to go to Walmart so Patti could buy some boots and a sweatshirt. The rain and wind were so strong I used an umbrella, which I rarely did, during my live shots that evening, which blocked out the view of the capitol dome that served as our backdrop, which was the whole point of being there. It was miserable that day, but we knew it was nowhere near what the people of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast had been through already. Of course, we had no idea the horrific conditions many would be forced to endure in the bungled response in Katrina's wake.

In the coming days and weeks we in Lexington became consumed with Katrina coverage. Shelters were set up at churches, where, we were told, victims from the Gulf Coast would come for sanctuary. I remember another live shot, it must have been that Friday, standing in a church gym in Lexington. The floor was covered with air mattresses. Each had a blanket, a towel and a bar of soap. I told our viewers the "refugees" could arrive any day at any hour. Later it was decided that the word refugee was inappropriate for fellow Americans, so we called them evacuees. I never understood that. Evacuees are usually moved from harm's way before the disaster or in its earliest moments. Refugees are victims left with nowhere to go. As far as I was concerned, we were expecting a wave of refugees, even if they were not the innocent victims of a foreign war.

Whatever you called them, they never arrived en masse in Kentucky. Most were bussed to Houston and Atlanta. In Lexington, the air mattresses were deflated and put away.

But that's not to say we did not have our share of people looking for help. I spent one day in the lobby of the local Red Cross chapter. It was almost a guarantee that the folks who walked through the door had packed their car with as much stuff and as many people as they could and left New Orleans before Katrina arrived. Most said they drove and drove and drove until they could find a hotel room or a relative. For many, the first safe haven they found was 750 miles away in Lexington.

I met one woman who told me she had lived on the now aptly-named Flood Street in the Big Easy's Lower 9th Ward. To tell her story I found video of her street sign standing just inches above the water line. Another man told me about seeing a photo of his neighbors on the Houston Chronicle's website. They had stayed behind with their invalid daughter who survived on machines in their house. As the water rose, they kept moving her higher, until all that was left was to cut a hole in the attic roof and make a sign on some wood pleading for help from above, which they would receive in the form of a helicopter rescue. The Houston Chronicle was kind enough to let me use that photo for my story that night.

In the weeks and months to come, we met more people who had escaped the devastation just in time, but had nowhere to go home to. One weekend we were there when a man and his young child were given a house to live in in the Lexington suburbs while he continued to get his life back on track. The emotion of the moment overwhelming to all involved. Of course, people were not the only victims of Katrina. A Southern Kentucky animal shelter helped foster dozens of the thousands of pets owners were forced to leave behind. I watched as a team of veterinarians microchipped abandoned dogs and cats hoping some of them might already have the technology embedded in their necks so they could be identified and reunited with their owners.

I did my part, too. Our station partnered with the Salvation Army on a project called Kentucky Cares. My friend and co-worker Bernadette and I spent a day off walking around in traffic at a busy intersection outside the Fayette Mall to collect donations. Some people would hand over the pile of change most of us have in our cars. Others would open their wallets and give us all their cash. Still others used a red light to quickly write out a check for hundreds of dollars. The generosity was mind-boggling. I'd say at least half of the people we approached at that intersection rolled down their window and contributed something.

Katrina is an event few of us who watched it or experienced in any way will ever forget. I know I won't. I will never forget the looks of despair and exhaustion on the faces of the people who walked into that Red Cross office. But I'll also never forget their positive outlooks, as they gave thanks for having their lives, even if the rest of their world was gone. It was a time of incredible human suffering and incredible overcoming of adversity. It was a time that made you question why such things happen, but also made you marvel at the strength of the human spirit, even in the face of so much loss. The irony is as the rain fell, I was actually covering a political story.

By: Kevin Wuzzardo


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