The depth of the suffering in flood-ravaged Houston can’t be captured from behind an anchor desk. “CBS This Morning” anchor Norah O’Donnell was one of more than a dozen CBS News correspondents who are dispatched throughout the southeast Texas region to cover the rescue and recovery efforts, as well as the governmental response to the needs of more than 30,000 people displaced by the rising water.
CBS News correspondent David Begnaud was delivering a live report for the CBSN digital news service on Tuesday afternoon when a Houston law enforcement official told him — in no uncertain terms — to pack up and go because water levels nearby were rising fast. Begnaud’s facial expression as he looked off into the distance said it all.
“You can’t even fathom how much of this city is under water right now,” Begnaud told viewers later in the day.
The movement of staffers and equipment into the center of a natural disaster presents particular challenges for all news organizations. Communication among a large group of producers and correspondents can be tricky when basic services in an area are wiped out or overtaxed. Even getting food to teams in the field is a challenge, TV news veterans say.
O’Donnell, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, was drawn to Houston because of the scale of the suffering that became clear the day after Harvey made landfall near Corpus Christi on Friday night. Scenes of evacuees crammed into Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center evoked the memory of Hurricane Katrina victims facing primitive conditions and woeful lack of resources in the New Orleans Superdome in 2005.
“I think it’s incredibly important for us to be here and see this unfold for ourselves,” O’Donnell told Variety. “There’s nothing like shoe-leather reporting to understand the real challenges that people are facing.”
O’Donnell spent most of Tuesday reporting on conditions at the convention center and hearing the stories of those who fled their homes with what little they could carry.
Local disaster preparedness plans called for the convention center to hold up to 5,000 people if need be. By Tuesday afternoon, some 10,000 people were inside the Brown center, and there were far fewer than 5,000 cots and blankets to go around. By Tuesday evening, Houston officials announced the opening of two additional shelters to help ease the crowding.
O’Donnell emphasized that she sees her role as a journalist as holding lawmakers accountable for policies and decision-making that impacts everyday people.
“When you see a disaster like this, that’s when you really understand the power of government,” she said. “When (plans) are not executed well, people often suffer. … I think one of the questions we have to ask is why the city wasn’t prepared for (flooding) on this scale.”
The drama of Hurricane Harvey is unfolding at a moment when the news media has been under fire from many quarters — with President Donald Trump leading the charge. O’Donnell said she hadn’t experienced any anti-media backlash from those inside the convention center.
“Most people want us to tell their story at a time like this,” she said. O’Donnell added that most of those she spoke with expressed an “overwhelming sense of embarrassment” at not having been able to bathe for days.
But for the most part, O’Donnell said people seemed gratified to see CBS News and other crews bearing witness to their struggle.
“People need to know what’s going on inside this shelter,” O’Donnell said.
(Pictured: CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell and a Hurricane Harvey evacuee at the George R. Brown Convention Center)