Katrina took an emotional toll on anchors

NEW YORK — ABC’s Robin Roberts and Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith, who planned 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 began the television remembrances Friday with “Hurricane Katrina, Storm of a Lifetime.” ABC’s “Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm” airs Sunday.

Fox’s chief news anchor was among many reporters who didn’t hide his anger at a failure to get help to survivors quickly after the storm, for which the Bush administration was widely criticized. Smith said he received thousands of emails 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 f—-ing 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 included 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 a Pass Christian, Mississippi, inn 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 had not 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.