It was the birds that tipped him off. Two days before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, while the storm was still out at sea and its path remained uncertain, Garland Robinette was coming out of his neighborhood coffeehouse when he noticed something strange. A large palm across the street, normally home to a flock of green parrots so noisy that talking near it was impossible, was empty and silent. As he walked home, Robinette scanned the trees and phone lines of his Uptown neighborhood. Nothing. All the birds had vanished. His mind went back to the jungles of Vietnam where he had served as a Navy “Riverine,” running commandos up rivers and canals on small boats. There the birds always knew before the troops when mayhem was at hand, and cleared out. That afternoon Robinette went on the air at wwl radio, the fifty-thousand-watt station that broadcasts across the gulf south from its home in New Orleans, and advised his listeners in no uncertain terms that they should follow their feathered friends out of town. “It’s time to panic,” he told them.
At the time of Katrina, Robinette was still a relative newcomer to radio. In the seventies and eighties he had been a fixture on New Orleans TV news, co-anchoring the 6–10 p.m. broadcasts at the highest-rated station in town with Angela Hill, his former wife of nine years (“Garangela,” one press wag dubbed them at the time). But in 1990, Robinette, burned out and bored with a profession he’d come to find “superficial,” walked away from what was as close to a lifetime appointment as you could hope to find in modern American journalism (Hill is still a lead anchor at the station). He moved to the country to paint and embarked on a successful stint in public relations. He thought he was done with broadcasting. I remember meeting him for the first time during this period at a mutual friend’s wedding in Manhattan. When I told him I was newly enrolled in journalism school, he winced: “Why?”
But in 2004, when a close friend and popular radio talk-show host in New Orleans was diagnosed with cancer and asked Robinette to fill in, he agreed, though he admits he had long looked down on radio as the “trailer trash” of the media world. To his surprise, he found that its open format and close interaction with callers agreed with him. WWL asked him to go on the air full-time in 2005, a few months before Katrina struck the city.
Robinette’s performance during and after the storm has become a piece of Katrina legend. The night of the storm, he stayed on the air even as the windows in wwl’s downtown broadcast studio blew out. In the days and weeks that followed, he would sometimes broadcast twelve hours straight or more, working from a studio the size of a broom closet at wwl’s makeshift studio in Baton Rouge. At a time when cable television and even electricity were scarce, Robinette’s raspy voice was often all people had to steady them through the crisis. His interview with Mayor Ray Nagin a few days after the storm, in which the mayor aimed a profanity-laced stream of invective at the federal government’s failure to respond, went viral on the Internet and is considered, in retrospect, the turning point in getting the city help. “He really came into focus with that,” says Dave Walker, who covers media for The Times-Picayune. “It was his emotion and raw reaction to the state of the response to the storm, coupled with Nagin’s response. It’s one of the most incredible pieces of broadcasting I’ve ever heard. Even the silences were devastating.”
Robinette’s pleas on behalf of New Orleans got him a star turn in Spike Lee’s four-part HBO documentary about Katrina (though Robinette admits he had no idea who Spike Lee was). He developed an ardent fan base among the national press covering the storm, such as Brian Williams of NBC News, who called Robinette “iconic,” and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who labeled him a pillar of the city. He even got an exclusive sit-down with President and Laura Bush.