In the years since the storm, Robinette hasn’t lost any of his passion but admits that he is weary at times. Broadcasting from WWL’s new studio, with the Mississippi River Bridge framed outside his window, Robinette holds down the 10 a.m.–1 p.m. slot at the “Big 870.” Soon to be sixty-six, he still has something of the look of a TV anchorman, but his voice has a pronounced croak, due to complications following surgery in 2007 to fix a snoring problem that left him coughing and bedridden for months, often unable to speak. Seated behind two computer screens, with CNBC muted on a nearby television and stacks of highlighted reference material on the desk in front of him, Robinette styles his show as a “think tank” and invites callers to challenge both his and their own preconceptions of the world. Robinette strives, with mixed results, to keep the tone highbrow—a rare commodity on AM talk radio—directing his producers to screen obvious yahoos and callers who “don’t have all their teeth.” The goal is npr but the result is more often Fox News-light. The callers tend to run conservative, as does Robinette in many areas, though he is at times a vocal backer of President Obama and is moderate on social issues.
Also, as much as Robinette may admire the cool, detached tone of public radio, his natural persona runs altogether hotter, and he is frequently a combative presence on the air. Despite almost forty years in broadcasting, he says his stomach still turns flips before a show. In the studio, he bounces in his seat and leans into the microphone, dabbing his finger on a moist Halls lozenge and sucking it to soothe his aching throat. He doesn’t have much patience with callers he sees as mindless acolytes of what he calls the two “stupid clubs”—the “Demedonts” and the “Republicants.” And special woe unto the caller who happens to challenge Robinette’s positions in one of the areas he sees as sacrosanct, such as the treatment of veterans, the evils of bureaucratic incompetence, and what he describes as the near-criminal negligence in the rebuilding of New Orleans.
One organization, above all others, has been a particular target of Robinette’s wrath: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the institution charged with building and maintaining the hundreds of miles of levees that surround New Orleans and southern Louisiana. For Robinette, Katrina was not a natural disaster but a man-made one caused by the Corps’s failure to maintain the levee system despite years of warnings that it was at risk of failure. A report to Congress on how the Corps plans to overhaul the levees, in the wake of Katrina, to withstand major hurricanes was initially due in December 2007, but still has not been finalized. When an investigation funded by the National Science Foundation discovered that the levee-rebuilding work done by the Corps after the storm had used a cheaper and more permeable type of soil, to save money, Robinette took to the air to call the Corps “a stupid, evil organization.” (The Corps denied the foundation’s charge.)
He is no less caustic in private. “What should I have called them?” Robinette says, his face clouding with anger. “When they rebuild levees they know will fail and they know people will die because of it?”
In May, Levees.org, a local watchdog group, found that the Corps had paid $5.2 million over the last two years to an outside public relations firm to polish its image, touching off a fresh chorus of outrage that the Corps was spending more on image-building than levee-building. “Garland has a big heart and isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said without fear of retribution,” says Sandy Rosenthal, the head of Levees.org and herself a frequent critic of the Corps. “New Orleans can be like a factory town when it comes to the Corps. It’s a big employer, spends a lot of money, has lots of contracts and vendors.” (Despite numerous calls seeking comment, the Corps never made anyone available to discuss Robinette and his criticisms.)
Part of Robinette’s frustration with the Corps stems from the fact that he has been sounding the alarm on the potential consequences of suspect levees and coastal erosion since he started in television in the early 1970s. “He recognized the problem and did really in-depth reporting on the issue before anyone else down here,” says Jim Henderson, who worked with Robinette for twelve years as a sports anchor at wwl. “August 2005 finally proved his point.” Indeed, Robinette says he produced special reports annually on problems in the wetlands for WWL before station management finally asked him to stop in the late 1980s. “They said everybody thought I was crazy and obsessed,” Robinette recalls.