WGN weatherman remembers living through Hurricane Katrina, 10 years later

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NEW ORLEANS -- Saturday will mark 10 years since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast causing widespread damage from Louisiana to Alabama. When the storm made landfall on August 29, 2005, WGN's Mike Janssen was working in New Orleans. Now, he's looking back at one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history.

By the time Janssen debuted as WGNO's new weekend weather anchor, Katrina was already a major hurricane, forecast to strengthen while on a path toward New Orleans, the region where hurricane specialist Eric Blake grew up.

"You fear what could happen. Meteorologically, a rapidly intensifying hurricane is quite interesting. You of course don’t want it headed toward a population center," Blake said.

A decade after the storm, Blake can still recall how somber his office at the National Hurricane Center became when Katrina grew to Category 5 strength with maximum sustained winds near 175 mph, and gusts of more than 200. It was capable of producing storm surge flooding of 18 to 22 feet, locally as high as 28 feet -- numbers that shocked WGNO anchor Curt Sprang.

“We hadn’t heard that kind of power, storm surge, force coming directly at us ever before. It was frightening, flat out frightening," Sprang said.

Katrina was also dangerous and potentially deadly, prompting New Orleans to issue the first mandatory evacuation in the city’s history. WGNO set up a simulcast with fellow ABC affiliate WBRZ where we could safely monitor the storm 80 miles west of New Orleans in Baton Rouge. When a weakening Katrina made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, at 6:10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29, Blake thought he saw good news on the radar.

"I do remember thinking at first that theNew Orleans area had dodged a bullet, because the maximum winds had gone to the east. The peak storm surge we had seen up to that time was to the east," Blake said.

But Katrina had pushed a large amount of water into Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans’ drainage canals, straining and overtopping the city’s flood walls, causing numerous levees to fail. water rushed into the city, eventually reaching downtown as newscast producer Kasha Janssen was returning from her hotel to the WGNO studios.

"As we walked and the water continued and it got a little bit faster, which was very out of the ordinary. Being there 10-15 years, I knew it was wrong, something was wrong,” Kasha said.

Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans would flood forcing Kasha and a handful co-workers to spend the night in the newsroom before they surprisingly found an area where the water was low enough to drive out.

“I actually thought I had seen everything," Kasha said. "As we left we saw a lot of people on the side of the road -- older people, babies, moms -- but we couldn’t stop, because if we stopped for one we had to stop for them all.”

It took nearly a week for the tens of thousands of survivors to be plucked off every roof, pulled from every flooded home and saved from their hellish nightmare. For some the help came too late as more than 1,500 people in Louisiana died due to Katrina. Hundreds of thousands more lost homes and everything they owned.

"We really were covering the story of our lives," Sprang said.

And they told it despite having no homes and no station in a normally colorful city left an unfamiliar brown, surrounded by the stench of moldy buildings and lingering death.

“The people are different. They handle things like a huge family, and it’s what New Orleans does, survives,” Kasha said.

Katrina caused more than $120 billion in damage and it took 43 days after the storm before New Orleans was dry and free of flood water. Despite making significant strides since the storm, including improving the city’s flood control system, there are still some neighborhoods that have not recovered 10 years after Katrina.

Kasha Janssen is now a producer at WGN-TV.