Covering Isaac with Wayne Dolcefino

September 4, 2012 12:15:31 PM PDT
Ever wanted to know what it's like to cover a hurricane with reporter Wayne Dolcefino. Producer Kevin Hirten and photographer Colin McIntyre are keeping an online journal as they cover Isaac.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

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5:30 Route 61 north of Laplace (Headed Home)
That's it for us. The station tells us we are all clear. That means it's time to go. Next stop Houston.
[VIDEO]

2:27pm LaPlace, LA (Home Depot/National Guard Staging Area)
The flooding has been terrible here in LaPlace. Everything north of Route 61 is bad, but we're told the water is starting to recede. This Home Depot parking lot has been transformed into a make-shift military base.
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It's amazing how strong the National Guard presence has been. They were out early and are still running coordinated rescue operations with local law enforcement. Wayne is preparing for live shots at 4 pm and 5pm. Don't miss it.

1:34pm Route 61 North (High Water)
It's slow going. The water is down to one lane.
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1:15 pm Route 61, South of Norca, LA
I-10 is shut down headed north out of New Orleans. We had to take a detour up Route 61 where the water is still high, but passable. Our camera is clear, but there is still water inside. We're taking our chances and keeping it hot and dry.

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Big lines at the Shell Station. The plan is to make it to La Place for live shots for 4 and 5. Fellow KTRK reporter Pooja Lodhia (friend of the blog) went live there this morning. She and her photographer Darnell shot video and they met us at the Shell station to give us their disk. We are now fully gassed up, but dealing with a low tire pressure problem. And wouldn't you know it, the air pump at the Shell station is broken.

9:25am New Orleans, LA
You'd think by now we'd be out of the woods. You'd be thinking wrong. Right know there's a Tornado warning for downtown New Orleans and northwest in Slidell. The morning news is full of flooding video from all over southeast LA and coast MS.

Guy in the elevator: "I was born and raised here. This hurricane, right here ? this is worse than Katrina. At least that one came and went -- this one never leaves."

I spoke with officials in Plaquemines Parish and Jefferson Parish. They are working on continued rescue operations -- trying to get people out of homes flooded south of here. We are gonna try to get on a boat that is rescuing people.

That's the plan, but we have issues. Colin's camera is still fogged up. Something's wrong with it and the hairdryer isn't doing the trick. That's problem one. Problem two is gas. Most gas stations are out. Others have huge lines -- 50 deep in some places. Our fellow KTRK news crews in Slidell and La Place are running low on gas. We are in decent shape -- half a tank. But we also have an extra 10 gallons strapped to the top of the car. But it's all moot if Colin can't fix the camera. All for now.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

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11:15pm New Orleans, LA (The Hotel)
We do have power at the hotel. Thank god for that. Time for sleep.

10:55 pm New Orleans, LA (Crescent City Connection Bridge -- heading back to the hotel)
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We are crossing the bridge back into New Orleans from the south bank. The French Quarter is deserted, under dusk-til-dawn curfew. More than 500,000 people are without power and the wind is still whipping. Apparently, crews can't start repairs until the wind gets below 40 mph. That means it will be at least midnight until the first lights start going back on. Our hotel had power when we left this afternoon and we desperately hope it has power when we return.

There's a radio report about the town of Lafitte. That's where we rode out the storm this morning. Apparently, the flooding is so bad, the water so high, that crews have halted rescue operations. They will likely go back with boats tomorrow. Good thing we got out of there when we did.

I got to thinking about something Wayne said before Isaac made landfall. I was asking about Katrina and he said, "It's never a good idea to try to compare storms. Each one is totally different for totally different reasons." That's particularly true for Samuel George and the folks in Braithwaite in Plaquemines parish. During the Katrina, they got 12 inches of water. For Isaac they got 12 feet.

9:45pm Belle Chasse, LA (Belle Chase YMCA ? Emergency Shelter)
The camera is still wet and we're concerned that it could fog up before the 10pm hit. Check out Colin's MacGuyver solution. [VIDEO]

8:35 pm Belle Chasse, LA (Belle Chasse YMCA - Emergency Shelter) [PHOTO]
The folks rescued from Braithwaite across the river are staying here tonight. The National Guard is feeding everyone. It's not fancy -- chili dogs and chips -- but it's hot food and safe ground.

[PHOTO] We talked to a man named Samuel George. He scrambled to the top of his mobile home when the water started coming up. He clung to his roof, in the wind and rain, for 7 or 8 hours before a boat came to rescue him. Most distressing for Samuel is that his cousin, who lives next door, and her boyfriend never made it to their roof. He hasn't seen them at the shelter and he fears the worst. Look for his story tonight at 10pm.

7:23 pm Belle Chasse, LA (west bank levee)
The flooding in Braithwaite was caused by water spilling over the earthen levees. In case you are wondering what in the world an earthen levee is -- here's a pic. [PHOTO]

6:47 Belle Chasse, LA (Inside the Satellite truck) [PHOTO]
Water and sophisticated camera equipment don't mix. When you get water in your lens you are dead in the water (pun intended I suppose). While Colin ran cable up a slick river embankment to get ready for our KABC hit, I sat in the sat truck and dried out the lens with a hair dryer. It's not glamorous, but critical if we want to use the camera tonight.

6:16pm Belle chasse, LA (Belle Chasse-Scarsdale Ferry Landing) [PHOTO]
Back at it and going live for 6pm. Some of the worst flooding was west of here across the Mississippi River in a town called Braithwaite. The water was 12 feet deep in spots and crews had to rescue people from their homes in boats. Reporter Samica Knight is reporting live from over there. We are set up on the west bank where crews are bringing people by boat to the emergency shelter in Belle Chasse. It's amazing that it's still raining, but what we really can't believe is the continued and relentless wind. It's still so gusty that our live shot dropped on the first attempt. We're waiting now to do a live shot for KABC in Los Angeles. After that we'll starting working on our report for 10pm.

11:18am New Orleans, LA
Back safe in the Big Easy. Time now to grab a few hours sleep. Wayne will be live at 6pm and 10pm. Don't miss it.

8:41am Estelle, LA (Driving back to New Orleans)
With the water rising around us, the decision was made by Wayne, god bless him, to try to make a break for it and get out of Jean Lafitte. A local official told me that the water was expected to be high, but if we made it past the the Bayou Bridge we would be okay. The wind was gusting pretty hard but we managed to make it safely across. Very relieved.

Along the way we're seeing a lot of flooded homes. Debris is everywhere. Wayne says the damage is typical of a Category 1 storm -- tree limbs, some structural damage. He says once the wind gets up over 90 mph that's when the heavy stuff starts to happen. A few miles later we came upon two sheriff's deputies checking out a sheet metal structure that was mangled in the storm. [VIDEO]

Along the way, Colin is using a small camera called a Go Pro to get video while we're driving. It's a handy tool for news photographers. That's because they come with suction cups that grip to the front and sides of the vehicle. But when we see serious flooding or damage, Colin is the one who has to get on his rain gear, get the big camera out and do the hard work needed to get the video we need. [PHOTO]

It's worth taking a second to give Colin the props he's due. News photographers are the work horses of any storm coverage. They are responsible for all the equipment (keeping it dry, keeping it working, etc.) They also shoot the video, edit the video and often times feed the video back to the station. They set up the live shots and get the mics, IFB's and lights in working order. These guys do so much more than just lug a camera around and take pictures. And they rarely get the credit they deserve.

6:11 am Jean Lafitte, LA (The wettest place on earth)
So it's still incredibly rainy and incredibly windy and everything is soaking wet. The hurricane-like conditions have been pretty steady for about 12 hours now. Relentless. We just did a live shot where Colin, Wayne and I were huddled together, holding each other up. I've never been out in anything nearly as gnarly as this. The gusts keep blowing you around and the rain keeps driving into the soaked soaked ground. This is power.

It's looking more likely that we will be stuck here in Lafitte for the foreseeable future. No major flooding yet, but Wayne says it's going to start once storm passes us and the wind changes directions. Once it does all the roads out of town could be flooded. That's too bad for a number of reasons. Obviously for all the people who live here that need the free flow of transportation for their livelihoods and such. But also because our hotel is back in New Orleans and none of us want to spend another night sleeping in the car. Not that any of us could really sleep with the hurricane blowing us around. If I had to bet, I'd bet we are in the car. Time will tell. All for now.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

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11:02 pm Jean Lafitte, LA
Wayne blowing in the hurricane. Always great TV.[ PHOTO ] We just finished up a live hit for CNN and ABC. We're gonna get some more video, grab a few hours of sleep and be ready to go all morning. Signing off for the night. Be back in the morning.

8:53pm Jean Lafitte, LA
You know you're in the right spot to cover a hurricane when a dozen National Guard humvees pull into the parking lot right before you start your live shot. The guard has been in Jean Lafitte all day sandbagging the bayous. Now the work is done and all we can do is watch and wait.

Wayne's 4, 5 and 6pm live hits went well. We used the shelter stuff at 5 and the guard stuff at 6. After the 6pm, the winds starting to whip. Wayne, Leroy (sat truck operator and hurricane veteran) and I took the Ford Expedition up route 45 to scope out a safe spot to ride out the storm. Leroy is an expert at this ? one look at building and he knows if it will be enough to shelter the massive Sat truck. His main concern seemed to be metal siding. He doesn't want that stuff peeling off and hitting the truck. His preference is brick. After a brief ride up and down 45 we decided on a church across the street from the town hall.

So now we're committed to staying in Lafitte and that means spending the night in the Sat Truck. One of the worst things about being in the field is the black hole of information. Our phones are spotty at best and without a TV we're in the dark. I ran into the Piggly Wiggly next door to see if I could find a radio. The owner, Miss Mel, said she might have something in the back. When she returned she had a portable tv/radio under her arm. It wasn't merchandise ? it was the radio they used in the office. I refused, she insisted and I'm listening to it as I write this. These are good people down her in Bayou Country. [PHOTO]

Don't miss Wayne's live shot at 10pm.

1:50pm Jean Lafitte, LA (town hall) [VIDEO] The National Guard just showed up. They are here to help with the sandbag operation. Lots of activity here. The town is fully mobilized trying to make every last precaution before Isaac gets here. Look for reports from Wayne starting at 4pm.

1:00pm Lafitte, LA (Jefferson Parish) [ PHOTO ]
If you take route 45 to the end of the road you'll hit the small fishing and shrimping town of Lafitte. It's precariously located right between a big body of water know as "The Pen" to the east and Bayou Rigolettes to the west. The houses are all on stilts down here and the sandbagging operation is extensive. A guy we talked to said any time the wind blows from the southeast this area floods. So a hurricane coming from that direction can't be good.

11:30am Belle Chase, LA (Plaquemine's Parish Hurricane Shelter) [PHOTO]
Just a few minutes after we arrived, news came across on the big TV that Isaac is officially a hurricane. It's sobering news for a shelter packed with weary people. The national guard is here ? so are a raft of local and state emergency personnel.

Everyone we talked to said pretty much the same thing, "I just hope it's not like Katrina." A woman named Kylie Polk was there with her four children. She said it's no picnic keeping track of four young ones at a shelter, but it's better than staying home. Her house is in a low lying area and was totaled in Katrina. Kylie, like many of the people at the shelter, is eager to get back home but scared to think of what she might find when she does.

8:30am New Orleans, LA (Canal St.) [PHOTO]
They always blame it on the dry air. The news this morning is that what was once thought to be a Cat 2 monster now could never even reach hurricane status. Wayne says this is now looking like a rain event and that could mean many days of sogginess and misery for everyone. The hotel is packed with media people from all over the world. We ran into a crew from Germany when we got in last night. And of course, Jim Cantore is downstairs right now doing live shots. I guess that means we're in the right spot.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

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9:45 pm Waveland, MS (Back outside city hall) [PHOTO 1] [PHOTO 2]
We finally decide that we should head back to New Orleans after our 10pm live shot. We don't want to be stuck in Mississippi if the storm jogs west and we need to get all the way to Morgan City. Besides, if the storm goes east, we can always come back in the morning. It's time to knock out this live shot and try to get some sleep. Tomorrow's gonna be a long day.

8:12 pm Bay St. Louis, MS (200 North Beach Restaurant) [PHOTO]
It bears repeating that one of the advantages of covering a storm in the gulf is the food. We got a great meal at 200 North Beach. Wayne had the char-broiled oysters which he described as "so good it's not even funny." Of course dinner time is also strategy time. This storm is proving to be a tricky one, coverage wise. He says it is tough finding good places to go live in Louisiana. Wayne notes that the pressure on Isaac is hovering around 995 which means that it is still not that robust a storm. A powerful storm is usually closer to 920. Never-the-less, it is expected to hit at high-tide and the storm surge could be huge all along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts. The forecast still says significant strengthening is expected.

6:10pm Waveland, MS (The Waveland Pier) [PHOTO]
"The best laid plans of mice and men... " As is often the case, the technical hurdles of live television dashed our perfect planning. TV is funny. We have incredibly expensive, state of the art equipment and sometimes it flat out doesn't work. Because of issues with our satellite, none of the amazing people we talked to this afternoon made it on the air in Houston. By a bizarre twist of fate, Wayne's pkg did air in Chicago but I don't want to get too off topic here. Fact is Wayne did a few "walk and talks" (TV speak for a live shot with no vo or pkg to toss to) at 5 and 6. But now we are full throttle focused on 10pm. We hope to have a nice pkg that tells our viewers about the resilient people down here in Waveland, MS where Katrina made a direct hit nearly 7 years ago.

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This is a picture of Rocky the dog. I'm not exaggerating when I say Rocky is a legend around these parts. That's because he and his owner barely survived Katrina. They live right across from city hall where the water was 35 feet deep. To survive, Rocky and his owner had to swim out their top floor window and were later rescued blocks away clinging to a tree. They rebuilt the house, but are hoping they won't have to relive that horrible day when Katrina came ashore. By the way, Rocky relieved himself all over Colin's backpack but Wayne and I made an editorial decision not to tell him. Sorry Colin. We are watching the forecast and it really looks like this thing is going to hit southeast LA. If true that would put this part of Mississippi in what Wayne calls the "Dirty side". Apparently, the worst weather is often to the north and east of the eye. So if the track holds steady, we may be riding out the storm here in Waveland or Bay St. Louis next. Stay tuned.

1:35 pm Waveland, MS (S&B's Grille)
[PHOTO] With a couple of good stories in the can, there's time to stop for some lunch. Here's Wayne sampling some of the local fare. Great gumbo at S&B's. Even better roast beef poboys. #shamelessplug

12:24 pm Waveland, MS (St. Clare Catholic Church) [PHOTO]
Sometimes the picture tells the whole story. In the foreground the slab of the old church, in the background the brand new replacement church, on stilts of course. We talked to a man named Tom Leyland, a volunteer groundskeeper and St. Clare's parishioner for 11 years. He says the wind blew the church clean off its foundation. All that remains is the altar. A few days after the storm, Tom found the sign in a tree somewhere up the road and put it back where it belonged.

Tom is clearly a religious man but he sees no act of God in what happened to his church. To outsiders like us it's hard to resist seeing St. Claire's as a resurrection story. But for Tom it's not nearly as complicated. Hurricanes happen. The storm hit, they rebuilt. And I suspect they'd do it again no matter what Isaac has in store.

10:30 am Waveland, MS (City Hall) [PHOTO]
Waveland city hall is brand new. The old building was destroyed in Katrina. The new city hall opened just 4 months ago. Wayne interviewed a woman named Marilyn Smith who has lived in Waveland since she was 4 years old. She's lived through some major hurricanes; Betsy, Camille, but it was Katrina that nearly wiped out the town. Exactly seven years ago tomorrow the storm made landfall here in Hancock County -- killing around 50 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. The city hall where Marilyn volunteers and the church where she worships were flattened. Both are now rebuilt -- better and stronger than ever. Look for her story when we go live from the Mississippi gulf coast tonight on Eyewitness News starting at 4pm.

9:15 am Slidell, LA (On the road headed west on I-10)
Instead of waiting around for a new model, we decided to get out of New Orleans. Wayne decided on making a quick trip to Waveland, MS. Wayne:"People focus on New Orleans, but it was Mississippi that took the brunt of Katrina. In Waveland, 85 percent of the homes were destroyed." It's only an hour from New Orleans, so the plan is to shoot a quick story and if need be, be back in the Big Easy by early afternoon.

8:30am New Orleans, LA (Caf? Du Monde) [PHOTO]

Pastries and Predictions. Woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the Mississippi River and to the news that Isaac is still having trouble getting its act together. At this point it's still forecast to hit New Orleans -- but now as a strong category one rather than Cat 2 or 3. We will know more at 10am advisory, but until then it's tough to figure out a game plan for the day. We know we are going live at 4pm, 5pm, 6pm 10pm. Where better to game plan than the world famous Caf? du Monde?

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Over beignets and black coffee Wayne says, "One of the difficulties of covering a storm in this part of the coast is -- 50 miles that way is Mississippi, 50 miles the other way is Morgan City. It's much easier to cover storms in Mississippi -- big wide beaches and good hotels. West of here it gets very problematic. Not a lot of good spots to get near the water." Right now we wait.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

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10:15 pm New Orleans, LA (Boubon St.) [PHOTO]
Live on Bourbon St. -- Houstonians everywhere, all excited to see and talk to Wayne Dolcefino. The forecast track has New Orleans right in the center, but the folks we saw didn't seem all that concerned. I suspect that will change by tomorrow morning. If the forecast holds, expect the city to notice in a hurry. The plan for tomorrow: get up early, get our marching orders and get covering what could be the biggest hurricane to hit the states in years. Of course, might as well have a drink first. P.S. In case you're wondering. We did find a great seafood place to eat off Bourbon St. Wayne got the barbeque shrimp, I got the jambalaya and Colin got a chicken sandwich which he immediately regretted ordering.

6:54 pm (Crossing the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway)
We can see the city in the distance. Wayne points out that during Katrina the wind blew all the water east at first, and then it all came flooding back west. We are staying in the French Quarter. We just talked to the 10pm producer. They are planning team coverage and we are the lead. New Orleans is under a state of emergency and we will probably go live on Bourbon St.

5:49 (Somewhere on the I-10 causeway)
I've never done this drive before. I can't believe how long the causeway goes in this area through Beaux Bridge.

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Wayne is looking at the models. He can't believe how much they changed in just 24 hours. One thing he knows from experience is that the track of a storm seriously impacts the resources that a news station has to use to cover it. When this storm turned westward, toward New Orleans it fundamentally changed our focus. Houston and New Orleans have such a deep connection. It's likely that we will have several reporters covering this storm.

4:46 Jenson, LA (Super-Walmart)
Stopped for supplies. Colin (our photographer) ran off to get the real supplies ? read: oil for Sat truck generator, Rain-Ex, fix- a-flat, etc. I was in charge of chips and water. Wayne came back with no supplies, not sure what he was doing. Filing up the tank now. Three hours to go until New Orleans. I sure hope Wayne has that gumbo place picked out because this bag of baby back rib flavored chips isn't gonna do the trick.

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4:00 pm (Somewhere on I-10 in LA)
Covering a hurricane, like most high-intensity travel I suppose, is very food-centric. In the calm before the storm, it's important to treat yourself. We have a trunk full of MRE's for when the storm hits. The promise of cold Salisbury steak is a good reminder that you should eat well while you still can.

Wayne: "I remember after Katrina, the first place to get power was Baton Rouge. We went to the Arby's there. My god we were so hungry and stinky and we ordered like 27 roast beef sandwiches."

I guess that's why it's not surprising that right now Wayne is on his phone trying to figure out the best place to get gumbo once we get to New Orleans. "I don't know about you guys but I feel like gumbo and oysters tonight."

3:44 pm Lake Charles, LA [PHOTO]
Everything on the drive seems to remind Wayne of another hurricane story. "I remember we had to drive across that bridge and the wind was blowing like 70 mph. Me and my photographer were debating if we should cross. We decided to go and immediately got a flat tire. We were on the bridge and trying to get the spare on. It was so windy. I specifically remember telling the photog, 'Don't worry about the first flat tire. It's the second one you have to worry about.'"

Colin and I are trying to decide on which Walmart we should stop at to get supplies. Wayne wants to wait until Beaux Bridge because it has a good Cajun place to eat. But we only have 65 miles worth of gas.

2:51 pm (near Beaumont,TX)
Wayne is telling stories about the Louisiana hurricanes that he's covered over the years. Wayne: "Sometimes what you wanna do in storms that are outta the market like this is focus on one person. I remember I was in some Cajun town covering some minor hurricane. I did a story on the guy trying to save his two birds -- Boudreaux and Thibadeaux. And we had so many people asking us about those birds. I remember it wasn't that big a storm, so the next day I made it my mission to find those birds."

30 years is a long time to report on and survive covering hurricanes. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that there's not a reporter alive who has more experience and depth of personal knowledge about Gulf hurricanes than Wayne Dolcefino.

Wayne: "Long before Katrina there was a hurricane called Camille. I think it was 1969. Everyone was thinking it wouldn't be a big deal -- throwing huge hurricane parties, drinking, not paying attention. It smashed the coast in Biloxi, I think, and killed a ton of people. The winds were around 190 mph. One of those once in a lifetime storms that old folks remember. "

Wayne 's riffing now. He got to talking about Tropical Storm Allison which hit Houston in 2001: "I remember I was on Highway 225 with water up to my neck. But we ended up on I-10 and limped into this gas station. The water was 5 feet deep on the feeder. We were stuck there for like 24 hours with the craziest people you've ever seen. One guy had just got out of prison in LA. I was saying get me outta here."

Conversation turns to what we are going to do for our 10pm hit. Our satellite truck guy is already there and shooting B-roll. It'll probably just gonna be a vo/sot with sound from the gov's press conference. Not too concerned -- plenty of time to figure it out. I asked Wayne about his first storm.

Wayne: "It was Tropical Storm Claudette, 1979. It hit somewhere in Texas, I don't remember where. I was in radio. I'll never forget, I had to jump off an overpass bridge to get into a boat. I threw my mic and tape recorded ahead of time and jumped about 10 feet down into the water."

"The first hurricane I covered was, I believe, Hurricane Allen. I remember I got to Port Mansfield and I saw some guy standing next to his house. I went up to him and said, 'Congratulations. You made it through the storm without too much damage.' He said, 'This is the second story.' The wind had cut the top right off. It looked so clean, I didn't even know."

2:25pm (Outside Houston)
The conversation in the car is a nice blend of politics and meteorology. Last night the RNC announced it was canceling the first night of the convention. At the time it looked like a wise decision, but with the morning came a new forecast track that now has New Orleans in the crosshairs. In the car, we are debating whether the new westward track is good or bad for the convention as a whole. I tend to think they may have dodged a weather bullet but could lose much more. It's gonna be tough for the county to focus on Mike Huckabee's speech Tuesday night speech if the NOLA is getting hammered by a Cat 2 storm.

1:51 pm (Leaving Houston)
We are all packed up and headed east on I-10. The destination for tonight is New Orleans. Our photographer Colin is behind the wheel. "Hurricane" Wayne Dolcefino is riding shotgun. I'm the third member of the team. It's my first time covering a major hurricane in the field. I usually cover these things from the safety and dryness of the newsroom. So who better to school Colin and me in the ins and outs of Gulf Hurricane-ology than Wayne. Generations of Houstonians grew up watching him twist, turn and fall over in countless tropical cyclones. Now I'm gonna be right there next to him.


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