When Hurricane Ida left most of New Orleans without power in sweltering triple-digit heat, a crew of local radio personalities who have been part of the city’s fabric for decades did more than just inform listeners about where to get food and gas and where the cooling stations were located. They were instrumental in rescuing a group of senior citizens all but abandoned in an assisted living center, while shining a light on a senior care problem that plagues the region and beyond.
It was a few days after Ida made land in southeast Louisiana as a powerful Category 4 storm and the city was in recovery mode. The iHeartMedia cluster was doing wall-to-wall coverage for the roughly 200,000 residents who had not evacuated and were left in the dark for days. “Folks were making the best of what they could without the electricity at night, and they would get up in the morning and get in their car and recharge their phones, or just listen to the radio for a little bit, and get the information of where they needed to go,” says Angela Watson, a 31-year New Orleans broadcaster known as “Uptown Angela.” The radio-as-town hall coverage included listeners phoning in with reports about how things were going in their neighborhoods. “It was really a neighborly thing, everybody kind of helping each other out and letting everybody know what was available to them at the time,” says Watson, who oversees programming at the cluster, which includes news/talk WRNO-FM, hip-hop/R&B WQUE-FM, adult R&B WYLD-FM, classic hits KVDU-FM and country WNOE-FM, while also working for the company’s National Programming Group.
A New Orleans Police Department officer patrolling Algiers, on the West Bank of New Orleans, phoned in with a report of an assisted living facility where elderly and disabled residents were unable to negotiate the stairs to escape the oppressive conditions inside. “And so he said, ‘Hey, the elevators are not working, there's no power here, they have limited resources left, this is a matter of life and death,” Watson recalls. “So we went on the air with a plea – please send help right now! We've got folks who are trapped in their apartments, they can't even get down.”
Within an hour an air conditioned Regional Transit Authority Bus was on site, cooling, hydrating and feeding those who were able to get out of Renaissance Place Senior Living Facility while police officers went door to door. The residents were transported to a downtown shelter.
The episode sparked a larger conversation on the airwaves about how senior living centers were not taking care of their residents. Call after call came in, Watson says, about other facilities in the river parishes and as far away as Lafayette that had similar conditions. “And so we just brought a bigger conversation to the forefront.”
That included a phone call with Cedric Richmond, the former U.S. Representative for Louisiana’s second district who is now a senior adviser to President et Biden and is leading the national Ida relief effort. “It's a statewide problem,” Watson says, “and so having the connection with Cedric Richmond, and being able to bring it to national attention [will] hopefully get more federal funding to make it a better situation.”
The story is one of many from New Orleans in the days that followed Ida’s landfall, about the singular role local radio plays in a catastrophe. Watson says it underscores the trust the community places in the voices they have listened to for decades, like WQUE’s Wild Wayne, WNOE’s Casey Carter and WYLD’s A.D. Berry.
“Here we are with the talent who are being not just the information source, but also being a source of comfort,” she continues. “Just being able to tell them, hey, it's going to be okay. We're going to take this one day at a time. We're here with you, we're not going anywhere. That made all the difference in the world to how people dealt with what happened with this storm.”