Thursday, October 27, 2011

An interview with GARLAND ROBINETTE, the voice of post-Katrina New Orleans

Garland Robinette is a long-time New Orleans journalist. Host of "The Think Tank" on New Orleans radio WWL (AM), he is perhaps most renowned for his continuing coverage of the situation during and after Hurricane Katrina. He was on the air at WWL virtually constantly, broadcasting from a closet during the height of the storm, and becoming the voice of New Orleans outrage ringing strong and clear throughout the land.
Robinette was a news anchor and investigative reporter for WWL-TV in New Orleans from 1970 until 1990. He headed public relations for Freeport-McMoRan in New Orleans before starting his own firm. He returned to the media in 2005 on WWL (AM) as a fill-in for David Tyree, a popular afternoon talk show host who had been stricken with cancer. The position became permanent when Tyree succumbed several weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Garland is also an accomplished artist, whose credits include the 2011 Jazzfest poster featuring Jimmy Buffett. You can see his work by clicking here.

Q: Garland, thanks for taking the time to share your New Orleans with our readers. You hail from Boutte, upriver from New Orleans, where Louis Armstrong’s mother was from. Can you give our readers a bit of a picture of life in Cajun Louisiana? Kinda like the Des Moines, Iowa of the bayous, no?

A: I didn’t move to Boutte until I was 14. Lived my earlier years in the swamp, over the RXR tracks, behind Des Allemands [upriver from New Orleans about 30 miles and once settled by German/Alsatian immigrants, hence the name. And famous for Des Allemands catfish and the July Catfish Festival — y’all come!]. It was a Humble Oil camp of blue-collar workers. 12 houses all exactly alike, everyone driving a pickup truck, everyone with a small pirogue. Everyone earned the same paycheck and there was little chance of advancement in the money market. There was no racism because we were the only race. We had no crime because it wasn’t a good idea to rob your family. We were oblivious to the scary world surrounding us. It was communism. We loved it.

Q: As TV reporter and anchor, you probably covered some stories that took you to the dining room of the flagship Ruth’s Chris, first at Broad at Ursuline, then at Broad and Orleans. Can you tell us about that political scene? Ever witness some outright shenanigans there?

A: I never covered anything of any consequence in the political arena, so I was oblivious to the political beehive I entered when I went to Ruth’s. I do know that being married to my co-anchor made it very difficult to dine without being bothered. But Ms. Fertel made sure the couple suffering from small fame had only to worry about pushing away from the feast….and nothing more.

Q: Right after Katrina, you were one of the few radio hosts that were able to continue to broadcast and famously interviewed Ray Nagin [view that extraordinary sequence from Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” here]. You’re not known for mincing your words. Nor am I. Is there a shred of truth in Nagin’s self-published Katrina's Secrets: Storms After The Storm (Volume 1)? Do you think he’ll make good on the threat in that subtitle? — will there be a volume 2?

A: I didn’t read his book. Although I paid little attention to politics before Katrina, after six years of radio-talk (mostly involving politics) I experienced a revelation! The word politics means multiple blood-suckers. I had enough trouble getting rid of them in Vietnam.

Q: We lose a football field of wetlands south of New Orleans every 45 minutes. You’ve been reporting on the destruction of the wetlands for decades. What caused it and how can we stop it?

A: We caused it. We didn’t want to flood, so we built levees, therefore we denied the river sediment to the wetlands. We wanted cheap gas in our cars so we allowed the oil companies to cut canals through the wetlands, which allowed salt-water to kill more wetlands. We also ignored a TV guy [named Garland Robinette — he’s kinda shy, you know, cher] who did a documentary a year for 16 years, warning us that the city was going to be destroyed. We yawned and called him Mr. Gloom and Doom. We did it. To stop the carnage, we would need to be given between 30 and 50 billion dollars…….ain’t gonna happen. I say grab some beer and crawfish and move to the “sliver on the river” and hope the next big “H” won’t arrive in our lifetime.

Q: On your WWL radio daily show The Think Tank you’ve interviewed just about everyone involved in rebuilding New Orleans. You’ve had an insider’s look at New Orleans’ rebirth. How are we doing? What do you most regret about the new city and what are you most proud of?

A: Forbes magazine says we are the number one destination for entrepreneurs in America. I agree, young people are flocking to New Orleans. So far, I think we have a very good mayor (I say so far, because I’ve said that at least twice over the past 40 years and I was wrong) and our police chief seems to be smart and innovative. My main regret is that we haven’t found a way to fully restore the black culture that was the backbone of “unique city”…….but we still let Les Bon Temp Rouler!

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