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‘Floodlines’ Podcast Tracks Tragedy in New Orleans

Sound designer David Herman uses local sounds in creative ways to tell the story of Hurricane Katrina in the eight-part podcast "Floodlines."

Vann Newkirk, host and creator of the eight-part NPR podcast, Floodlines.
Vann R. Newkirk is host and creator of the eight-part podcast Floodlines.

When sound designer David Herman went to work on Floodlines, a narrative podcast from The Atlantic about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he wanted to lay out for listeners how confusion and misinformation turned a tragic situation into a man-made disaster. No one knew how prescient the storyline would soon become after production wrapped in mid-March.

Floodlines executive producer Katherine Wells said that Hurricane Katrina may have been a singular event in history, “but it tells us a lot about other events in this country, including the moment we’re experiencing now.”

Much like COVID-19, Katrina, as the storm is known along the northern Gulf of Mexico where its surge washed away entire towns, began as a natural disaster before human folly intensified its effects. The failure of the aging levees surrounding New Orleans to protect the city from floodwaters was the root of the crisis, but the failure of trusted institutions, from city hall to the federal government, exacerbated the destruction. Around-the-clock media coverage contributed to the chaos by amplifying rumors and hearsay.

“When we first started thinking about how this thing was going to sound, part of our work was to figure out how to create this unintelligible swarm of information, and make that experience really visceral,” Herman said.

“A big part of the storytelling was how the media treated the aftermath of the story and how, in a lot of ways, the media failed to paint an accurate picture of what was going on at the time,” he added. “Using news clips felt like a way to really bring people into the mentality of the moment, or maybe the popular mentality of the moment.”

Bootstrapping Audio Production for ‘Out Alive’

Throughout the eight-episode podcast, narrative storytelling by creator and host Vann R. Newkirk II is interspersed with first-person interviews and clips of media reports that highlight the dire situation. In some clips, media outlets repeat false claims that armed civilians were marching through the streets. In others, then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, weary and emotional, rambles to a local radio host. In one true story, plainclothes police officers shoot and kill Black bystanders on the Danziger Bridge across the industrial canal, claiming they believed a police officer was under fire. Another pervasive false claim were the rumors about rampant rape, drug dealing and gang activity in the New Orleans Superdome, a sports stadium used as a shelter for those unable to evacuate before the hurricane made landfall.

Floodlines sound editor David Herman.
Floodlines sound editor David Herman

Intent on using sound to express the desperation the people of New Orleans felt in the aftermath of the storm, Herman turned to the city’s musical history for inspiration.

“Two instruments in particular we talked about were the low brass instruments, trombone and tubas, because they are a very visceral component of Second Line music, but also because they convey this feeling of being underwater,” Herman said. “They have a bubbly, drowned texture to them, which I think we were really attracted to.”

Instead of relying on phone interviews, Newkirk and lead producer Alvin Melathe traveled to New Orleans multiple times to interview survivors, tracking them with a Sennheiser MKE 600 microphone and Zoom H5 portable recorder.

“Some of the best moments I don’t believe we would’ve gotten if we weren’t there in person,” Newkirk said. “Being able to pick up on body language is very important. We didn’t want stilted, formal-sounding stuff.”

Back in New York, Newkirk used the automated service Trint for transcriptions so he could listen as he wrote the narration and identify the clips that would work well for audio. After the team went through a few rounds of edits, Melathe put together a rough draft for Herman to work with, along with many of the raw elements such as interviews and news clips.

Herman assembled the sound elements in Avid Pro Tools, using a suite of plug-ins including FabFilter and iZotope RX for cleanup and noise reduction. He used Native Instruments and Arturia sample instruments and SoundHack plug-ins to create original sounds. Once the story was about 75 percent complete, the team structured the entire series to determine what pieces they were missing.

Katherine Wells, executive producer of Floodlines
Katherine Wells, executive producer of Floodlines

In one case, that meant scrapping an entire episode. Just one day before the series was released, they rewrote and retracked “Part VII: (Destiny).” The team worked late into the night on March 11, then published and promptly went home to shelter in place. They toasted each other via videoconference; their offices closed the day the series was released.

“When we started making this, we realized that this story has a lot of resonance with other disasters in this country. Some of the institutional failures are in no way unique to that single event,” Wells said. “But it was very strange in that last week or two. It was becoming clearer and clearer that the pandemic was also going to be a huge problem in this country.”

New parallels to that time and place in American history continue to come into focus, and Newkirk can’t help but think about Katrina. “When we’re looking at the main problems that we face today—obviously they’ve been made really clear with the protests this summer—but looking ahead to racial justice, to climate change in America, all the big stories, they all meet somehow at Katrina,” he said. “Things like protests against police brutality, I think find their way back to the Danziger Bridge.”