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Robin Roberts: After the Storm

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A decade after Hurricane Katrina, the beloved anchor of Good Morning America honors New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with a new television special.
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When it comes to journalistic integrity, nobody does it better than Robin Roberts. The talented, beautiful and award-winning anchor of Good Morning America is well respected for her honest news coverage, consistently delivered with her own special brand of emotional impact. Roberts’ insightful reports and interviews with newsmakers have earned her an impressive reputation as one of America’s most highly regarded people on television today. Roberts has reported extensively from all corners of the world, providing a balance that has ranged from hard news and heavy hitting dispatches (such as the disastrous earthquake in Haiti) to in-depth discussions (such as that with President Barack Obama on same-sex marriage) and more of the fun stuff (like the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine “Kate” Middleton).

And while the seasoned broadcaster conveys all newsworthy stories with serious brain, muscle and heart, it was witnessing firsthand the inconceivable destruction that Hurricane Katrina left in its ugly wake for New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including Roberts’ hometown of Pass Christian, that made things utterly personal for her. Over the past decade, Roberts has relentlessly covered Katrina-related issues, and she remains deeply committed to the people and areas affected by the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Be sure to tune in to ABC on Aug. 23 at 9 p.m. CST, when Roberts will host Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm. This compelling and inspirational special produced by Roberts’ new production company, Rock’n Robin Productions, will honor the victims, survivors and the people who are still rebuilding as the recovery continues. Without a doubt, the hour-long news program will place audiences on an emotional roller coaster ride only Roberts can take them on as she navigates the past, present and future of things to come regarding the effects of Katrina.

Some of the people featured in the Katrina special share their stories with Roberts for the first time in their lives, including a woman who had her home and her husband washed away forever. “I was very honored partly because people weren’t looking at me as a journalist, but as a native of that area, and I was really grateful that people wanted to open up to me,” Roberts says.“It’s something else when you are talking to someone who you really feel understands and experienced Katrina. I had lost contact with my family down there early that morning, and I didn’t panic too much, because, you know, that happens. Heck, I’ve lived through Hurricane Camille, like everybody else in that region. I went to lunch in New York somewhere underground where my cell phone wouldn’t work, and it was late afternoon and I came back up and ABC was trying to reach me. They said, ‘It’s worse than what we thought.’ I kept trying to call my family but couldn’t get in touch, and, as the day wore on, we realized what really happened.”

Roberts, who was named co-anchor of Good Morning America in May 2005 after contributing to the program since June 1995, boarded a chartered plane and headed for the hurricane zone. “I remember ABC saying to get down there and report, and I’m like, ‘Ok, you think that’s what I’m going down to do? I’m going down there to find my mamma,’” Roberts recalls.

After landing in Lafayette, she and the ABC team drove all night toward the Gulf Coast. “Unlike my colleagues I was with, I knew what was supposed to be there,” Roberts says. “I knew what was missing! Police officers stopped us and said, ‘You can’t go any farther,’ and then a cop looked inside the car, saw it was me and said, ‘Oh, it’s Robin, you can go ahead,’ because it was Robin from the Gulf Coast, not Robin the ABC journalist. I told my crew I was getting desperate, and we were coming up on air time during the wee hours of the morning and I said, ‘Look, you set up for the live shot — I have to find my family. If I can get back, I will.’”

Roberts did find her family safe and sound at her mother Lucimarian’s roof-damaged home in Biloxi. Luckily, the Roberts family had left their home in Pass Christian; the entire first floor was destroyed in the storm. “I knocked on the front door with the police officer, and my sister Dorothy opened the door,” Roberts says. “I just hugged her, and I saw my nieces. My mom was at the back of the house singing hymns. I ran to her, and she looked at me and said, ‘I knew you’d find me!’ Dorothy told me years later that when she heard the knock on the door, my mother said, ‘That’s Robin!’ She knew I was going to be there! I was crying at her feet, and I didn’t want to leave. It was my mom who pushed me out the door and said, ‘Oh honey we’re fine — you go and you let people know just how bad it is.’ That’s how we are as Southerners. We’re not worried about ourselves; we’re worried about others.”

Within minutes of airing, Roberts made it back for the live shot — one that revealed her authentic self and the emotional impact the storm had left on her personally. “I gave the basics on what had happened in New Orleans and on the coast, and wrapped up my report and said, ‘Back to you Charlie [Gibson] and Diane [Sawyer],’ and it was Charlie who then said, ‘When you left here, Robin, you didn’t know about your family. Were you able to find them?’ That’s when I lost it and cried on live network television! I was crying out of relief that I knew my family was safe but also crying because I knew people were watching who were feeling exactly how I had just hours before — not knowing about their loved ones. And I thought right there on the spot: ‘I’m going to be fired.’ No one shows emotion. Remember this was 10 years ago; it was a different time in television as a journalist when you were supposed to be removed from the story, and I was just blown away by how people responded positively. That moment was a real turning point for me both personally and professionally, and I’m just grateful people understood. They crave authenticity, they just want you to be real. It warms my heart [that] it was able to bring attention, resources and volunteers to the entire region.”

Roberts experienced survivor’s guilt each time she left the hurricane-affected area after reporting on it too many times to count. Her sister Dorothy’s home in Long Beach, Mississippi, was damaged, and her sister Sally-Ann Roberts (of WWL-TV New Orleans) was out of her New Orleans East home for more than a year. “I got to come back home to New York and Connecticut and, every time I left, it was just so hard, especially that first time,” Roberts says. “I wanted to have a plane big enough to bring not just my family but everyone that was affected back with me. I had been there for days with my family doing things, and I was on the plane, and the doors were about to close, and I had a panic attack, and stood up and said, ‘I can’t leave! I can’t leave!’ And my producer said, ‘Robin, it’s going to be ok; you need to sit down; you need to go back and let the world know what’s going on at home.’”

To this day, Roberts continues to keep the world in the loop about New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm is a testament to her commitment to help the area heal. “I saw the first screening recently and I got my tissue out,” Roberts says. “And when I saw the footage of the spontaneous singing in the Superdome of ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ and then we had John Boutte and Terence Blanchard recreate that for us on Frenchmen Street, oh my gosh, it was just, wow!” And that’s what New Orleans and the region is all about. It’s this spirit that we have that has sustained us. Terence also contributed an amazing original score for the special. Right after the storm there was such silence — remember the birds were gone — there was this eerie quiet, especially in a region that’s known for its music, and Terence’s music is such a vital part of the special.”

Other highlights from Roberts’ upcoming special include a talk with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu about the city’s latest strides and what it still needs, and a personal tour from Harry Connick, Jr. of Musician’s Village by Habitat for Humanity, which continues its mission to keep jazz alive and bring joy to children from the Ninth Ward. A poignant story of an unlikely friendship that developed between New Orleans Chef John Besh and a young at-risk girl named Syrena, who was 15 years old when she was rescued from a rooftop during Katrina, is also featured. “Wait ’til you see [Syrena] in the special; she just oozes charisma and embodies everything that’s great about New Orleans,” Roberts says. “It’s important for people to see someone who was at her lowest point and to see where she is 10 years later.”

Roberts says that the story of Hurricane Katrina would be incomplete without the inclusion of Drew Brees, who chose to become the Saints’ starting quarterback months after the storm. “Drew is a man of faith, and he really opened up and was very emotional,” Roberts says. “He was very honest and said there was a time that he never would have thought in his professional career that he would have wanted to play for the Saints, but he said as much as he chose New Orleans, New Orleans chose him. And to think that all four of his children were born in New Orleans; they’re all New Orleanians! He had the shoulder injury and didn’t know if he’d be able to play again, but what perfect timing! That first game back against Atlanta in the Superdome was electric from the get go; I can’t believe the roof was still on top afterwards! It was important for people to see the Superdome back, to go to the Saints games and for it to be a symbol of what’s to come. Then the Superbowl win a few years later — that was beautifully scripted! And the great work that Drew and his wife Brittany do with The Brees Dream Foundation has helped revitalize the city. The Saints and New Orleans are incredible comeback stories.”

The resiliency of the Saints and New Orleans after Katrina’s wrath is noticeably similar to the personal health dilemmas that Roberts struggled with in recent years. In June 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and, in June 2012, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a blood and bone marrow disease, both which she valiantly fought and conquered. “I do look at the parallels of my life compared with Katrina, and what I’ve gone through in the past 10 years with my life-threatening illnesses, and the loss of our beloved mother. Everyone can look at their own lives in the past 10 years — the passing of people, the births — my nieces are now having babies! But it’s just the evolution of who we are. I feel that the region and I are symbols of ‘this too shall pass.’”

For her courageous public-health battles that proved to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming, Roberts was recognized with awards from organizations such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program, and she was recognized with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS in July 2013. She was honored with a Gracie Award, a George Foster Peabody Award and a CINE Award for her Robin’s Journey reports on her MDS (reports that influenced thousands of potential bone marrow donors to register with the Be The Match Registry, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program).

Miraculously, Roberts’ sister Sally-Ann wound up being her perfect match. She underwent a bone-marrow transplant in September 2012. “A family member being an automatic match only happens 30 percent of the time, so 70 percent of the time you must rely on the goodness of strangers on the registry,” Roberts says. “My siblings were all tested, and Sally-Ann was the only match. I called her, and I told her, ‘You’re a match.’ She just squealed for joy, and I calmed her down and said, ‘Sally-Ann, are you sure this is something that you want to do?’ She was uncharacteristically silent, and then she said, ‘Sister dear, this is not something that not only do I want to do; I was born to do this.’ And that’s how she looked at it: She was put on this earth to save her baby sister’s life — and she did in every sense of the way. It’s been wonderful to see how WWL has held bone-marrow drives, and my beloved alma mater Southeastern in Hammond did a Swabbin’ 4 Robin bone-marrow drive. And it’s not so much about what you accomplish in life, it’s about what you overcome that stays with you and has meaning.”

It’s not surprising that one of Roberts’ family members could contribute so significantly to her life; the entire family has forever been close and supportive of each other. Roberts’ late father Lawrence was a colonel in the United States Air Force and a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen, and all four of the Roberts children were born in different states. “And when it came time for the Roberts family to decide where we were going to live, we chose the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Roberts says. The coast community has great respect and love for the Roberts family; in April they were honored during the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center for Children’s WINGS Performing Arts Program, held at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino Theatre in Biloxi.

“To be so embraced left me speechless,” Roberts says, “especially seeing my mother up on the screen and Dorothy doing in essence a Nat King Cole/Natalie Cole kind of duet with her, and the young people who sang my mom’s story, ‘This is My Story, This is My Song.’ I was in tears. I felt my mom beaming from above, going, ‘Oh mercy, don’t make a fuss over me!’ like she would say. We are just so overcome as a family that we found a home like the Gulf Coast and glad that —like so many — we have been able to make some sort of difference. We are very humbled that people find something in our family that resonates within their own families, and that we walk alongside them.”

Roberts graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications in 1983 from Southeastern Louisiana University, where her legacy as a star player on the women’s Lady Lions basketball team was so profound that her jersey, number 21, was retired in 2011. “I love every aspect of athletics,” Roberts say. “So to have my jersey retired, and hanging in the rafters and to be in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, is a dream come true. I’m just so proud of Southeastern. It laid a strong foundation for me. Everything I’ve been able to enjoy in my professional life began there in Hammond, America!”

Roberts’ career has definitely been an admirable one. Starting at WHMD/WFPR Radio in Hammond as the sports director during college, and after other sports reporter and anchor positions, Roberts eventually became a contributor to ESPN in 1990. She became one of the network’s most versatile commentators before landing at ABC as co-anchor on Good Morning America, which has garnered four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Morning Program under Roberts’ leadership. She has received the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism, has been inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame and has been featured numerous times on The Hollywood Reporter’s New York Power List, in addition to being named Glamour’s Woman of the Year. Roberts was deeply moved by being voted “Most Trusted Person on Television” by a 2013 Reader’s Digest poll.

“People being able to trust you goes back to my Southern roots, and that is the highest honor in any profession,” she says. “And when people ask what the secret to my success is, I clearly and proudly say to them that it’s being the daughter of Lawrence and Lucimarian Roberts. If you knew my mom and dad, you’d understand. It’s all about faith, family and friends.”

As for her love life, Roberts has found bliss with her partner of 10 years, Amber Laign. “We really are happy,” says Roberts, who met Laign the July before Katrina. “Amber has lovingly stood by me through the biggest storms in my life, beginning with Katrina, and with my health and the passing of my mother. We all should be so blessed to have someone who has our back. The main reason I did my Facebook post about Amber is I just got tired of people not knowing this awesome person who has been so unselfish, and, if I’m going to praise my doctors, Sally-Ann, my family and viewers, I’m also going to also praise the woman who has loved me through it. And we are just absolutely elated and very grateful that people have been accepting of us.”

Along with her anchoring duties at Good Morning America, Roberts is keeping busy with other projects. Rock’n Robin is producing a program to shed light on the amazing athletes of Special Olympics (thanks to Roberts’ participation as the host of the opening ceremony), and has also been producing a series on WebMD about the future of health and the next big things in medical cures. Roberts has authored several books: From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By, which was updated to include the story of her battle with cancer; My Story, My Song: Mother-Daughter Reflections on Life and Faith, a collaboration with her mother; and her latest memoir, Everybody’s Got Something. Currently, Roberts is in discussions for another book.

“I’m focused on doing an inspirational book — a lot of it with my mommy-isms from my mother and passages that have helped me through a difficult time,” Roberts says. “It’s primarily because many people have come up to me, especially since my recovery from MDS, and said how it’s given them hope for what they’re facing, whether it’s health-related, divorce or unemployment. I’ve been uplifted by things people have said to me, and those little things have gotten me through some dark times.” Roberts will also host In the Spotlight with Robin Roberts: All Access Nashville, a network primetime special leading up to the Country Music Association Awards in November.

Roberts’ excitement for her upcoming special is contagious, and she wants people to understand the important story of Katrina. “A pastor from my hometown in the Pass told me there’s absolutely no silver lining to a story like Katrina, but, in our weakest moment, we found our strength,” Roberts says. “That’s something other communities and regions may not have. It would’ve been wonderful to learn that lesson another way, but this is the way it was chosen for us to learn about ourselves — and we’re stronger for it. It will always be a part of our lives. And what we wish for is that whatever it is that someone is going through, this special will give them hope, and have them reflect and be uplifted, and realize we have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for and a lot to look forward to. Always remember, no matter what, this too shall pass. Whatever it is that you’re going through, hang on. Hang on!” rocknrobin.tv