Hope From Hoda


The former WWL-TV anchor has the ultimate faith in New Orleans

Hoda.jpgShe may have left New Orleans for New York years ago, but Hoda Kotb never left our hearts. The former WWL-TV anchor-reporter remains permanently etched in our minds as one of the most fascinating and endearing personalities to ever grace local broadcast news. Thanks to her role as a correspondent for Dateline NBC, the host of Your Total Health and a frequent correspondent for the Today show, New Orleanians can still tune in to get their “Hoda fix.”

Never one to forget this city, Hoda rushed down to report during Katrina, and has been returning often to New Orleans in order to update the country on life after the storm and to boost the morale of so many here who need it. On June 9, Hoda will speak at the Audubon Tea Room on behalf of Ochsner and New Orleans Living, where she will touch even more people with her message of hope, delivered in a way that always connects with people. This past December, Hoda made her New Orleans connections even stronger by marrying longtime love interest, former U.N.O. tennis coach Burzis Kanga.

Hoda! What in the world are you up to these days?

Oh, my gosh! I am a married, honest woman, finally! Burzis is a New Orleans boy because, who else would it be? (Laughs). He lived in New Orleans for 26 years. I met him about a year and a half after I came to New Orleans at a fund-raiser for the American Heart Association’s Valentine’s Day and we were both single. We have been dating off and on for years. And of course, I had moved up to New York, but later we ended up connecting again. He proposed last May and we married in December. And married life has been great! We love just kind of knocking around New York, doing some Broadway plays, going out to eat. There’s a neighborhood bar that we like that plays soul music. If I would have known it was this much fun, I probably would have done it a long time ago!

Congratulations! Where did you get married?

We went to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. My immediate family was there, Susan Roberts was there, Karen Swenson was there. I love her. She’s getting her sea legs up in New England, but she misses New Orleans desperately. It was really like a vacation with a wedding thrown in on a Saturday. It was relaxing, and it was beautiful. It was fun for everyone from New Orleans to get a break, too. On the third of every month, I think about it. I’m like where’s my present; can we go again?

Tell us about Burzis.

He was the head coach for men’s and women’s tennis at U.N.O., and he was also the tennis pro at the Chateau Estates Country Club. He had been there for over 20 years. He lost his apartment to Katrina that was close to the 17th Street Canal. And after Katrina, he left those jobs behind to move to New York, and he’s kind of doing a bunch of stuff, kind of acclimating right now.

And to think there are so many folks from New Orleans trying on life in another state to see how it fits right now…

And it’s heartbreaking because New Orleans is a city that when it aches, you ache, and so few cities have that trait. And for both of us, it’s been hard to even deal with it — to be there, to see it, to listen and everything. But for him trying to find his way, it’s hard. This is a different kind of city. It’s fast-paced, but I have to say, he wakes up happy …

Well, he’s got you right there!

(Laughs) He’s got me! But I think he’s just finding his way, you know. But it’s been good.

I remember being in my Memphis hotel room, seeing you in New Orleans covering Katrina for NBC …

I got there on the Tuesday that the levees broke. We started reporting it on a Wednesday. I was in L.A. interviewing Raquel Welch and we were trying to work out my coming to New Orleans because I really wanted to be there. We were going to do the shoot and go. But before the shoot even happened, we left and flew directly to Baton Rouge and drove down to the Jefferson Parish side. So I was on I-10 where all that chaos was going on, where people were waiting for buses to evacuate. I gotta tell you, I remember it so vividly, that I still don’t know where to put my anger. And I understand that things are chaotic and out of control, but just the misery! There was a woman who came running up to me and said, “You spoke at my class at Bonnabel High School, can you help my mother, she needs insulin.” I mean, she’s crying, standing on the highway, and there wasn’t enough insulin, there wasn’t enough medicine — there wasn’t enough of anything. It was heartbreaking. But I think people needed to be listened to. One lady was sitting and crying and I said, “What happened, Honey? What’s wrong?” … and she kept saying “Blaze, Blaze …” I said “Who’s Blaze?” And she said Blaze was her child. She told me that a bus pulled up, she took her 2-year-old and handed him up on the bus, picked up a white plastic bag that was her life, took her other son, and was about to get on the bus and the door shut. The kid was gone. Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge, who knows. No one could tell her. The heartache that was there … I’ve never seen anything like it.

And you are such a familiar face, it’s easy to understand why people would come to you for help.

And I felt guilty because … you couldn’t help them. I mean, I could listen to them, and we had stuff like water that we gave out. If you’re carrying your life in a white plastic bag, you need someone to help you, to tell you what to do. It was just so chaotic. No one knew what was going on, when the buses were coming, where they were going. There was an older woman and her son, and they were putting the older people on buses first, so she got separated from her son. And we went through the city itself on boats, too, around the Ninth Ward and stuff. None of it made sense. Do you feel that still now? Like, did it really happen?

I wake up some mornings and I feel fine and then it hits me: “Oh, it did happen …” It’s like a death.

And the pain from Katrina … I’ve been back several times and I get so frustrated. Where are the cranes? And where are the trucks? It’s like, where is the calvary? It makes me nuts because I can’t believe in this day and age with all the resources that we have that somehow … I don’t want to see empty FEMA trailers, you know! I know that bureaucracy is complicated, but it’s been months now! And there are so few cities that you can feel the blood pump through like New Orleans, and the idea that it’s hemorrhaging drives you to want someone to do something.

Well, you were there for us this past Mardi Gras as the Queen of Argus!

Honey! Girl! Can I tell you? What an incredible ride! On that parade route, there were waves of emotion … there were times when I was screaming my brains out. That day was so perfect, so sparkling. People were releasing and you could feel it. It was like for six months, people had been on the phone, nailing nails, arguing with everybody and that day, they were free! And when people had signs that said “Thank You for Rolling,” I wanted to bawl. It just reminded me again of the whole spirit of the city. I mean, no other city on this earth could be on its knees like New Orleans was and is, and still manage to get up and stand up tall and have that day. I felt like, I just know this city is going to come back. There’s a spirit that’s just there.

You feel that New Orleans will regain her full splendor one day …

I feel it without question! There is no “I wonder …” There are no cities like New Orleans. New Orleans is just its own thing. It’s living, it’s breathing, the people are unique and when a New Orleanian tries to live elsewhere, to me it’s like a polar bear going to Argentina! Something is just not right: The food’s not good, they don’t feel comfortable, they are unique in a great way.

I’ve heard that pre-Katrina, New Orleans had the biggest percentage of people that leave the area but eventually come back.

Please! The first thing we did when we went down was to start looking around for a place. Not because there may be deals, but we want a place in New Orleans. We want a spot we can come to. The place just gets in your blood. The only ones who have said “Why should we bother with New Orleans?” are people who have never been there.

Are you still doing the weekly show Your Total Health in addition to Dateline NBC and some stuff for the Today show?

Yes! Your Total Health has been fun. We’re going into our third season this fall. You interview so many interesting people and learn so much about these health issues. I am doing Sally Field next week, and recently we did Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm, who has a nephew with cerebral palsy. And for the Today show, I covered the Olympics in Torino, Italy, for a month; that was amazing! And then I came straight to Mardi Gras for the Today show; I’ve done Weekend Nightly News, I’ve done Weekend Today, I just keep going!

I’ve got to say, you are so unique and that’s what draws people to you. They want to be able to relate to you, and they do. Does NBC realize the unmatched goldmine they have in you?

(Laughs). Thanks so much. Uniqueness is cool, and people do like “real.” Oprah, Katie Couric and Barbara Walters have done so well because love grows over time, and that’s why they are big names nationally. They were all very unique. Perfect is out; look at the success of reality shows. It’s so last year. You just know it when you talk to people on the street. Those spit-shined perfect-looking anchors, you just don’t feel them. It’s hard to watch them and have traction.

All right, I know you’re married now, but do you still think about the Moss Man sometimes?

(Laughs). You are so crazy! (Laughs). That was the defining moment of my career! I had no idea about Mardi Gras; I’m on Veterans Highway reporting, with devil horns and wings on, and then I feel these big, hairy, mossy hands pick me up and twirl me around and all I could think about was “I AM FIRED!” I was in hysterics when he was twirling me around, I had a blast. I thought, If you’re gonna go out, this is the way to go out! And when I got back to the newsroom, they were like “I LOVE THAT MOSS MAN!” I was like “I love New Orleans!” I didn’t get how dead-on and funny the city was. I’ve never been the same since!

And neither has New Orleans since we’ve met you, Hoda. Thanks for the love!