Mike Janssen

Mike Janssen, a 1994 Herscher High School graduate, is a weatherman working for WGN-TV in Chicago.

In his first broadcast with WGNO in New Orleans, television weather forecaster Mike Janssen was on air for 14 hours straight, updating the area as Hurricane Katrina climbed from a Category 2 hurricane to a Category 5.

Having moved to the area from southern Illinois two weeks prior to Katrina, Janssen, a 1994 graduate of Herscher High School, said his first hurricane experience was like a "baptism by fire."

"I treated it like I would a winter storm, where you do your forecast and tell your viewers the worst case scenario," Janssen said. "Obviously, they are two completely different beasts, but it was the only thing I could come up with. … I started using terms like 'widespread catastrophic damage.' All I could do was relay the information."

The morning after his first broadcast, the storm struck southern Louisiana. Soon after, Janssen had to leave his apartment of unpacked boxes for a mandatory evacuation. Sleep-deprived and new to the area, he had to follow his general manager and newsroom manager bumper-to-bumper to Baton Rouge.

"As we left the parking garage, the wave of emotions went over me," Janssen recalled. "I got choked up a bit and a little teary-eyed thinking, 'OK, I've been telling people that they may lose everything they have, that their homes may split, that their roofs may get torn off.'

"That's when it hit me. I wasn't just talking about other people. I was talking about where I lived; where I just moved to; where I still had unpacked boxes. I thought, 'What happens if I'm in an area that gets struck by catastrophic damage?'"

Janssen and his coworkers stayed at another station's auditorium for a couple days before moving to temporary apartments in Baton Rouge. It was like the first day of college.

"I got to know my new coworkers quite well because I suddenly had roommates," he said. "You get a new job and move somewhere new, and the first thing you do is move in with people you don't know."

Recovering

It took 43 days to pump all the water out of New Orleans. Families came back to destroyed homes. Business owners found their shops in ruin. Almost everything turned gray or brown.

"Just think, if water is just sitting in your basement — the smell that starts to fester down there," Janssen said. "Imagine it throughout a whole city. It was salt water mixed with household chemicals and sewage and anything else you could think of.

"The smell was very unique. If I ever smelt it again, I would identify it instantly. After a while, it became a part of you as you went through the neighborhoods time and time again."

Those conditions displayed the resolve of people. Janssen met numerous people who temporarily lived and worked in Baton Rouge, and would drive 75 miles back to New Orleans to repair their homes, drive back, sleep a few hours and do it all over again.

He also met people from all over the country who were willing to offer a helping hand to their fellow man.

"I met some wonderful people," Janssen said. "All they wanted to do was get back to their neighborhood and put their homes back together. You saw there was a will to live and put their lives back together. People did some extraordinary things."

Covering the aftermath of Katrina, Janssen said, was similar to combat journalism. Rather than shooting a story and editing sound bites in an air-conditioned bay, he and his crew were shooting and editing video on the spot.

"I learned more during Katrina and the first two months after it than I did in my first three or four years in weather," Janssen said. "Personally, it made me realize that we put too much weight in the material things. It hurts if you lose your house, wedding pictures and baby pictures, but surviving something like that is the most important thing you will ever learn."

Today

Twelve years later, Janssen is married, has a child and is working for WGN in Chicago. When Hurricane Harvey struck a few weeks ago, images from Houston sparked memories of New Orleans.

Recently, he interviewed his sister-in-law, who moved from New Orleans to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, as did thousands of people.

"There you are on the anniversary of Katrina, which may have taken away everything you had in New Orleans, and now you are dealing with 50 inches of rainfall in Houston," Janssen said. "It was very eerie for a lot of [the people who moved]. They survived Katrina and have to live it all again."

Now, Hurricane Irma is bearing down on Florida, and Hurricane Jose is picking up in its trail. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Janssen said more and more people are fleeing Florida as Irma approaches.

"Irma has been a Category 5 for days and still looks like it's going to be a major hurricane," Janssen said. "You have people in Florida who are taking this very seriously and evacuating. In the past, some may have stayed, but the images that came out of Harvey are fresh in everybody's mind."

Janssen said Irma will not be as much of a rainmaker as Harvey. However, Irma's winds are going to be destructive.

"In a best-case scenario, people are going to be without power and water for days," he said.

Watching from Chicago, Janssen said the best thing people unaffected by the hurricane can do is simply make a donation to the American Red Cross.

"I know some people want to send food or clothing, but you never know when it's going to show up," he said. "The Red Cross can put the money where it needs to go."

Having survived Katrina and forecasting weather for about 20 years, Janssen said Harvey and Irma will be more examples of Mother Nature dominating humankind.

"As far as I am concerned, Mother Nature is undefeated," he said. "No matter what mankind puts out there, Mother Nature can damage or destroy it. It's an amazing, unbeatable force."

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