It was a late August evening in south Alabama. The winds had already begun to blow, and the waves were already crashing onto shore. And CNN reporter and University of Southern Mississippi alumna Kathleen Koch was exactly where she needed to be to help tell the story of Hurricane Katrina, which was barreling through the Gulf of Mexico.
But she really wanted to be in Bay Saint Louis, where she grew up. Her family had owned an ice cream parlor for many years, and the seven members of her family once lived in a house on the beach.
“It is still a beautiful town, though obviously dramatically changed by Katrina in 2005,” Koch said.
“We moved there — I, my three sisters, my brother, my parents, so seven of us — to a house on the beach. It was really special,” she recalled. “We bought a building in old town Bay Saint Louis. We had an ice cream parlor for several years. My parents thought running a business would be a good way for us to learn responsibility.
“I think a lot of folks gave us some long glances when we first moved in because everybody there sailed. We didn’t have a sailboat,” she added. “We were moving down from Huntsville, Ala., and up there, we had a house on the Elk River, where we went canoeing. So, we had this red canoe, and the five kids would pile into the canoe and paddle around the bay. People would look at us like, ‘What are they doing? They’re kind of different.’ We eventually fit in. It took a little while, but it’s a wonderful city. It’s home.”
Koch eventually made her way to Hattiesburg to study journalism at USM and worked at the Daily Herald (now the Sun Herald) and WLOX in Biloxi, as well as on radio, to hone her craft. At Southern Miss, faculty members like Dr. Gene Wiggins became not only educators, but mentors.
“He taught us so much about the craft of journalism and to never to play fast and loose with the facts,” Koch said of Wiggins. “He communicated the responsibility that we have as a member of this profession to hold to the highest standards. He was a friend, too.”
Koch also served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Student Printz.
“It was a lot of fun,” Koch recalled. “I don’t know if I was the best manager at the time; I was a bit of a perfectionist. I think I drove the staff a little crazy from time to time. We spent hours there in the basement working on the paper and writing. One thing you learn early on when you work in a field like journalism is you work long hours and, at times, under really difficult conditions. You become like a family, and so it is sometimes hard for me when I hear people criticize journalism and the profession today. That’s disappointing because they don’t know the sacrifices that journalists make — the good ones who are taught at places like USM. Journalists have the best interest of the people you are reporting on at heart…it was a wonderful profession to be in, and I’m still proud of it.”
After working at different news organizations in Washington, D.C., Koch landed a part-time job with CNN, which eventually developed into a full-time reporting role. With CNN, she was the organization’s aviation correspondent after 9/11 and covered Hurricane Katrina, an event that would alter her life forever, just as it did for so many in the Gulf South.
“I was working weekends, and they wanted me to finish my weekend shift before flying us down,” Koch recalled. “We flew down on the last flight into Mobile before the hurricane hit, and so that was where we had to report from instead of Bay St. Louis, where I really wanted to be.
“When the hurricane hit, we saw the damage in Mobile where we were reporting live,” she continued. “We were on the far eastern edge of the storm where CNN wanted me. You had to have someone who could be on the air constantly while the signal went down to the west when the hurricane hit. You needed somebody reliable, and that was me.
“I was just on hour after hour, but as I saw the damage in Mobile, there were places with four feet of water in the streets. You were seeing pieces fly off of buildings. A lot of damage. Not catastrophic, but it was so bad, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, if it’s this bad in Mobile, what’s it like in Mississippi?’ I knew that my brother and sister-in-law, along with their four kids, had not evacuated.
“It was so tough to be on the air, to be reporting live and not know how they were, or all my friends and neighbors there.”
When Koch was able to make it to the Mississippi coast, she committed to telling the state’s story of suffering and eventual recovery. In addition to her reporting in the immediate days and weeks after the hurricane, her coverage of Hurricane Katrina included a pair of award-winning documentaries, as well as a book.
And she emerged from the experience with a passion for taking the lessons learned following Hurricane Katrina to communities across the country in an effort to help others recover from natural disasters. Following her career as a journalist, she launched a nonprofit organization, LeadersLink, that connects individuals in recovering communities with those who have prior experience in similar situations.
“I think [for] anyone who goes through a catastrophic disaster, it changes you,” Koch said. “I saw the importance of strong leadership. I thought it would be great to create an organization that could harness what these leaders learn. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, I saw these little towns up and down the Jersey Shore that reminded me of our towns on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but when was the last time they had a hurricane in New Jersey? They didn’t know where to start.
“Today, we have so many volunteer disaster coaches and mentors who are eager to help,” she added. “I want to do anything I can to help someone lead their community well through the same kind of disaster we suffered. Maybe not suffer as much as we did. Maybe not make the same mistakes we did. That’s what I want to do.”