The 10th anniversary approaching, it’s time for New Orleans native Sandy Breland to reflect on Hurricane Katrina, how it changed her city and how it changed her. Such trying circumstances can bring out the best in people, and it was her leadership, then as WWL news director, that sent Breland on to much bigger things.
Breland proudly mentions how the New Orleans reporters played a critical role during those harrowing days of 2005, when residents were desperate for a little light in the darkness. “It’s really hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” she says. “In some ways, it feels like it happened yesterday. In other ways, it’s like a lifetime ago.”
Breland’s emergency planning enabled WWL to stay on the air through the storm and its aftermath—the one local TV station to do so. Her deft management and knowledge of the region helped keep viewers informed. And her first-class work amid dire conditions did not go unnoticed by the broadcast community.
“Sandy received such wonderful praise for her leadership and her ability,” says Paul McTear, Raycom president and CEO, who brought Breland on board as GM at WAFB Baton Rouge in 2008 and in January named her group VP. “She’s been a great leader for us from day one.”
Big Easy Upbringing
Breland speaks fondly of growing up in Metairie, La., of New Orleans’ celebrated food and music, of its beloved Saints. She had a neighbor she knew as “Mr. Jim” who was a photographer at WDSU, who spoke of the many adventures that came with working in television news. “I could tell he loved what he did,” she says. “I thought, that’s pretty cool—I might want to be a part of that.”
After graduating from Loyola University, Breland’s first job was at AM station WWL, then owned by the university. She switched to WWL TV in 1989 as a producer, then assignment editor, working her way up to news director. “I’ve always been a news junkie,” says Breland. “I have a natural curiosity. It’s one of those careers that picks you—you don’t pick it.”
With world-class entertainment and abundant crime and corruption, New Orleans is a news junkie’s dream. The events of late August 2005 were nothing short of a nightmare, but WWL was expertly prepared. It had built a massive 1,000-foot transmitter designed to withstand just about anything Mother Nature could whip up, the bunker-like base standing 15 feet above ground. As a backup, Breland had reached out to Louisiana State’s Manship School of Mass Communication in Baton Rouge well before the storm; when floodwaters prevented WWL staffers from entering the station in the French Quarter, they headed to LSU to broadcast.
Mikel Schaefer, then-WWL executive producer, says Breland was a rock-solid manager in the crisis but also knew when exhausted staffers needed a breather. “She was the glue that kept everybody moving in the right direction,” he says.
It would be some time before station staffers could even think about addressing their decimated homes and lives. Breland finally found a moment to reflect during the city’s famed Jazz Fest the following April. Bruce Springsteen played “My City of Ruins,” the chorus urging wounded souls to “Come on, rise up.” Breland says everyone at the fairgrounds—she, her husband, the police officers working the show—broke down in tears. “It was a powerful moment,” she says. “In some ways, it started the healing process.”
Breland departed WWL to be news director at KTVK Phoenix in 2006, and came back to Louisiana two years later to be general manager at Raycom’s WAFB, where she was promptly greeted by Hurricane Gustav. She put her newsgathering skills to work in learning the aspects of a job she was less familiar with. “I asked a lot of questions,” Breland says. “I knew what made a great reporter, and spent time with the account executives to find out what makes a great account executive.”
Breland came home to New Orleans in 2013 to be GM at upstart Fox affiliate WVUE. She’s reunited with many of her old WWL allies, including news director Schaefer and anchor/chief investigative reporter Lee Zurik. Having Breland running the station, says Zurik, is like having a second news director to bounce ideas off. “She’s the most strategic and organized person I know,” says Zurik. “A few people in this business have had a huge impact on my career and Sandy is one of them.”
Last month, Breland was a key figure in a blockbuster deal to produce and air Saints preseason games on Raycom stations in four states. It was something of a dream come true for the lifelong fan. Upped to a group VP position in January, with eight stations to oversee, Breland has her hands full as the Katrina anniversary coverage plan begins. Outside of work, she enjoys managing her two fantasy football teams, traveling with her family, including husband Dave McNamara, a TV producer, or simply staying close to home and enjoying the Big Easy’s endless entertainment options.
“It’s a great city,” Breland says. “It was a great city before Katrina, and it’s a great city now.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.