“Covering Katrina: Then and Now“
Rodney Erickson/Katie O’Toole
Location: The Penn Stater, President’s Hall
Bio: After a five-year absence, award-winning journalist Karen Swensen has returned to New Orleans and WWL-TV to anchor the station’s 10 p.m. news.
Swensen left New Orleans for an anchor position at New England Cable News in Boston after a lengthy stay at WWL-TV that included award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
At NECN in Boston, Swensen wrote and produced a one-hour award-winning documentary called “Katrina: A Flood of Tears.” It was a first-person account of the storm and its aftermath that revealed the personal loss, strength and resilience of the people of the Gulf South. It premiered at Harvard University, where Swensen led a panel discussion on the storm.
“My husband and I have always said we’d return,” she said. “It was never a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ I knew we’d come back when a position opened that allowed me to work and spend ample time at home with my daughter. I am thrilled that that time is now!”
She said that, since she left WWL, she’s never passed up an opportunity to keep New Orleans in the news in New England. Swensen returned to Louisiana several times on assignment to cover the Katrina rebuilding effort, Katrina anniversaries and the Saints Super Bowl win. Of the Super Bowl, she laughed, “That was the third best day of my life, behind my wedding day and the day my daughter was born! I remember screaming on air, ‘WHO DAT? WE DAT! AND THAT’S DAT!’”
Swensen said it was family considerations four years ago that prompted her move to Boston, where her parents live. But it is also family which is now drawing her back. Her husband John is a native New Orleanian whose family roots here date back to the 1700s. Their wedding was celebrated in St. Louis Cathedral and their daughter, now 7, was born here.
“It’s not just enough for us or her to experience the culture of New Orleans a couple of times a year,” Swensen said. “I want her to grow up in it.”
Swensen said that the bond with Louisianians has stood the test of time and distance.
“It’s incredibly comforting. All these years later, I still get e-mails and letters from New Orleanians just checking in,” she said.
“The viewers here (in New Orleans) are different. They think of you as a journalist, but a neighbor, too. I don’t think there’s any other market where the professional journalist/viewer relationship is so intensely personal.”
Swensen began her broadcasting career at WWL-TV in 1993 as a part-time newsroom associate producer who anchored overnight news updates. Over her 12 years at the station, she climbed the ladder, becoming a reporter and then anchor, first of the “Early Edition” newscast, then weekends and ultimately the 10 p.m. newscast.
Over the years, she’s won sundry awards. At WWL-TV, she co-anchored the station’s continuous coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which earned WWL the George Foster Peabody, Edward R. Murrow and duPont-Columbia Awards.
In addition, at WWL-TV, Swensen earned six Edward R. Murrow regional awards for investigative journalism, writing and feature reporting. She won two regional Emmys, several Gracie and Gabriel Awards, as well as Associated Press and Press Club of New Orleans awards, including the prestigious Jim Metcalf Memorial Award for best broadcast writing.
Swensen graduated Phi Beta Kappa with Honors from Penn State with a degree in Political Science and was a Louisiana state finalist in the Rhodes Scholarship competition. She has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State.