BEHIND THE SCENES with Daniel Zwerdling

I read that when you first heard about the hurricane risk facing New Orleans you weren't ready to investigate, but then what changed your mind

I figured, hey, if there's really a big chance that a hurricane will destroy one of the most famous cities in America –- as a couple of scientists were telling me -- wouldn't the whole country be buzzing about it? But I decided to behave like a Responsible Journalist instead of whining, and I made some calls to check things out. I remember the exact moment I knew it was a Big Story: I reached a gruff, low-key bureaucrat named Jay Combe, who was toiling away in an office at the Army Corps of Engineers. His bosses had ordered him to prepare a "doomsday manual" that would help emergency crews navigate around the region once it was under water. Before we go on: I'm going to keep saying "we" while we chat, and it's not the royal we - I investigated the New Orleans story with some wonderful TV colleagues from NOW on PBS, producer William Brangham and assistant producer Karla Murthy

You produced this piece around the first anniversary of 9/11 and I'm wondering if it was felt odd to be reporting on a potential disaster that wasn't related to terrorism

Not odd. A bit uncomfortable. Scientists had convinced us that a hurricane was far more likely to wipe out a city than a band of terrorists, yet the government was (and still is) spending a fraction as much protecting the country from hurricanes as it spends protecting us from terrorists. On the other hand, terrorism was and still is a scary and serious threat – and when terrorists eventually get a nuclear bomb, which almost every nuclear scientist expects to happen, the equation will change. We spent a lot of time trying to find the right tone for the New Orleans piece, to alert people that the U.S. faces different kinds of problems..

The mainstream media and even NPR are known for raising fears about disasters. Were you concerned that the public wouldn't take these reports seriously? Did you ever wonder about the validity of the predictions yourself

Once we started researching the piece in earnest, we knew the scientists had done great work: yes, New Orleans seemed in grave danger. Some listeners, not many, wrote after the broadcast that we were sensationalistic –- and some of my loved ones at NPR jokingly called me "Danny Doom." But that's what always happens when journalists write about issues that challenge the status quo. If you write something and nobody gets upset, that suggests it must have been boring

When the levees broke a year ago, what were you thinking -- did you go back and listen to the piece? And, if so, what was that experience like

I got chills. I didn't have to listen again, I remembered doing the piece so vividly. But I called a couple of the main folks who convinced me this was an important issue and figured prominently –- like scientist Joe Suhayda, Walter Maestri, the emergency manager, and environmental lawyer Oliver Houck. A couple of them started crying when I asked them after Katrina what it was like to see some of their predictions come alive

What techniques did you use to bring this story alive given that you were faced with interviewing a slew of experts? Huge problem. Some of the key researchers (who shall remain nameless) are really boring talkers. All of us who interview scientific and medical types frequently wrestle with this sad fact. So we kept trying to get people to do "visual" things, things that make noise, that helped bring the story alive. We open the story as one of the most prescient researchers, Joe Suhayda, unfolds a 25-foot measuring stick in the French Quarter to show how high floodwaters might go. Click. Click click. Click. I miked the stick really, really close. I spent an hour running next to horse-drawn carriages just to get a good 10 seconds of clip-clop clip clops –- nice and clear without any passing cars drowning them out. You can always think up something

Did you think up these interview ideas on the spot or were they planned ahead of time

I've made a rule for myself (which unfortunately I sometimes forget): never, ever go to an interview until I've thought out a few ways to get the person DOING something that relates somehow to his or her work. And then during the taped interview, I force myself to pause once or twice -- I tell the subject, "Hope you don't mind, but I need to think for a minute or two, to make sure I'm not forgetting to ask you anything. Please feel free to go to the bathroom or get some water while I do" -- and then I use that time to figure out, OK, what could I get this person to DO that will help this part of the story come alive

Even getting them to walk down the hallway in their research center, or stroll on a levee while you do the interview, helps make the scene come alive. For instance, they struggle for breath a bit as we're walking, they pant a bit, and that jolts them out of their monotone and gets them to talk louder and more forcefully. Or I get bureaucrats to open the file drawer and fish out the files that bear on what we're talking about, and then leaf through the pages in the file folders -- so you get a sound picture that says, "These are the crucial, all-important documents that we're talking about in this story!" Don't hesitate to say to the person, "Please don't talk while I tape the sound of you opening the files.

But long before I ever meet the person, when I'm first chatting with them on the phone, I say, "OK, you've heard NPR, right? You know how we use sound instead of pictures to try to bring the story alive?" At this point, they often laugh and say, "Right, I know the drill, you guys record traffic going by, or the sound of somebody walking across a field." In other words, they get it (and they get how we often resort to cliches)

When we were setting up the New Orleans story, we kept asking Joe Suhayda on the phone, "What do you do to try to convince people that the hurricane threat is real?" He talked about power point presentations (snore) and computer animations of a hurricane destroying the city (that sounded hopeful, but turned out they had no sound). He said he gives talks to community groups (that sounded like a potentially good scene, but it turned out none was scheduled). Finally, Suhayda said, "Oh, you know, I keep a measuring stick in my trunk to show how high the water might go." Bingo. If the stick hadn't clicked, I would have asked Suhayda to call out every foot

The story is so eerie in its prediction of exactly what happened when Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005, three years after your reports were broadcast on NPR. Did the airing of these stories have any impact on New Orleans preparedness or the community

No. But a few scientists and others who had been trying to sound the alarm told me the story helped re-energize them

How did that make you feel about the media's ability to have impact

You win some, you lose some. Occasionally stories do affect public policy overnight, but we can't expect that to happen most of the time. I like to think of journalists, including me, as teachers: we take part in changing what people know about the world, in teeny increments -- and eventually, that contributes to more widespread social change.