Covering a hurricane: working on little sleep and pure adrenaline

By Sharon Dunten, SPJ Assistant Region 3 Director and freelance journalist and photographer

Gas pump Hurricane Matthew Washington Post
Finding fuel before Hurricane Matthew hit the Georgia coast was difficult when many gas stations closed early. Washington Post photo by Sharon Dunten

As a journalist, if you haven’t covered a hurricane, it will be nothing like you have covered before in your lifetime. There isn’t any way to predict what you will be experiencing, what you will be seeing and feeling, and how humanity acts on both sides of the coin.

On the other hand, if you have covered a hurricane and its devastation during and after, you know the story won’t be put to bed for a long, long time.

Journalists living in the area and also deployed to such catastrophic events are living on adrenaline and everything that they’ve got inside them. And it affects them; and it will affect them for a long time.

Journalists living in the area and also deployed to such catastrophic events are living on adrenaline and everything that they’ve got inside them. And it affects them; and it will affect them for a long time.

Before you start reporting directly on a hurricane — before it hits, you have to have a few things in place other than your media equipment: water, food, batteries, rain gear, a cell phone, boots, first aid kit, duct tape, a crank weather emergency radio and many containers of gasoline. Yes, you have to bring your own gasoline. Don’t expect the pumps to be working. You are responsible for your own own resources or maybe colleagues to help provide fuel.

You are lucky if you find a hotel or a place to stay where you can be reasonably safe and dry. But there is no guarantee. You may be sleeping in your car, media truck or in a rescue camp. Many local media organizations open up their offices to media coming in from all over the country and the world. They will try to share electricity, food and water, and a blow-up mattress if one is available.

Sleep is only used when there is not a speck of energy left in side you. Caffeine is a luxury. You just do what you have to do. You do journalism.

Mathew trees
Hurricane strength winds hit the Georgia coast with Hurricane Matthew in 2016

You will face stinging winds like you have never felt before. The rain is sideways. The drops feel like sharp needles piercing through your skin. The wind moans and debris swirls and then scatters into several different directions. Rain comes down in sheets, the water pools quickly around your feet. Your vehicle feels like it is skimming on top of an ice skating rink. The windshield wipers can’t handle the amount of water coming down. You slow down; you creep; you start praying.

Your clothes become soaked as soon as you step out of your vehicle. The rain poncho you are wearing spins and snaps your face like a rawhide whip used by a cowboy to get cattle moving.

And you keep moving. You shoot the scene, take notes and talk to people who are about to lose everything. And they are always looking for someone. “Do you have the latest news?” Some say they are holding tight; you wonder if they are going to live through the storm.

Nathan Deal during Mathew
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal along with U.S. senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson arrive by helicopter in Brunswick, Ga., after Hurricane Matthew hit the Georgia coast in 2016. Photo by Sharon Dunten

Local officials are inundated with the media for updated information. The last thing they want to say is that they don’t know. But sometimes they just don’t have updated information. The reports come in spurts. These officials haven’t slept in days. Sometimes they stop answering their phones.

You are receiving reports that the hurricane will hit landfall at a certain time. You check your cell phone. You don’t have much time to get to your safe place before the direct hit.

But outside there are still people walking or waiting for a bus or ride away from the area. Many are homeless. The local authorities are called. There is nothing they can do. You end up in a fight with them on the phone demanding that they help these stragglers left to the storm. They end up hanging up on you. You pile the homeless into your car and take them to a local gas station that is still open. Meanwhile, you pass four police cars parked under an underpass to avoid the pounding rain.

It is now time to hunker down. You have 45 minutes to get to your safe place.

It is now time to hunker down. You have 45 minutes to get to your safe place. While many broadcast journalists continue to be on the air, print and online journalists are trying to find electricity and WiFi to file their stories. If you have a satellite phone, you are lucky. If not, you scour the area to get a signal. You just do it. You talk to other journalists and local officials to find some kind of access to the outside world.

Arriving back at the safe place, you find a desk somewhere, a hotel room or stay in your vehicle, but you have to file your articles and photos. Although pure chaos is happening outside, your work has to be done. You just do it.

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Messages were left for family and friends on homes and vehicles to help find Hurricane Katrina victims in Bay St. Louis, Miss. area. Photo By Sharon Dunten

You don’t remember the last time you have eaten. Your heart races. Your fingers fly as you write and upload your report.

The lights flicker. WiFi goes in and out. The building creaks or your vehicle shakes in the wind.

You watch many other journalists and residents stream in and out of buildings — soaked to the skin. You go back to your keyboard. Just keep going. Find a signal. Call the story in. Check in with your editors.

At some point, at a certain time that you really don’t remember, you crawl into a bed. Your clothes smell like mildew. You wait out the storm. You crash into uncomfortable and restless sleep. And you drift off thinking about tomorrow’s coverage.

And that will be a completely different story.


Sharon Dunten mug
Sharon Dunten

Sharon Dunten is a freelance journalists with Dunten Media Services LLC, based out of Atlanta. She is also SPJ Assistant Region 3 Director and editor of Dunten has covered both Hurricane Katrina and Matthew for various news organizations including the Washington Post. She will covering Hurricane Harvey’s recovery efforts on and other news outlets. 

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