The new hurricane season: Covering this year’s storms and aftermath

The May sun warms afternoon temperatures into the 90s. Clouds dot the Southeast sky, and afternoon “pop-up” thundershowers become the routine. People flock to the beach and area lakes. Evening cookouts with the smell of hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill brings back memories of years gone by.

Photo above: Image of 2018’s Hurricane Florence that hit the Atlantic coast as seen by the International Space Station. Flickr photo

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina president, assistant professor of mass communications, Francis Marion University

As the summer season slows us down to enjoy time with family and friends, warm waters lurk off the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The tepid water of the Gulf of Mexico becomes increasingly warm and agitated. The beginning of the Atlantic Hurricane Season is just days away.

There is also a flurry of activity inside broadcast newsrooms along the coast of the southeastern United States. Journalists and meteorologists are gearing up for what they hope is not a long hurricane season. Over the past several years, the tropics have yielded unprecedented rainfall, calamitous winds and feelings of despair up and down the coastline.

Coming off the Gulf of Mexico in October 2018, Hurricane Michael took a direct hit at Mexico Beach, Florida, located 25 miles southeast of Panama City. Wiki photo

In some cases, that devastation has been felt many miles inland, as well. Hurricane Matthew dealt a crushing blow to the Carolinas in 2016. Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused death and destruction for communities in Florida and Puerto Rico. Hurricane Florence devastated the Carolinas last season while Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage to areas around Panama City, Florida.

Gearing up for the new season

As the season begins, management at broadcast stations also begin drawing up coverage plans in case another big storm hits this season. At the same time, meteorologists who work at these stations begin looking at water temperatures and environmental conditions that could lead to more trouble on the horizon.

Chief Meteorologist Jamie Arnold and Morning Anchor Audrey Biesk for WMBF News have covered hurricanes that have moved up the Atlantic coast and hit the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area. They have both learned how to prepare themselves for future hurricanes. Supplied photos.

Jamie Arnold, chief meteorologist at NBC-affiliate WMBF News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has talked his viewers through many tropical systems the past several years. Although the forecast calls for a normal season, he reminds the public not to get too caught up in those early-season predictions.

“I honestly don’t care how many storms form. Twenty-five can form and stay out to sea and it’s a ‘quiet’ season. Three can form, but if one hits our area, that’s all I care about.”

Jamie Arnold, Chief Meteorologist, WMBF News, Mrytle Beach, South Carolina

Audrey Biesk is now a morning anchor at WMBF News. She had just begun her tenure at WMBF News as a bureau reporter in Florence, South Carolina when her “baptism by fire” began during what some called the “thousand-year flood” in 2015. It was the year Hurricane Joaquin combined with other systems to create torrents of rain across South Carolina. It caused a great deal of damage to areas around Florence, South Carolina. Little did anyone know at that point that 2016 and 2018 would bring more disastrous flooding to the same areas.

Since 2015, Biesk has been thrown into the elements of covering a myriad of weather events. In 2016, she covered Tropical Storm Hermine. It was followed by the monster storm Matthew in October that year.

“Following the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, I was stationed in Lumberton for a week to tell the stories of those who were without homes,” Biesk said. “The neighborhoods surrounding I-95 were completely under water. My photographer and I found families to speak with at the high schools serving as shelters and many are still recovering.”

Biesk also covered last year’s active season, including Hurricane Florence that, once again, left many parts of the Carolinas underwater.

“I was then stationed in Myrtle Beach, and WMBF provided 38 hours of wall-to-wall coverage of this hurricane and I was live reporting along ocean boulevard.”

Hurricanes can bring a variety of hazards: damaging winds, tornadoes, storm surge, flash flooding and river flooding. Long before a hurricane hits the coast, TV station leaders meticulously plan out coverage to provide up-to-the-minute, life-saving information. Safety is always the number one priority for crews sent into the field to cover these monster storms.

“Hurricane Florence really tested our plans,” Arnold said. “The initial forecasts had Florence coming ashore very near Myrtle Beach as potentially a Category 4 hurricane. Plans were put into motion in the event that happened.”

“A backup studio was set up in a nearby building that was rated to withstand category 5 winds. One anchor and one meteorologist were sent to our sister station in Charlotte in the event we lost all broadcasting capabilities from Myrtle Beach.”

Jamie Arnold

According to Biesk, WMBF News management prepares all crews before sending them into the field during a high-impact weather event.

“We are always assured we will have a safe place to sleep at night whether that is a hotel or the station itself,” she said. “The crews must have food and water and all rain gear to protect ourselves and the equipment. Once that all happens, we make it happen.”

WMBF reporters and photographers out in the field were told to shelter in place and only gave reports when they felt safe to do so during Hurricane Florence, she said.

The emotional toll

Knowing they are helping the public during a natural disaster provides an adrenaline rush may on-air talent experience during these types of storms. After the storm passes, though, the devastation to a community becomes apparent. Damaged homes, flooded communities and ruined lives have been the reality for people living in northeastern South Carolina since 2015. The town of Nichols, drowned by water from the Lumber River in 2016 after Hurricane Matthew, was swallowed again in 2018 after Hurricane Florence.

Along with the Lumber River, Cape Fear River’s flooding was causing flooding throughout the region. Flickr photo

For meteorologists and reporters covering the aftermath, the emotional impact can take its toll.  

“Covering natural disasters is extremely emotional both physically and mentally,” Biesk said.

“While the area where you live and work in are in potentially deadly paths of destruction, being a journalist means you have to step up, you have to be brave and you have to execute. I experienced long days and long nights of no sleep, but the adrenaline keeps you going.”

Audrey Biesk

Arnold said the sight of people suffering on top of working the long hours can almost be overwhelming.  

“It’s a much different experience to see the flooding first hand than to watch from the studio,” he said. “Following the flooding from Hurricane Florence, I spent 10 days in the field following the crests of our local rivers. This provided an amazing sense of the scope of the flooding and just how devastating it can be.”

Knowing the same communities would inevitably flood again last year was a bitter pill to swallow for Arnold.

“Following the flooding in 2015 and hurricane Matthew in 2016, the forecast of more flooding was difficult and became even harder as the storm moved on shore,” he said ” It very quickly became apparent that water levels would exceed the previous two events,” he said.

Mentally, the weight of informing these communities that another storm was on the way after they had lost so much was almost too much to bear.

A journalist’s survival guide

In the back of their minds, though, is the enormous responsibility of keeping viewers informed through the power of broadcast communication – on-air, online, and through social media – during each of the disasters.

Biesk said she realized the importance of providing live coverage of weather disasters to viewers when they have to evacuate and leave their homes behind.

“We are their primary source of news, coverage and up to the minute updates. For that, I will keep going.”

Audrey Biesk

She offers advice for young reporters who might have recently moved to a coastal area in the southeastern U.S.: Treat covering a hurricane or weather event as a learning experience.

If you find yourself covering a tropical storm or hurricane this season, Biesk offers a list of essential items you will want to remember to take along with you during coverage in the field:

  • Rain gear. That means sturdy rain boots, a light rain jacket under your heavy rain jacket, leggings, multiple pairs of socks and a change of clothes once they get soaked.
  • Long rain pants that aren’t too heavy.
  • Clear glasses like construction workers use, for rain hitting your face at high winds.
  • A baseball cap to make sure your hood stays on.
  • Plastic baggies to put your phone in your waterproof case, and paper towels to wipe it off.

Arnold has his own set of “must haves” he brings to the station for a long-duration weather event.

“For me, coming in well rested is most important.”

Jamie Arnold

“When I come in for what I know will be a long stretch of time at the studio, I like to bring a few comforts from home to help me relax – a good pillow, a blanket, some things to freshen up and wash my face. That’s usually all I need to keep going,” said Arnold.

If you are a new journalist about to set out to cover your first weather disaster, the Society of Professional Journalists provides online resources devoted entirely to weather: Check out this link to the “Journalist’s Toolbox”: https://www.journaliststoolbox.org/2019/05/11/weather/.

David Baxley is an assistant professor of mass communication at Francis Marion University. He is also the president of SPJ South Carolina. dtbaxley.spjsc@gmail.com

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