Storm conditions for journalists might be as unpredictable as any erratic hurricane

Editor’s Note: For our new subscribers who don’t cover Atlantic or Gulf coastal areas, please keep the journalists in mind and in prayer who will face down the monster called a Category 4 hurricane coming up from the Caribbean.

Sharon Dunten | Executive Editor | COMMENTARY

Covering multiple hurricanes in the southern/southeastern United States as a professional journalist and photojournalist for more than 14 years, I realize one thing is certain: Each hurricane has its own personality and style as well as its own distinctive dangers.

Whether you are a member of the local press covering your own coastal town, or you are facing deployment by a national news organization out of Atlanta, New York City or Washington, D.C., each journalist is facing the same storm with its possible high velocity, sporadic winds, blinding sheets of rain, and potential storm surges with major flooding.

Keep in mind that your journalism profession serves this country and its residents. If it wasn’t for professional journalists and meteorologists directly reporting on a threatening hurricane, communities on the coasts wouldn’t be adequately informed to make critical decisions for their families and properties as a hurricane’s damaging winds loom only hours away.

If you are a journalist that is unfamiliar how the hurricane reporting is done in the southern and eastern coastal areas, understand that we know hurricanes can crawl up and impact the Atlantic coastal areas or might cause brutal havoc on the Gulf of Mexico coast. We get wet. This is why we bring rain ponchos, rain boots and plenty of dry socks.

Most journalists working on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts experience different hurricane categories at some point in their career. Of course, any hurricane category storm is a dangerous situation to enter as a journalist. It is critical to stay in touch with your newsroom as much as possible, not only for coverage, but also for your safety.

Reporters covering storms, whether they come from print, online or broadcast news organizations, might report easily from a Category 1 hurricane that might create some slight inconveniences to a news team. On the other hand, a journalist or news team may actually go through the haunting experience of a Category 5 hurricane and view the aftermath like they are survivors of the atomic bomb blast.

Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October 2018 with more than $25.1 billion in damages. Wikimedia photo

No matter where the storm hits landfall, journalists cover the storm’s weather rage and hold governmental officials accountable to its citizens in the wake of the storm. We are out shooting photos and video when the eye travels through, and we immediately retreat back into the safety of buildings to endure the Act II of the storm. When the storm is over, we collect ourselves, hit the road [where possible] and start our storytelling.

Emmy Award-winning journalist David Malkoff reported for CBS WFOR Miami for more than six years before becoming a national correspondent for The Weather Channel. Wiki photo

Many of us are out in the storm on city streets under porches and overhangs doing live shots or bracing under highway viaducts to gain our balance. Some journalists are reporting on stranded motorists at open truck stops who are trying to get out of the area but find the roads are already closed. We also see the homeless transported into shelters, while others crowd into a Waffle House or low cost hotel lobbies for safety. Sometimes we have to call law enforcement to pick up a homeless person only to be told that it was too late to do anything for them. That’s where the role of “first responders” might become essential to help others.

Journalists face natural debris and fallen trees when covering a hurricane. Supplied photo

Sometimes residents ask journalists to contact their love ones to tell them that they are okay. We do our best to comply.

Facing the aftermath of each storm, along with residents who decide to stay, can be treacherous. We drive and walk around downed electrical lines and trees and plenty of natural and building debris. We want to inspect and to report the seriousness of the storm to the rest of the world. Law enforcement may deter our reporting. You have to show your press credentials and remind them of the First Amendment at times. Even so, sometimes you have to find another way in with another news team or discover a way around a police barricade, of course, within safety considerations and within the law.

Journalists run into road blocks set up by law enforcement and the state’s national guard personnel. We talk to the officers and find out what’s ahead and move on. Supplied photo

What we see isn’t always easy to watch or discover. With every hurricane, journalists see massive destruction of homes and businesses, broken infrastructure and law enforcement looking for the wounded and dead. We report on foolish homeowners who thought a hurricane would be a great time for a party and later find out that many of the party guests are now missing. We follow law enforcement and government officials as they assess the damage and report on what the state or federal authorities will do to help.

Our reporting provides the stories about a community’s resiliency and, unfortunately, what people face after a catastrophic loss. We are usually out in the burning heat, along with unearthed snakes and mosquitoes swarms. This is why bug spray is needed when covering the aftermath of a hurricane. The snakes? Well, it sometimes is wise to wear long pants. The long pants are also good so you don’t have to get a booster tetanus shot every hurricane season.

Finding place to obtain gasoline might be a problem for journalists. Many news teams and individual journalists carry their own gas cans with them to sustain their cars and vans. Also gas stations can also end up with major damage as well. Above, a gas station outside of Waveland, Miss. Photo by Sharon Dunten

Facing the storm’s aftermath, as reporters know we might not have electricity to plug into for our technology. Cell phone connection can be nonexistent or sketchy. Gas stations are closed. The pumps won’t work without electricity. Have you been supplied with a satellite phone? If so, you are lucky. With that in mind, most journalists covering a natural disaster continue to face unpredictable conditions for several days.

Whether you are a journalist who has covered hurricanes for years and might need to refresh of your basic hurricane kit, or maybe you are a rookie in hurricane reporting and are building your own hurricane survival kit so you can do your job before and after the hurricane, this basic list might be helpful:

  • Laptop computer, camera/audio equipment and charged power pack for recharging
  • Smart phone with recharging cords, SAT phone, if available
  • Press credentials on a lanyard; drivers license
  • A possible solar-powered panel pack for recharging technology
  • An emergency radio with a crank to power the radio
  • Long extension cords
  • Utility knife and scissors
  • Duct tape
  • A large, folded blue tarp
  • Carry your own gasoline in large certified gas containers (2)
  • Carry list of phone numbers of your editors & colleagues with you if reporting on the scene is challenged
  • Physical maps (No GPS)
  • Notebook paper and pens
  • Flash lights with additional bulbs
  • Large umbrella
  • Lots of dry socks
  • Rain boots, rain ponchos and baseball hats
  • Long denim jeans & short/long sleeve shirts
  • A sweat shirt
  • A lot of batteries; a lot of bottled water and protein energy bars, dried fruit or jerky
  • Bug spray
  • Blanket and pillow
  • First Aid kit; medical insurance card; names to contact in case of an emergency
  • Personal medications for up to seven days
  • A little bit of cash (ATMs and credit cards don’t work without electricity)

For more information on how journalists are covering Hurricane Dorian, which has the potential to move up the Atlantic coast or stir into the Gulf, watch for emails and social media posts on SizingUpTheSouth.com. If you would like to share your experience as a journalist working during this storm, contact the executive editor at editor@sizingupthesouth.com or call/text at (317) 410-7217.

Stay safe journos!

Sharon Dunten

Sharon Dunten is the executive editor for SizingUpTheSouth.com. Dunten is also a freelance journalist based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in many regional publications and The Washington Post. Dunten served as the assistant regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists in Region 3 for more than six years. Her journalism career includes working in the Midwest for urban newspapers since 1990s. editor@sizingupthesouth.com

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