Q&A with Hurricane Veterans
I posed a series of questions to News Directors Paula Pendarvis (WGNO in New Orleans), Shannon High (WFOR in Miami), Phil Metlin (Fox 13 in Tampa) and veteran news consultant Barry Nash to give us their best advice for covering hurricanes. Here's what they said.
What is your best advice for covering hurricanes?
Pendarvis, WGNO: When your viewing area is threatened by a hurricane, these are the two most important things to the people who need the information you provide:
1) Where is the storm going and what's the impact going to be on my neighborhood?
2) What should my family be doing right now for our personal safety?
That means, with all the wonderful storytelling (great pictures, great sound, great characters) storm preparations offer, remember that the MOST time in your news coverage should be devoted to your meteorologist and to the safety information being issued by local emergency management authorities.
With all the logistics news managers have to juggle during storm coverage, it's important to plan the actual coverage of the forecast just as well as you plan all the rest of your coverage.
Shannon High, WFOR: The preparation needs to be well ahead of the disaster. You should have a disaster plan already in place at your newsroom that covers any big emergency -- natural or terrorism. Plan on 12-on/12-off shifts for 24-hour coverage before the storm hits, and then 24-hour coverage when the storm hits. If there is severe damage, plan on being live for days on end around the clock, maybe even sleeping in the live van/car until a trailer can be put in place. Plan on being worried about your own family and make sure you have a way to communicate with them after the storm when phone lines might be down. Make sure your family is prepared for the hurricane BEFORE the storm hits. For crews in the field, you need a safe place to ride out the storm and still do live shots. And you need food for the crews in the live trucks, news cars.
Ask yourself: Do you have a phone-bank for people to ask questions and give out information? Do you have your EOCs covered with reliable live equipment (i.e. satellite or fiber)? Do you have a radio partner who will broadcast your coverage? You need a radio partner because when the storm hits you are no longer "doing TV" because no one has power. If you have a radio partner, that is where your message will be heard.
Barry Nash: The most important thing is being "present." So probably the single most important thing a station can do is ensure that it has back-up power in place.
When things get scary, open the phone lines. Remember Brian Norcross in Miami, taking phone calls from viewers hunkered down in the worst of the storm? There's not a live shot in the world more powerful than that. There's something fundamentally powerful about being accessible, especially when people are frightened.
Nothing will frustrate viewers more than not being able to get pertinent weather information when they need it. I'd consider scrolling weather information -- and the time you'll have the next detailed weather presentation -- continuously. As proud as you are of your live shots, people won't settle down to watch if their need for detail about the storm has not been satisfied.
Phil Metlin, Fox 13: Prepare the staffing and the staff. Divide the staff into two teams. Each person is assigned a job. Once the decision is made to commence coverage, declare that a 12-hour on/12-hour off schedule is in effect and alert the staff. This plan involves the entire station. Engineering, production, news, finance, building maintenance, the GM -- everyone is involved.
First, they have to make sure their family and loved ones are secure. Either get them out of town or to a relative's house in a safe zone or, if necessary, a shelter. (A shelter is absolutely the last place you want to go -- they are noisy, stressful places filled with frightened people). Following the family, secure the house as best as you can. Pack a bag with some essentials -- clean clothes, toiletries, a sleeping bag and a towel. Get some cash because you will need it.
Prepare the station. Get some supplies into the building. Enough for a few days. Bottled water, packaged goods, and snacks. Make sure the station's generator is functioning (hopefully there is one!) and make sure the fuel tank is topped off. Get all vehicles topped off and try to find a gas station with a generator so you can obtain more fuel. Create sleeping areas for men and women -- don't forget those sleeping bags!
I also asked veteran photojournalists Gil Hollingsworth (WRAL), Jane Boulen (WDSU) and Kevin Johnson from B-Roll.net for their advice. Here's what they said:
What secrets have you learned for staying dry in the face of a storm?
Gil Hollingsworth, WRAL Photojournalist: Put your wallet and any important papers in a plastic bag to keep them dry. Remember to have the pants of your rain gear outside the boots so the rain doesn't run down into your feet. Always park facing the wind so when you open the car door the rain doesn't blow inside (very much). Cover the seats of your car with garbage bags, backs and bottoms. That way you will not have to sit in a soaking wet seat for three days after the storm is gone.
Kevin Johnson, B-Roll.net: Use multiple water protection over your camera. There are a lot of great storm covers, but one is not enough. Try a plastic bag over the storm cover to protect it from rain and sand. I used to make small 6-inch audio and video "pig tails" to hang outside of the rain cover so I didn't have to open the cover to connect video and audio cables. Never open your camera while in the elements. Sand will eat the camera up in a second. Plastic bags over your mic and under the windscreen will protect it from water and help cut some of the wind noise. Personally, I plan on being wet, so instead of heavy raincoats, I dress in swim trunks, and other quick-dry fabrics. "Aqua-sock" shoes are perfect. Not exactly stylish, but they protect your feet and allow your feet to dry out quicker.
What tricks have you learned to keep your camera dry?
Hollingsworth: Get out of the wind to change tapes or batteries (inside the car or live truck if possible). Keep the lens cover on as much as possible and pull it off only when you are ready to shoot. Try to shoot with the wind at your back as much as possible and don't wipe the lens with a cloth that you've used to wipe your face or anything else (sand will be in everything.) Keep the clear filter on to protect the lens from flying debris and take a couple of spares, if you can, in case flying sand ruins the first one.
What would we find in the trunk of your car that would surprise us?
Hollingsworth: We put a supply pack in each vehicle we send to the coast. They contain snacks and food that can be eaten cold, crackers, candy, energy bars, stuff like that, along with a gallon of water, a flashlight, a roll of duct tape, a package of garbage bags (the big black kind), several candles, a can of Fix-a-Flat and a first aid kit.
Jane Boulen, WDSU: Flashlights, more trash bags, EMPTY gas container, Rain-X (use on camera lens/filter), water, canned food & other snacks, extra sets of clothes because you WILL get wet eventually, chain saw if you can afford it, a number of towels, jumper cables, Hazard/breakdown warning kit.
What advice would you give to crews who do not cover this kind of storm often but are thinking of coming out to cover this one?
Hollingsworth: If you are on the beach and the waves are not receding before the next ones break, it is time to move to higher ground. Wave action in waist-deep water can bury your feet in the sand in just a few moments, so keep your feet moving. Do not go out in the surf or high water with mid-calf boots; if the water gets higher than the top of your boots they will fill with water and you will be unable to run if you need to. DO NOT BE A HERO! The guys hanging onto telephone poles and tied off to trees out in the debris stream are just plain stupid. A stop sign blowing down the road will cut you in half. ALWAYS have an escape route in your mind, and if you are near the water never take your car off the road or into water where you can't see the pavement beneath it.
Johnson: Be careful when walking or driving in standing water. For some reason, boards with nails sticking out always seem to migrate to high water. Tips to the people back at the office: please allow for live crews to break away. I know producers like to have all their options when taking live, but if you are able to allow a camera in from the elements, and allow the photographer to dry it off for even a few minutes, that will do much to keep the camera operational longer.
Boulen: Bring cash with you, lots of it. You may need to pay some guy with a high wheeler to get you around flooded areas. Carry station hats, T-shirts, coffee mugs to give away to folks who help who don't expect any. These go a LONG way. Get in touch with local National Guard to see if you can do ride-alongs.