The Breakthrough: How journalists in the Virgin Islands covered the disaster happening to them
Editor's note: Poynter is publishing this story in conjunction with ProPublica, which produced this story and podcast.
The rest of the world watched as Hurricanes Irma and Maria — both category 5 storms — slammed into the Virgin Islands, leaving devastation in their wake. Most of the news coverage came from journalists who flew in, and had the luxury of returning home. Reporters and editors with the Virgin Islands Daily News covered a disaster happening to them.
One editor lost his house. Another lost his car. A circulation employee died from injuries he sustained during Hurricane Maria. Still, The Virgin Islands Daily News pressed on. Reporters and editors slept in the St. Thomas newsroom, taking turns cleaning their clothes in a washer/dryer the owner brought in after the storm. They produced a paper almost every day, and broke a government curfew to venture outdoors and deliver the news by hand.
The Breakthrough is a podcast from ProPublica that explores how investigative journalists report their biggest stories from start to finish, and all the hurdles in between. Previous episodes have explored how VTDigger’s reporting led to the downfall of Vermont’s most powerful businessman, how a WNYC journalist triggered an internal investigation at the New York Police Department over cops making millions in shady side businesses, and how a New York Times reporter blew open the Russian doping scandal that marred the Olympics.
For The Virgin Islands Daily News, the reporting obstacles weren’t a stubborn source or a public records request that never came through. Instead, journalists had to navigate reporting without internet or phone service, and on an island under a 24-hour curfew. Gerry Yandel, the paper’s editor, talked to the Breakthrough about what it was like to cover a hurricane while it was happening and about the toll it took on his staff and his community.
Here are a few pieces of our conversation, but you can listen to the full chat at the end of this story. Subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Jessica: Tell us what the hurricane was like — what it sounded like, and what it felt like.
Gerry: You couldn't see anything, you couldn't see anything. It was like being in a blizzard. You couldn't see five feet in front of your face, and you certainly couldn't go outside. Before it got anywhere near that [bad], I tried to go out the back door through the loading dock, and as soon as I cracked the door, the wind yanked it open, pulled me outside. I almost fell on my head, and I'm thinking, “Oh, that's how people die in hurricanes.” … It just kept building, it kept building. And there was, like, a roar that just kept going and increasing. And every now and then, you'd hear something rip off of something and go scattering across the parking lot. There were a couple of points during the middle of it when it was at its peak that I actually had (a) true fear that I was in a situation that was completely out of my control. And, at one point, I thought these power cables had come down, and they were slamming against the windows over on one side of the building, and that was the office where we had stashed all the food and the provisions, and I just had a vision of that shattering … I got everybody to take all the food into the middle of the room, and then, we were sitting around in the dark.
The newspaper’s staff had gathered at the office to ride out the hurricane — Gerry said it was far safer than their homes. And without phone service on the islands, living in the same place was the only way to stay in communication. The reporters picked their own rooms to sleep in, taking up available couches and sleeping on the floor. The owner and president of the paper, Archie Nahigian, bunked with them for solidarity, eating canned tuna right alongside them.
Because of power and internet outages, the island was down to a single source of news — a radio station operated by the government. Rumors, Gerry said, were flying. But with the internet down, their readers couldn’t log onto the site to get factual reporting. The road closures and the curfew also made delivering papers difficult. So, Gerry and Archie drove around to hand them out themselves. Here’s how he describes it:
Gerry: If we saw a store open, we'd stop and get out. Or if we saw crowds of people, we'd hand them out. They were surprised. “You printed a paper?” — that was the thing we would hear. And then, they would want one and then they'd say, “Can I have another one? Somebody else wants one.” It was really gratifying to me, too, because people were so thankful to get the paper and astonished that we were handing it out. Like, “Here's your Daily News. Business as usual.”
Eventually, they were able to start updating their website. They waited until a store opened, and stocked up on wi-fi hotspots so they could reconnect. Gerry and his staff provided crucial information to their readers. They published a list of people whose family and friends were looking for them, and kept running tallies on which businesses were open. They also dispelled rumors and publicized the failure of the local government to help the most vulnerable citizens. In one case, a front-page story about a woman still living in a destroyed public housing building forced the government to move her.
Jessica: How has this experience changed the way that you think about the news or the paper that you run? And has it changed the way you think about the community that you serve?
Gerry: Yes, actually, it has. You know, a lot of people get into journalism to be idealistic and to change the world, and to fix the wrongs. But we have a function here to get the word out. … So, it just made me realize we have a bigger, deeper purpose here and there's a reason we're called The Fourth Estate.
The islands are still recovering from the storm, and The Virgin Islands Daily News will be there every step of the way. Gerry said its journalists have already begun digging into investigative pieces, and will continue to write features on the human impact of the storm. While he said this has been a transformative experience, he’s not eager to cover another storm any time soon.
“You know, that was always something that was on my bucket list as a newspaper guy. I wanted to cover a disaster,” he said. “And I have to say that I'm good now — I don't need to do any more.”
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