Kerry Sanders, master of TV disaster, recounts a storm-tossed career

After a career spent leaning into BB-gun raindrops and tree-snapping winds, Kerry Sanders is getting ready for another harrowing close-up.

Sanders, a correspondent for NBC News, has covered more than 60 hurricanes in his decades-long career, which has taken him to New Orleans during Katrina, the front lines of Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, as Category 4 Hurricane Irma prepares to wallop South Florida, Sanders is bracing to cover the storm after just having witnessed the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Ahead of the storm's landfall, he dispensed some hard-won wisdom to Poynter readers about remaining calm in the middle of the maelstrom.

You are a veteran of storm coverage, more than 60. As you prepare for another big one, what are the three most important things you plan for?

1. Fruit, like apples and bananas. You can go for days on end on junk food and candy, but you’ll crash from the sugar high.

2. Dry socks and underpants. I don’t care who made your GORE-TEX® fancy rain suit — you will get soaked at some point.

3. It may sound trite, but it’s most important: pack your common sense.

Reporters want to get as close to the action as possible. As you think about access, how do you choose a vantage point from which you can report and still be safe?

Getting close to the action suggests the eye wall, and that happens to you – you don’t choose it. With Irma, there will be “action” everywhere. The question is: do you step into it?

A 150 mph wind could pick up a coconut, and that projectile could kill you. The world has also changed for TV. The “during the storm” stand-up is for a live shot. In the aftermath of the storm, that stand-up may play once. Is it worth risking your life, your cameraman’s life, or — think of this — losing the camera and being out of business?

When we see you on NBC, we see you in one or two-minute blasts. What are you doing in between those live shots?

Prior to the storm hitting, I’m on the move: making calls, talking to residents, trying to coordinate and verify information. Text owns my phone too. Also, what you might not see is all of our network platforms: I’m on MSNBC, “TODAY,” “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt,” The Weather Channel, Facebook Live and more. There is little “in between,” actually. Oh, I try to catch my breath!

A colleague thinks you are the master of the live shot. Share with us some of the elements of a good live shot.

That’s a very kind compliment. I first try to talk and not memorize what I’m going to say. I think simple language and simple ideas are best, and a demonstrative live shot is good. During Hurricane Harvey coverage, we talked about the soggy saturated ground, but rather than talk about it, I bent down, dug my hands into the mud and pulled it up to show the camera.

It’s a very real way to see what we’re talking about. I started as a cameraman, so I’m always aware that the visual supports the editorial.

In the digital age, share with us some of your responsibilities from the field, especially anything you share via social networks.

I use Twitter, but only a few times a day (at most) to tweet. I use Facebook at times as well. It’s not my priority though. I do join NBC News’ Facebook Live reports, and I enjoy them immensely. Why? There is no time limit. No producer asks me to quit talking because there is yet one more guest who needs to get on the air.

You have been in some amazing predicaments covering wars and storms. Have you ever felt that your life or safety was at serious risk?

Yes, I was pinned down by gunfire when we were targeted in Afghanistan. I called my wife on the satellite phone and said goodbye.

I almost died in Hurricane Hugo when I got into position too late, fell into a hole filled with water and couldn’t initially get out. I yelled for help, but no one could hear me. I eventually used the tripod I was carrying to prop myself up. To any reporter who looks at a cameraman when asked to carry the tripod, take note: it saved my life.

In television coverage of storms, you see these moments when the journalists are in a position to actually help a stranded person. What are your guidelines about whether to keep shooting or to start helping?

I always help. The cameraman may still shoot, but you are a human first. During Katrina at the New Orleans airport, I heard a faint call for help among the hundreds of people lying on the ground. It was an older man who had been evacuated. All he wanted was water and a warm touch. I wasn’t a reporter at that moment — I was someone who could help, so I did.

The cameraman shot it (I didn’t know it at the time since there was a wireless mic), and it played on-air later. That human moment played and was meaningful to so many, but mostly to the man’s family who had lost track of him during the evacuations. Sadly, he died seven days later, but his family thanked me repeatedly for the kindness. Of course that is what you do, but it was still meaningful to them (and me).

We have seen a few cases of people being helped or rescued expressing anger about being photographed or questioned. What is the best way to approach people who are so vulnerable?

There is no easy answer. Live TV often doesn’t allow for a pre-interview. Just recognize their pain, and let them vent. It may be painful to take it, but it’s honest.

What is the most amazing thing you have witnessed covering a hurricane?

Too many “amazingly sad moments.” One in particular was a live-to-tape moment during Hurricane Andrew, as I reported from the floorboards of a car (often considered by folks in South Fla. a signature moment).

You obviously have a great sense of humor. What is the funniest thing you have witnessed — or done — covering a hurricane?

Funny to others, but not me: A dog bit me after Hurricane Ivan.

You are not out there alone. Can you say a little about the division of labor and collaboration with others out on the scene?

The best model (just employed during Hurricane Harvey coverage, and we’re using again now) is my team of two cameramen, one audio technician, one engineer, one producer with two Live Views per cameraman (so when one dies, you have back up), one drone, four trucks (or five … the more the merrier), two cellphones per person (one Verizon, one AT&T), ropes for swift water rescues or floods, protective glasses for walking or driving in the rain, boots, hip waders and so much more.

We all work as a team. If one person says they don’t want to do something, then it’s done. This is not a democracy. We don’t vote. Each person has the same authority. We listen to each other. We try to respect the pressure, and we remember: If you don’t make a live shot at 5:01:30, and you are on at 5:08:30, the world doesn’t come to an end. It all works out, and the highly organized control producers make decisions based on when you are ready, as opposed to when they want you.

Ideally, it all happens at the same time, but if it doesn’t, you live to report another day.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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