Nashville TV Stations Say Collaboration, Social Media Were Key When Covering Floods

One week ago, Nashville, Tenn., found itself in crisis. Three months worth of rain fell in 24 hours. Rivers flooded interstates, neighborhoods and landmarks. Experts say the storm caused more than $1.5 billion in damage.

But Nashville has suffered through this one largely by itself. There was no looting, the storm had no name, nobody forecast such a catastrophic event and the networks didn't send their anchors to stand in the water and talk. Maybe it was just bad timing with a suspicious package in Times Square and an oil slick moving toward shore.

Nashville-area media have been remarkable. TV and radio stations stayed on air with marathon coverage, hour upon hour of raw information, video and photos as the story unfolded. Newspapers and TV stations have made expansive use of websites and social media to help the public understand what was unfolding. 

That became vitally important as big sections of the viewing area lost power and relied on smart phones to deliver video, photos and basic information about the rising water.

WTVF-TV's newsroom flooded and the station had to quickly move operations to another floor while broadcasting live. WSMV-TV quickly organized a telethon featuring big name country music stars, and WKRN-TV ran a 16-hour stretch of uninterrupted coverage.

WZTV, the Fox station in town, struggled a great deal to keep serving viewers. The staff was only allowed in the station for short periods of time during the floods because the station is located in Metro Center, which is surrounded on two sides by the Cumberland River. The station used Facebook extensively to try to keep the information flowing.

I talked to my old friend Neysa Ellery, the assignment manager at WTVF, about the lessons she learned, or re-learned, in this disaster.  You can read her full list of tips here.

I also e-mailed Sandy Boonstra, Matthew Hilk and Matthew Zelkind (news directors at WTVF, WSMV and WKRN respectively) and asked them to look back on the last week to tell us what it has been like and what they have learned. You can read their edited responses below.

Al Tompkins: What has surprised you most about this disaster?

Matthew Hilk: I have been surprised at how long our newsroom can sustain wall-to-wall coverage -- and how much easier wall-to-wall coverage is to execute, as opposed to sporadic cut-ins and newscasts. The flow of information remains constant and monitored when you stay on the air and live online. Our viewers seemed to appreciate that.


Matthew Zelkind: People helped people. I am so proud to be part of a community that has been so selfless. They are helping people they don't know. The donations of time and money and food and raw work have been remarkable. One of our photojournalists, Alan Devine, had a fire in his house, which is in bad shape, and he still brought his videotape from the story he was working on that day. He walked into the newsroom covered in soot.

Most of us know somebody who lost their house or had severe damage to their house. It is hard when you see something so horrible. One of our crews came upon a body Sunday. It is so overwhelming the magnitude of what is happening here; people do not realize it.

Sandy Boonstra: I was surprised by how quickly the emergency response teams were able to get things cleaned up. On Saturday I-24 was a lake, cars and small buildings were floating down the interstate, people were drowning in their cars. I thought it would be days before that road would be reopened because of the debris, but it was opened the next day. Of course, the rain wasn't through and the flooding became worse every day.
What has your newsroom had to learn from this disaster?

Boonstra: We lost our entire newsroom, so we were dealing with that and with people who were personally affected by the floods. And then, of course, we were faced with covering one of the biggest stories that has hit Middle Tennessee. So we had to learn how to separate our own crisis from the one we were covering. Editing out of closets, reporters writing in the hall, oh and no bathrooms! Our team came together and we kept going through the chaos. The biggest struggle was not getting overwhelmed by it all.  

Zelkind: You see things and you almost can't believe. The stadium where the Titans play has 6-feet of water. Another stunning moment for me was the evacuation of the Opryland Hotel.

Katrina dumped 10 inches of rain on New Orleans. Nashville got 18 inches of rain. They were rescuing pregnant women from the interstate. One man clung to a telephone pole but nobody could reach him.  The next day, one of our crews came across his body.

We could not use microwave for live shots because of rain fade interfering with the shot. We used UStream, which uses wireless phone cards to send video back to the station.

Hilk: Our newsroom has a well-defined breaking news/disaster plan for coverage. We parse out duties very specifically to help navigate the chaos. However, there are two duties on the roster that I will assign next time:

1. One person from among the newsroom decision makers needs to periodically survey the outside world. A couple of game-changing perspectives for me came when I left the building on day three and saw so many people starting to get back to normal, and when I delivered some food to crews on day five, when I saw just how many homes -- even in the "minor" flooding areas -- had lost everything inside.

2. One person needs to be the honcho of all human needs. We have all tried very hard to do our best to enable some survival basics -- food, rest, time to check on the family.

In the future, we should designate one person just to look out for our people and their human needs independent of news needs.
Looking back, what do you wish you knew a week ago that you know now?

Boonstra: I wish someone would have told me we would lose our entire newsroom. Actually, maybe I wouldn't have wanted to know in advance.

Zelkind: I don't know if you can ever prepare for something like this until you have lived it. The toll on your staff is incomprehensible. They call it the "train effect"; you see it come, you watch your city flood, you watch your neighborhood flood, you see people trapped and being rescued and you are sitting there in awe of the magnitude of what you are witnessing. 

We have had to learn the new ways our community can flood. It has never seen anything like this before and we had to learn it live, on the air with our viewer's help.

How have you used new technology(s) to cover this story?

Zelkind: Besides UStream, which has been a great technology for us, we have had significant amounts of "citizen journalism" to help us. You can't be everywhere. You start using first-hand accounts from people. People sent us video and pictures. 

Last Monday we provided 16 hours of constant coverage. We used e-mail as the main mechanism for people to send us video and pictures. We also used YouTube video and phoners, and people would call in and tell us the stories behind the video, like people saying "Hey, I am watching that video and I know the owner of that house. ... They had one payment left on the house."

For hours we took calls and ran video. It was amazing. I had people live on my air offering places to live and offering their cell phone numbers live on the air. It was basic communication and it brought out the best in people.

Boonstra: During the first days of the flooding we were not able to do traditional live shots because of the storms. Instead we used a lot of Ustream video from our photographers. It really added to the coverage and made it possible to get the video on more quickly.

Hilk: Early on, the flooding was fueled by severe thunderstorms, which restricted liveshots. Our lifelines to sustain wall-to-wall coverage were webcams, UStream reports and video reports fed via reporters' Blackberries.
How important has Web coverage been to your storytelling process?

Hilk: Web coverage has been critical. During the worst day of the flooding, recorded 8.5 million page views, an all-time record, and a massive number in its own right.

Boonstra: The Web was a critical part of our coverage. The continuous breaking news e-mails really helped to get the word out to people who had no electricity and could not get updates on television.  Also, the thousands of viewer-generated pictures and video helped us tell the story of what was happening.

Zelkind: Web was vital. People could access stuff through their phones but did not have electricity to watch us on the air. Last weekend there was horrifying rain, flooding and survival. Then it broke down to disbelief and people comprehending what had transpired. The third phase is recovery, but for two days people were often just cut off. 

How have you used social networks to help tell the story?

Boonstra: All our stories were on Facebook and we also sent out tweets. Our reporters updated Facebook pages with photos and updates throughout our coverage.

Hilk: Our Web staff translated much of our online content onto Facebook, but to be candid, days of wall-to-wall coverage really left us in a position where our social media coverage could have been better in this case.

Zelkind: Twitter was huge. We did a ton of it. We got first-hand accounts and we were able to answer people's questions and sooth fears. We took a ton of questions and put them on TV. Part of what surprised me was how much just talking and providing basic information reassured people.

Why do you think this story has gotten so little national attention?

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Hilk: National media coverage of a weather disaster tends to be quick when it follows the stereotype of a local area -- hurricane coverage in Florida, snow coverage in New England, etc. It tends to be slower when the story involves unusual weather for an area. Nashville doesn't have a reputation for floods. This is not unlike the other flooding calamity I was involved in covering -- the 2004 floods in Pittsburgh. In that case, 12,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, but national media were very slow to notice.

Boonstra: I do think that the oil spill and the Times Square-attempted bombing took the national spotlight. But, with all the deaths that have occurred and the mass destruction, I am surprised the networks did not all send a correspondent to Nashville.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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