May 21, 2013

Okla. Gov. Mary Fallin thanked her state’s media Tuesday for saving lives with early storm warnings and non-stop coverage of the recovery efforts. “I just want to thank the media for all that you’ve done to help our community get information that’s critical at a time like this,” Fallin said in a press conference. “So thank you so much for helping with the weather and disaster services and being able to help in our search and rescue. We appreciate you.”

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb called TV station meterologists “top notch and first-rate.” KFOR, KWTV, KOCO, KOKH along with local radio and news websites like NewsOk have, as the governor said, no doubt saved lives.

The storms found two Oklahoma City TV stations between news directors. KOCO is advertising for a news director and KFOR’s new news director arrives next week from Tulsa. But neither lacked for leadership.

The Vital Role of Online and Mobile

When I spoke with him Tuesday morning, an exhausted-sounding KFOR Interim News Director Steve Johnson was juggling the demands of coordinating another day of storm cleanup and what will likely be another afternoon of heavy storms. At the moment we spoke, he said 2,200 people “are looking at our live stream; 213 are looking at a video story from Moore.”

KWTV’s VP of Digital and Social Content Billy Hendrix said his station set a new record for online traffic, 2.5 million page views. “We have a big metro area and then we have very rural Oklahoma in our viewing area,” Hendrix told me. “The people out in the country tend to watch TV on satellite dishes and when storms come, they lose their signals fast. So during a storm we stream live video online, on mobile and on several apps. During the storm we use Twitter and Facebook to tell the public street by street were the storm is and where it is going.”

Once a storm passes, stations said, they change their strategy to tell the public where to go to get help, where to meet up with their children and what is needed next. Jessica Schambach is an evening news anchor for KOCO-TV and filed non-stop from the scene.

KOCO’s website is bulging with more than 500 user-contributed photos and videos from the storm.

The Oklahoman’s NewsOK website includes some of the most compelling video of the day. Oklahoman journalists captured breathtaking video of the tornado on the ground. NewsOK also smartly interviewed its editor Kelly Dyer Fry and online manager Alan Herzberger about coverage plans.

The Helicopter Shot

Oklahoma City TV stations have a long history of chasing tornadoes with their helicopters. “They fly on the backside of the storm, where the weather tends to be calmer,” Hendrix told me.

Johnson said the chopper pilots in Oklahoma City do the on-the-air reporting and a photojournalist is in the back of the aircraft. “The camera is an HD camera and gives the appearance of being a lot closer than we are. Chopper 4 was away from hail, lightning and rain, east of the storm.” Even from a distance of a couple of miles away, the storm can be strong enough to pull the aircraft toward the funnel.  KFOR pilot Jon Welsh mentioned on the air Monday that at one point he was being pulled closer than he wanted to be and moved away.

CNN viewers watched KFOR’s Chopper 4 live video as the storm grew to more than a mile wide. Welsh is a National Guardsman and a pilot instructor for the National Guard.

Here is a clip of the live Chopper 4 chopper coverage of the tornado roaring through Moore that I captured on my computer screen.

KFOR Live Chopper Video from Al Tompkins on Vimeo.

After the storm finally died out, Welsh got his first look at what we now know is Plaza Towers Elementary School, where children were buried in the debris.

KFOR “warzone terrible” first look at school from Al Tompkins on Vimeo.

You can’t help but be impressed by how, live on the air, while flying a helicopter no less, Welsh provides such specific street-by-street narration. He grew up in the area and had a deep personal connection to what he was seeing.  There was a reason Welsh was able to narrate the storm’s path so precisely.  Welsh lives in Moore. He has two houses there, one he is selling and a new house that he just bought.  While he was live, on the air, he watched as the tornado split between them and rip through his hometown. Oklahoma journalists, unfortunately, have become experienced at seeing such things.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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