Editor’s note: Martin Merzer spent 29 years at the Miami Herald. He held a variety of roles there, including senior writer in charge of hurricane coverage. Over the years, he sent this note out to the staff in advance of hurricanes, including the devastating barrage of storms that wracked Florida in 2004 and 2005. It is republished here with his permission.
The dreaded Merz hurricane note
This was written primarily with a direct strike in mind, but it applies to coverage of any hurricane (or other natural disaster or big breaking story). It starts with general guidance; reporting and writing tips can be found about halfway through.
— The main thing is, don’t get overly stressed. You have to really work at it to get hurt by a hurricane these days.
— So, above all, remember the first commandment of hurricane coverage: Be careful during and after the storm. Don’t take unnecessary chances. Don’t get hurt. Rewrite gets real annoyed when your screams of pain and other ambient noise from the emergency room inhibit transcription of your dictated notes.
— If you are not assigned to hurricane duty, do not chase the storm on your own. Editors work hard to bracket a hurricane with reporters and photographers — and managers keep very close track of those people. If no one knows where you are, no one can go find you if you get into trouble.
(Some years ago, a Herald reporter covering an out-of-state hurricane drowned his rental car and needed to be rescued. Although phone service was out, we knew exactly where to look because he had called in before hell broke loose and he stayed more or less where he was supposed to be.)
Also, storms have been known to loop-de-loop. If it makes a surprise entrance in your home territory and you’re some place else and your supervisor is looking for you…well, you get the picture.
— Learn how to use your tools. Every reporter should have basic working knowledge of the newspaper’s laptops and satellite phones. This makes it easier for you and for everyone else. It also makes you more likely to get out-of-town assignments.
— Go early. Nag your supervisor until he or she sends you early. Early is good — you get a feel for the scene and you make friends before the other reporters ruin everything. Also, online needs fodder early, late, always.
— Don’t use your own car. Rent a car. Despite company policy, take every form of insurance offered by the rental company. Don’t park the car under a lovely old tree or in a low spot near the motel.
— Also try to keep an eye on your car. After Andrew and other storms, some of us had our gasoline siphoned as we were out and about reporting. (The joke was on the siphoners — they got low-test Herald gasoline.)
— Plug in and charge everything you have — laptop, cellphone, sat phone, everything — and keep them charged.
— Carry cash, a lot of it. When electricity fails, credit cards become nothing much more than toothpicks.
— Bring stable rations and plenty of water. Raisins, crackers, cereal bars, etc. Lots and lots of them, and some sports drinks and lots of small bottles of water — a case or more. You’ll need enough for yourself, and they work as friend makers/quote generators if you pass them out to emergency workers and storm victims.
— Bring wetnaps, diaper wipes, etc. They will come in handy if you can’t shower. Also a bottle of Purell or any other anti-germ hand gel.
— Work boots are better than running shoes insofar as they offer more protection from nails, snakes, etc. Also, don’t forget a lightweight rain jacket or suit — make sure it is waterproof, not just water resistant. Bring the Timex, not the Rolex.
— Sunscreen. Sun hat. An old-fashioned road map. Flashlights and lots of batteries. Cans of tire inflator. Top off your gas tank every single chance you get. Think ahead and use common sense and don’t wait until you’re in the projected impact zone to buy the stuff because none will be left.
— Bring pencils. They work better in the rain than pens. Also bring a USB thumb drive for your computer. It will come in handy if you can’t transmit your story but someone else has a connection.
— Again, don’t be an idiot. If you are hurt or dead, we can’t get your stuff online or into the paper. See below.
— Don’t wander out of your assigned area. We bracket storms because they can jog this way or that. Furthermore, casualties and serious damage can occur far from the center. We don’t need or want everyone at the eye’s landfall.
— In addition, if you get in trouble, we can’t come rescue you if we don’t know where you are. If you are tempted to move, check with a supervisor. If you bump into another staffer from your organization, one of you is an idiot.
— Don’t drive into a channel of water crossing a road. Only four inches of moving water will wash you away. Watch out for wooden boards, which contain nails, which will puncture your tires, which will ruin your day.
— Don’t stand in standing water. Let the other idiots get electrocuted — we don’t need them anyway. You, we can’t replace because we’re in a hiring freeze. Also, if you die, we need to fill out a lot of messy paperwork.
— Don’t stand outside or drive around during the storm. What’s the point? Most of you aren’t filming anything, and you could get killed and, you know, that hiring freeze again. Just look out the window and tell us what you see and hear and feel.
— Don’t stay awake all night enjoying the majesty of nature. We need you fresh the next day, reporting the aftermath.
— Lock your car, always. Don’t leave anything valuable around, ever. If you rent a car, try to get one with a locked gas cap.
— Don’t get dehydrated. Drink lots of water. This would be a really bad time for a kidney stone.
When you file
— At The Miami Herald Newspaper, a storm doesn’t “pack” winds, it doesn’t “churn” through the ocean and residents don’t “brace” for its arrival. We’re better than that. We use crisp verbs that surprise and delight and are accurate.
— Continuous news, that’s us. Remember that online is pumping nearly 24/7 and a lot of people are watching us. Call in frequently, whenever you have something worthwhile.
— Use common sense. Be organized. Think not only as a reporter but as a writer: “How crucial will this be to the overall story? How easy am I making it for the anchor?”
— In every case, take a moment to organize your thoughts before you call in. Highlight the important material. Jot down an outline of what you will be feeding.
— Think of your feed as a news brief. Begin with a lede or transition, even if it is very rudimentary. That will make it easy for the anchor to cut and paste. “At Hollywood Regional Conglomerate Memorial Medical Health Center Complex and Ale House, emergency room workers performed battlefield type triage on dozens of injured passengers.” Fact, color, quote. Fact, color, quote. Kicker.
— Don’t forget to paint the scene. What does it sound and smell like? But you don’t need to polish it. We’ll do that for you.
— Try to go deep. Yeah, we know people are huddled at the elementary school and stripping the Publix of consumables. And later, we’re pretty sure they didn’t enjoy their hurricane experience.
— So let’s go a little deeper. How many times recently have they been through this? What special hardships are they enduring? What normally would be happening in that room in the school? Exactly what is gone from the Publix — maybe everything from six-packs of 99-cent Publix-brand water to $4.99 quarts of Evian from France?
— What is that homeowner wearing as she nails the plywood to her window? How much sweat is pouring off her? Is her kid licking an ice cream cone as he watches? Nice, but also tell us the flavor of the ice cream. Use you eyes to harvest what people are writing on plywood shutters, verbatim. Use your ears to describe the gales. Use your nose to describe the ocean spray before and the mess afterward.
— Detail, detail, detail.
— Look for the unusual, the unexpected. Snakes in the trees. A husband and wife who clung to each other through the night as the roof and walls blew away. Or a husband and wife who clung to each other — and a tree — after the storm blew their entire house away.
— What’s the weather like? Y’know? We need to know when it’s deteriorating, how it’s deteriorating, when it’s improving, etc.
— Bring it in clean. The cleaner it is, the easier it is to drop into the story, the more likely your deadline-fighting rewrite/anchor is to use it. That’s your goal, right? So, once again, scratch it out in your notebook before calling. Don’t waste any time on polish — just organize it. Sign it with your byline.
— Look for brief separates or sidebars. But don’t forget that the main story needs you too. On the other hand, if you blow us away with a feed, we may decide on our own to make it a separate.
Tips for rewrite/anchors
— Take control of the online version of the story. It will keep you in the news flow and serve as the backbone of your newspaper story.
— At the very start, get a firm understanding of how much print space you’re going to have and when your story is due.
— Know how many sidebars they’re planning and what the subject matter might be. It largely up to you to avoid conflicts.
— Send an all-points message designating one computer basket for all feeds and wires.
— Use the wires for early fodder, as a reality check, and maybe as a general framework for your own story. Also keep an eye on CNN or local news stations, but be wary.
— Take as many of the early dictated feeds as you can. Get a feel for the street. (This is more difficult now that we’re aggressively updating for online.)
— If you have time, share ideas for ledes and approaches with the street reporters.
— Try to keep it light. Keep everyone loose. Have fun.
— Be generous. Share the credit on bylines and contributor’s lines.
— Start writing as soon as you possibly can. It is always easier to modify or update a standing story on deadline than to start from scratch. Your frequently updated online story helps you here.
— For your print top, calculate the timing of the event — did it happen early or late in the news cycle — and adjust your approach accordingly. Think strategically.
— Writing: Relax. Take a deep breath. Just tell the story, simply and completely and with a sense of humanity.