Photojournalist Emily Evans comes from a family of first responders. As she rolled up to a hilltop in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, not long after a swarm of tornadoes killed an estimated 100 people across four states, the Louisville-based WDRB photojournalist leveled her tripod while she surveyed the devastation that surrounded her.
“I learned from my family that when you get overwhelmed, you focus on one thing at a time, break it down, get the job done. But you have to have a lot of compassion,” she said. “To these people that we are covering, this is the worst day of their life. They have lost everything. These people are grieving, and I still believe that journalism is a public service. I saw a grown man cry today while he walked me through what was left of his house. His Christmas decorations were still hanging there.”
For 35 years, WKRC reporter David Winter has covered countless tornados and wildfires. Still, he volunteered to drive hours from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Dawson Springs to tell this story of a grieving country town that is still in shock.
“I cried three times today,” Winter said. “I was talking with a 5-year-old girl named Perlina. I have two kids at home. She could not find her two cats who were lost in the storm, and then she found her dog. It was a relief after all that has been lost here. And still, she worried about those little cats.
“I learned a long time ago that you can get overwhelmed by a disaster. Just focus on the little things. A child’s toy, a photograph, a sock,” Winter said.
He pointed to a bicycle in a tree and then to a refrigerator stuck in the branches of a maple tree next to it. When the story is so big, he said, you have to tell it through the small details of what people lost.
CNN correspondent Boris Sanchez stood with the remains of the Graves County courthouse behind him in Mayfield, Kentucky. As a bulldozer moved debris in the background, a producer talked to somebody in New York.
“After a dozen years of covering all sorts of disasters, you have to have an understanding of death that allows you to — and just for the moment — set aside sentimentality so you can focus on the facts,” Sanchez told me. “It takes a degree of emotional distance even while you are telling people’s very personal story.”
Sanchez said he had just come back from walking through a church in Mayfield.
“The front of the church was standing but everything behind the front was gone,” he said. “That is an image I will take with me from this place.”
Lauren Adams insisted on being here. She is a weekend anchor at Louisville-based WLKY, and her husband’s family is from Mayfield. She was a reporter in nearby Paducah, Kentucky, for six years and knows this community so well that she knew the name of the county jailer’s dog.
“I am still a nursing mother, so I brought my two kids along. They are staying with family here while we do this,” she said.
As we stood in front of the blown-out courthouse, she told me why she came.
“Before I got here, I had a pit in my stomach. It hurts so much to see a place I love in such pain. I tried to tell my family why we have to be here. Maybe the power of our words will move people to donate to help, maybe go give some blood. Maybe it will just make people pay attention to weather warnings next time,” she said. “My husband’s family was born here. We would be here if I was not doing this job, but as a journalist, maybe I can do some good. These are such good people. I want to do my best for them.”
Stephen Goin works solo as a photojournalist and reporter for Fox News. He drove in from Cleveland, Ohio. As he was interviewing a man who was about to break down in tears as he recalled how he grew up and stayed in Dawson Springs his whole life, two young women drove up.
“Want a McDonald’s biscuit?” Whitney Shaw asked. She shoved a sandwich out the car window.
“I think you need a hug,” she said. “I am a hugger.”
Shaw popped out of the car and did just that, explaining that she was supposed to have graduated from Murray State University on Saturday, but the tornado canceled the ceremony. So she was out here doing what she was trained to do. Her degree is in social work.
“All I want to do is help people,” she said.
Goin captured it all.
“That was quite a moment,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” Goin responded, “That’s real.”
Working alone adds a special stress on journalists who cover tragedy. “The one thing I keep in my mind is to get the story right,” he said. “Focus on that. Get it right.”
Miami-based Rogelio Mora-Tagle is used to covering hurricanes for Telemundo.
“I have to tell you, this is my first tornado,” he said. “The danger of covering these things is that you can lose your empathy. Your skin can get too thick, and you don’t feel anything anymore.”
He talked to me while we watched his photojournalist partner in constant motion capturing cleanup efforts around the Mayfield square.
“Sometimes I get emotional inside,” Mora-Tagle said. “I so want to do these people a service, and I do see this as a service. I approach this job thinking, ‘What can I do? What can our viewers do for them?”’
TV journalists who jump from tragedy to trauma know two truths. The first two days after a storm, locals welcome them. Government help and public contributions flow in direct proportion to the coverage the tragedy garners. But after the adrenaline dissolves and the awful reality of the long road of rebuilding sets in, locals tire of the cameras and, as CNN correspondent Boris Sanchez put it, “At some point we will get pulled to the next thing.”
But every reporter and photojournalist I spoke with along a 60-mile path of destruction on Sunday said they will go to sleep with an image in their minds.
A pink shirt stuck in a tree.
A kitten hunting for food.
A woman searching her wrecked home for her disabled son’s medication.
Each searing moment leaves a mark.
“I am lucky that my newsroom has embraced the fact that mental health is a big thing,” WDRB photojournalist Emily Evans said. “We have been through a rough year, a rough couple of years. This stuff can sneak up on you. I have noticed that after a long stretch of covering something like this I find myself just getting all upset about the littlest thing. That’s when you know, it is time to pay attention to what you are feeling.”
Still, journalists said they had to be there.
“I never understand why everybody does not jump at a chance to cover things like this,” WKRC’s David Winter said. “I volunteered for this job because I still think it is important. Maybe I can make millions of people care about this one little town, and that is a public service and an absolute privilege.”
More from Poynter:
- How a local radio station is helping a tornado-battered Kentucky community put itself back together
- Meet the local news meteorologist whose forecast saved lives in Kentucky
- CNN anchor Pamela Brown isn’t just covering the tornado damage in Kentucky. She’s reporting on her home.
- Exhausted journalists are rising to the Kentucky tornado disaster
- How the media is covering the horrific scene in Kentucky