December 15, 2021

On Tuesday, Poynter’s Al Tompkins visited WPKY, a radio station in Princeton, Kentucky. 

“Right now, they’re trying to help find fence posts and crews to put tarps on houses,” Tompkins said. 

They’re trying to help people get through the next day. And they know that work will continue for a long time. 

Over the weekend, Tompkins headed home to Kentucky to cover the coverage of last week’s tornadoes, which killed at least 74 people.  

“There honestly are just not enough adjectives to describe the totality of the destruction,” he told me Tuesday on his drive back to Florida. “What it hit, it consumed.”

Tompkins spent time with local and national journalists covering the story, highlighting their work and the critical role that coverage plays early in a disaster. Politicians, government help and resources almost always follow that coverage.

“These journalists are hyper aware of that — If they can truly put a face and a name and a heart on this story, that people will act.” 

He also wanted to recognize the work that the most local journalists do every time there’s a natural disaster.

“When everyone else leaves, this is still sitting in their lap.”

Here are three stories Tompkins filed from Kentucky that spotlight the critical work of journalists. 

WPSD meteorologist Trent Okerson points out a debris signature, which indicated the storm was strong. (Courtesy: WPSD)

Meet the local news meteorologist whose forecast saved lives in Kentucky

Trent Okerson, a meteorologist at WPSD in Paducah, Kentucky, started warning viewers of what was coming last Tuesday. Tompkins heard from one resident who heeded the journalist’s warnings and got his family to safety minutes before their home was destroyed.

CNN correspondent Pamela Brown was born in Kentucky. Her father, John Y. Brown was the Commonwealth’s governor. (Al Tompkins/Poynter)

CNN anchor Pamela Brown isn’t just covering the tornado damage in Kentucky. She’s reporting on her home.

CNN’s Pamela Brown headed home to Kentucky on Saturday, ready to cover a story that was personal to her. 

“When you are here, you feel the story. You breathe it and sense it. Some of these people cleaning up the debris have been at it for 48 hours. I talked with a man who rode out the storm praying in his bathtub. These are the people I grew up with in Kentucky.”

Stephen Goin works alone capturing interviews and stories for Fox News, on Dec. 12, 2021. (Al Tompkins/Poynter)

Reporters and photojournalists share stories from the 60-mile path of tornado destruction in Kentucky

Among the first-responders covering the aftermath are local and national journalists. Tompkins spoke to several of them, including Lauren Adams. Adams, now a weekend anchor at WLKY in Louisville, is from Mayfield, Kentucky. She’s a nursing mother and brought her children with her to stay with family while she worked.

“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.”

Local journalists have covered and then stuck with every disaster I’ve covered in the last eight years. That’s the job. They show us what happened during and after hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and wildfires — and I still think it’s worth reminding people of their work.

For more, the Lexington Herald-Leader has some details on the victims, stunning before and after photos and a list of ways to help.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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