A year on from the devastating 2017 hurricane season – one with 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes – many Caribbean and Gulf communities continue to recover.
For regional newsrooms, that process has been disparate, as organizations assess their losses and work to recover their pre-storm operations – all the while keeping an eye on the current season.
Major disasters test the preparedness of any news organization, pushing staff to fulfill their duty to inform the public under extreme and often dangerous conditions.
The Journal followed the coverage of three major hurricanes – hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, and Hurricane Ivan in 2004 – to assess how news teams kept – or did not keep – their coverage going amid the chaos.
Reporting Harvey from Victoria, Texas
In mid-August 2017, a low-pressure system began forming southwest of Africa’s Cabo Verde.
As the storm worked its way west and eventually through the Caribbean, its strength varied, fluctuating between tropical storm and depression.
Once the system reached warm Gulf waters, however, Harvey grew to category 5 status. Texans along the Gulf began preparing for the worst – a barrage of intense rains and 130 mph winds.
At the Victoria Advocate, the news team dusted off its disaster plan.
“Every year we update our hurricane-preparedness plan. And we identify people who want to stay and people who want to evacuate,” said managing editor Becky Cooper.
“Those who evacuate have the understanding that wherever they evacuate to, they are expected to work – call in or do stories from remotely out. Then those of us who stay know: we’re volunteering to stay; we’re working.”
By the time the storm made landfall between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor – at the heart of the Advocate’s coverage area – the paper already had reporters posted across the state.
“We had reporters stationed in four areas – one in Victoria, and three in other counties outside Victoria. They were on the ground with a photographer reporting. So they were able to help us get the information out to the readers,” Cooper said.
Reporters who evacuated checked in on shelters in Austin and San Antonio, exchanging updates with the displaced community.
“One evacuated to San Antonio, which is two hours away from us. So she went to the shelters where a lot of Victoria people were staying. She was able to tell them what was going on here and she was able to get their stories.”
In the aftermath of the storm, community connections proved to be vital.
“We got calls from all over the country of people looking for their families because phone service was out, cell towers were out,” Cooper said.
“So we were trying to match people up with their families but we were having trouble getting through too.”
With limited services, mandatory evacuations in place and blocked roads, routine distribution of the daily paper was no longer possible.
In Corpus Christi, where the Victoria paper goes to print, residents were also under mandatory evacuation orders, impeding any possibility of printing and delivering the paper.
This meant improvisation in the newsroom.
With a generator, two working laptops – one for news gathering and one for design – the team set up “Camp Advocate” in the newsroom. Here they would live and work for days, producing five digital editions with only natural sunlight and a couple of lamps to illuminate the office.
“It was basically like we had a big camp out. We all had our bed rolls or our sleeping bags, whatever we brought. We’d hang out after we’d put the paper to bed. A group would stay up late playing cards or games or whatever. Others – us older people – would go to sleep earlier.”
Even having followed a pre-established disaster plan, Cooper said the news team still faced surprises.
“We all brought what we thought we were going to need for food and we all just grossly underestimated,” Cooper said.
The news team also learned its limits.
“I think we learned a lot about each other and our willingness to do what we needed to do. We learned about our stamina and our patience level.”
Even as Cooper’s family worried for her safety, she held on to one conviction: “This is my job. I need to do this. I have to do this.”
Reporting Irma from the British Virgin Islands
Just weeks after Harvey rocked the Gulf, another major storm began brewing with the promise of mass devastation for the Caribbean.
In the British Virgin Islands, the news team at the weekly BVI Beacon had covered storms before – but nothing like the category 5 intensity of Irma.
Editor Freeman Rogers initially thought the storm might be something like 2010’s Hurricane Earl – a category 1 storm. So the team did what they had done then.
“We did everything on Tuesday and had everything done for that Thursday’s issue, except for a hole. That hole was going to have the Hurricane Irma coverage. Then we figured, the hurricane would hit, we’d write up a quick story and we’d publish that Thursday and be ready to go,” Rogers said.
“But, obviously, that didn’t work, because it was way too big. …
“The storm hit September 6 and we didn’t publish that week obviously. We didn’t publish again until September 30.”
During the storm, every reporter had their home destroyed. Even hurricane shelters – like the one where Rogers and another journalist stayed – sustained damages.
With the news team scattered across the island, Beacon staff faced the immense challenge of sorting through the wreckage while also informing their community.
“It was really difficult. First of all, for us, it was difficult to find out information. Luckily for me, I was in town, I was in the capital, so I was able to walk to the central command center … and just kind of hang out there and wait until an official came,” Rogers said.
With information in hand, reporters then faced another hurtle: how to distribute the news with limited electricity and cellphone service.
From inside the shelter, Rogers was able to work on generator power, at times typing up stories in Facebook messenger and sending them to an employee off island to post online.
Rogers said he was even able to make international calls from his cellphone, despite the disruption in local service.
“It was pretty stressful [working in the shelter]; I won’t lie, partly because everybody helps to keep the shelter running and going, so there’s a lot to be done around the shelter. You’ve got to haul water; you’ve got to get the food; you got make sure everybody’s OK ….
“Even at night, after a while, there were security concerns. We thought we needed to have a rotation of people sitting up all night to make sure no one tried to break in or anything like that.”
Several reporters chose to evacuate after the storm. Those reporters contributed updates remotely.
Looking back on the storm, Rogers struggles to think of how the paper could have better prepared for something like Irma.
While the staff could have benefited from generator power and larger food and water stores, Rogers acknowledges that those supplies would likely have perished in the storm, given the mass devastation.
A year later, the paper is still recovering. Editorial and sales staff continue to share a single office space.
“There is a lot to be done but I’d say it’s coming right along considering the extent of it. But there are still people living in substandard conditions in a lot of places,” Rogers said.
“But it is starting to feel more and more like normal.”
Covering Ivan from Grand Cayman
It has been 14 years since Grand Cayman last sustained a major hurricane. But mention the name Ivan and locals will automatically remember the devastation of the category 5 storm that lingered over the island in September 2004.
Veteran journalist Carol Winker had covered major storms before, but still, Ivan had surprises in store for her.
“People were told to clean out their desks and that is where I was foolish. I really thought the office was stronger than my house, so I left my personal property here. Of course, the office flooded. So I lost my college diploma; I lost my house ownership papers; I lost my father’s pocket watch,” Winker said.
While she knew the basics of storm preparation – a full tank of gas, sufficient food and water stores, charged camera batteries – Ivan reaffirmed that hurricanes are unpredictable.
After the storm, she ventured out of a friend’s North Side home to assess the damage. While her own home remained intact, her community had been devastated.
“There’s one guy I’ll never forget … He was pushing sand out of the road and throwing boulders out of the road. I was so happy to see him. I had money in my pocket and gave him $25,” she said.
At the Cayman Compass – then the Caymanian Compass – office, resources were limited. Staff were divided into three teams: full-time, part-time and inactive.
“We were limited by what we could do in daylight. They had a generator but they couldn’t put it up until things dried out, otherwise they were asking for an accident,” she said.
At one point, an offshore bank offered the paper a conference room where there was electricity and a functional coffee machine.
Once back in the Compass headquarters, the news team relied on one computer, taking turns to write up and layout content.
The paper’s first edition after the storm was be printed off island by the Jamaica Gleaner.
“It was just enough to say, folks, we’re still here, you’re still here, we’re going to get through this,” she said.
The Compass would rely on the Gleaner for printing services through the end of November that year. Through those months, the editions slowly started to grow, reaching a peak of 96 pages of local content.
Advertisers began to trickle in again, announcing their doors were now open and the services they could offer.
For Winker, one silver lining of the storm was the community.
“People were amazing. I never knew them like that before or after. But people were willing to give information. … Everybody knew that they needed to share what information they had,” she said.
She recalled one interaction in particular in Bodden Town. With regular circulation disrupted and drivers limited by fuel supplies, she agreed to take a stack of papers to the gas station.
“I got out of my truck with the newspapers and there were just people standing there waiting. It was like, no sarcastic remarks. They were just standing there waiting and grateful.
“I realized that news isn’t entertainment and news isn’t information you can use to support your prejudices or preconceived notions. News is valuable information that you need.”
For reporters, she leaves this advice: “You don’t need to dramatize anything. It’s already dramatic enough.”