Being With Local Journalists Reporting on Hurricane Ian

From a story on poynter.org by Angela Fu headlined “On the ground with local journalists reporting on Hurricane Ian”:

As Hurricane Ian approached southwest Florida on Tuesday, officials began issuing evacuation orders.

Kate Cimini, a Florida investigative reporter for the USA Today Network, evacuated her home, but instead of clearing out of the hurricane’s path, she aimed for her colleague’s place in Naples.

“I volunteered to report,” Cimini said. “It’s my job, it’s what I like doing, it’s a good use of my time. And people want to know what’s going on.”

As people fled, local reporters stayed behind to document the storm, which made landfall near Cayo Costa, a small Gulf coast beach town, as a Category 4 hurricane. Nearby outlets, like the Tampa Bay Times and the Palm Beach Post, sent their journalists toward the hurricane’s eye. Those reporters helped show the world some of the first images of the destruction.

Cimini and her colleague, Naples Daily News arts and entertainment columnist Harriet Heithaus, drove around Naples Wednesday morning before the storm made landfall. They found residents on the beach and at the city pier. But when they went back out that afternoon, everything had flooded and the roads were filled with debris. They couldn’t make it more than a mile out. The walkway of the pier where people had gathered had been completely destroyed.

Hundreds of houses in the area flooded, including one belonging to a friend of Heithaus. The friend had been sheltering with her father, who has Alzheimer’s, and her neighbor, who has dementia, when they were forced onto the roof. Heithaus and Cimini tried to help the trio, creating a makeshift rope for them to hold onto. But floodwaters prevented the two journalists from reaching the group.

Heithaus called emergency services and checked in with a volunteer group to no avail. Finally, she went to a nearby fire department and pleaded with them to help her friend. After four hours, the group was finally rescued.

“Part of your job, even as a journalist, is becoming something of a first responder,” Heithaus said. “It’s very unnerving, but the reason we’re all in this business, I think, is to help people.”

On Thursday, Cimini and Heithaus went to Bonita Springs, where Cimini confirmed that her home had survived the hurricane. Some of her neighbors were not as lucky. The storm surge had pushed boats inland, and when the water washed back out, it sucked houses along with it. The area down the road from Cimini’s place was a “complete disaster,” she said.

After each reporting trip, the two head back to Heithaus’ home to access the internet and recharge electronic devices. A third journalist has also been using Heithaus’ condo as a makeshift workplace since there are widespread power outages in the area. Asked if she knew who else from her newsroom was reporting in the field, Cimini said she wasn’t sure.

“We’re having a really hard time communicating with one another because cells are down in most of those counties,” Cimini said. “A couple of our people who tend to go out (to report) for everything — they had their houses hit really hard by the hurricane.”

Making matters more difficult is the fact that the Daily News does not have a physical newsroom, since the paper is in the process of moving into a new office. Heithaus said journalists at the nearby Fort Myers News-Press do not have access to a newsroom, either, since the owner of the building housing their offices locked it up as a hurricane precaution.

“That’s the new challenge to newsrooms,” Heithaus said. “We don’t own our spaces in more and more cases.”

WINK News, which is based in Fort Myers, had to go off the air Wednesday night after the first floor of its studio was flooded. Anchors Lois Thomas and Chris Cifatte and chief meteorologist Matt Devitt continued to broadcast on Facebook for a while, but the station is currently offline. Its journalists have continued to report on the devastation via social media.

Heithaus, who has lived in Naples for 22 years and survived three other hurricanes, said she has never seen this much destruction before. Ian was wider in scope than other previous hurricanes, she said, and had a greater storm surge.

While speaking with Poynter on Thursday evening, Heithaus and Cimini said they had plans to continue working into the night. They needed to file stories about what they had seen earlier in the day. Then, Cimini had to check out reports about a body floating down Bonita Beach Road, and Heithaus needed to start planning for her Sunday column. The Daily News has to eventually get back to being a “normal newspaper,” Heithaus said.

Asked what her goal was for people reading her reporting, Cimini’s answer was straightforward:

“That they feel less alone.”

Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter.

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