Journalists in Florida Aren’t Just Covering Hurricane Ian—They’re Living It

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

Covering a monster of a hurricane with catastrophic winds and a life-threatening storm surge is challenging, stressful and scary for any journalist.

Now imagine covering that story while worrying if that same storm is going to wipe out your home and endanger your family.

That’s what journalists in Florida — especially near where powerful Hurricane Ian made landfall — went through last week. Ian wasn’t just a story to cover. It was a storm to live through. It was a storm that threatened their lives, the lives of their family and friends and the place they call home.

On Monday, I talked to Jennifer Orsi, executive editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the top editor of Gannett-owned papers in Florida and Georgia. Orsi told me what the past week has been like.

Gannett has more than 300 journalists in Florida, including at papers in towns directly impacted by Ian — such as Fort Myers, Naples and Sarasota, as well as Lakeland, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and Jacksonville. A full week before the storm hit land, the staff began meeting. Plans were put in place and coverage began. The plans included not just covering the storm, but securing hotel rooms for staff and figuring out how in the world to handle a story that likely would wipe out power, internet and cellphones.

The storm may be long gone, but the work is, in many ways, just beginning.

Now add the human toll.

“It’s very challenging to have to cover an extremely important story that threatens your community and still be a part of that community and feel that threat,” Orsi said. “Our teams in Fort Myers and Naples deserve just the highest praise for what they are doing in extremely trying circumstances. Several have lost their homes or they’re uninhabitable. Even as we try to let them rest or send reinforcements, they don’t want to stop their work. They desperately want to keep serving their community because they are as affected by this storm as their readers.”

In a newsletter to readers, Wendy Fullerton Powell — the Southwest Florida region editor for Gannett’s USA Today Network and editor of The News-Press in Fort Myers and the Naples Daily News — wrote, “Our team of journalists at The News-Press and Naples Daily News has been working around the clock, all while living what you have lived. We have some whose homes and cars were damaged or destroyed. Like you, we couldn’t and still can’t reach friends or family because of the lack of power and connectivity. We are running out of basic supplies, waiting in the same lines for gas and water.”

Powell pointed to some of the outstanding work being done. For instance:

  • Fort Myers Beach homeowner Marc Taglieri gave his firsthand account to reporter Janine Zeitlin of the total devastation he witnessed while going to check on his home, which was miraculously still standing despite water in the cabinets, oven and even his refrigerator.
  • Reporter Kate Cimini talked to a couple who narrowly escaped rising waters and then later returned to find their home still intact, but badly flooded.
  • Reporter Charles Runnells got in touch with an artist who evacuated to Ohio. The artist’s house was badly damaged, but her gallery survived mostly unscathed. “I nearly fell to the ground and started screaming when I saw it was there,” the artist said. “Because everything around me’s demolished.”
  • Powell wrote in her newsletter, “Reporter Chad Gillis found one in the Island Park neighborhood of south Fort Myers: Mike Murphy, owner of Marina Mike’s. Neighbors credited Murphy with saving upwards of 27 lives, 10 dogs and a cat by literally pulling people from their attics.”

While journalists are often trained to not become emotionally involved in the stories they cover, this is the kind of story where it’s not only OK, but beneficial to be personally invested.

“I think because our journalists are a part of the communities that are affected, they have the same questions that our readers have,” Orsi said. “They understand what matters most to people.”

Reporters know the landmarks around town, as well as local officials. And they have the same concerns: When will power return? When can my kids go back to school? How can we get around with so many closed roads?

“They have an immediate understanding of what information and news we need to provide the community,” Orsi said.

The work ethic has been admirable, but the challenges have been many. Getting around and communicating have been chief among them. Orsi said reporters have resorted to using Jet Skis and canoes to get to some areas completely cut off because of flooding.

And because so many are without power and the internet, reporters have had to become inventive in relaying information. Orsi said besides filing stories in the traditional ways, reporters have dictated stories, texted them, emailed them and just about every other way you can think of short of carrier pigeon.

With the resources of Gannett behind them, the Florida papers have set up a text messaging system to get information to readers. Orsi said more than 7,500 have signed up to get updates on the latest news, which includes answers to readers’ text questions.

Amazingly, print editions of the paper are still being delivered to areas that are safe and accessible.

But it’s still all so challenging.

“It’s exhausting being out every day,” Orsi said. “It’s exhausting seeing the devastation in your community. And then it’s exhausting to work so hard just to tell the story, to get it to readers.”

Fortunately, no reporters have died or been injured. But lack of gas and other resources continues to make the story difficult to cover.

Clearly, this will be a story that will be covered for, literally, years. But in the short-term, Orsi says the focus will be on the immediate needs of the readers — when power will return, where they can get ice, how they can get financial help and temporary housing.

Then there’s the bigger picture, such as how these communities that have been virtually wiped out will start over. Do they start over? Where will they live? Work? Will there be a Katrina effect, with people leaving the area and never coming back?

Then there’s the reporting to be done on government accountability and the appropriations of funds.

“There is an endless list of stories that we will need to pursue for months and, truly, years to come,” Orsi said. “This shows why dedicated local journalists are so important. This is the kind of time when people need the work we are doing more than ever.”

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