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Hurricane Journalism: How Gulf Coast newsrooms are handling Marco & Laura (and a pandemic)

As Marco and Laura approached the Gulf Coast this week, local reporters prepared for a crisis within a crisis.

While Marco weakened to a tropical depression on Monday, Laura strengthened into a Category 4 storm, making landfall early Thursday morning. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, evacuation orders impacted more than 1 million residents in Texas and Louisiana. 

“The number one biggest issue this year is sheltering operations, so that’s also been a focus for coverage,” said Lauren Walck, senior news editor at the Biloxi Sun Herald. “As one EMA manager told me, it’s quite the quandary because COVID may or may not kill but storm surge and the wind will.”

“There is no camping out in a hotel full of people or crashing in a crowded shelter somewhere until the next day,” said Jacob Dick, business reporter at Beaumont Enterprise.

The Journalism Institute reached out to Dick and Walck via email to learn how their publications planned to cover the storms safely during the pandemic.

Jacob Dick is a business reporter at Beaumont Enterprise.

What has your experience been like covering Hurricane Laura? How many other storms have you covered?

Dick: So far, it has been very different than my previous storm experiences. I was thrown into the deep end last September when Tropical Depression Imelda stalled over the western portion of our coverage area in Chambers and Jefferson counties, dropping 40 inches of rain in some isolated areas before it was all said and done. There were no signs of extreme wind, and really no warning that we might be in a disaster zone within the next few hours. Before that, I had only covered the occasional ice storm or tornado in western Kentucky.

This time, we had lots of heads up but not a lot of good news. Most of our reporting staff are implants to Beaumont and didn’t have secure places to stay, so some of us are keeping track of the storm and checking in with our sources from Houston while others are hunkering down at the county command center in the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Communication has definitely been the keyword this week.

How has the pandemic impacted your storm reporting? 

Dick: I think the biggest impact has been the limit on places to stay. There is no camping out in a hotel full of people or crashing in a crowded shelter somewhere until the next day. That issue has been a key difference for the long-time residents in Southeast Texas we’ve been interviewing.

For example, I’ve been reporting on a large regulated utility in our area that has tapped around 10,000 crew members from different sections of its service area and a mutual aid network to respond to Hurricane Laura’s impact. They have said their goal is to keep one lineman to a room if possible. That has not only been a logistical challenge for them, but it has also meant a crunch on hotel rooms across east Texas and west Louisiana.

What is your social media strategy for Laura coverage?  

Dick: I think the real principal goal for our coverage has been to find the most important information people need to know, get it out as soon as possible with the intention of refining it as more information becomes available and make it easy to find.

With our delivery being disrupted due to the storm, we’ve been offering a digital version of our paper online and have been sharing that fact widely. That being said, we know most people trying to make decisions about what to do won’t instinctually seek out an e-edition. Each reporter is sharing stories, info, interesting tidbits and lots of communications from officials across social media.

We then organize those tweets and posts into running update stories, sometimes with carefully written blurbs and other times with just the tweet themselves. This also helps compile the print version of stories near deadline.

How are you staying safe during your work this week? 
Dick: The tough part hasn’t really started yet, but most of staying safe on the job comes down to asking yourself if you’re comfortable. That might sound kind of contradictory given our line of work as journalists, but it is more likely than not that if a situation is making you uncomfortable, you should think about it.

I always make sure to double check flood maps, read as many updates as I can and call some sources I think might be in the area before I drive into a problem spot. If there is enough concern about an area that I’m writing about it to inform people, I should also probably take caution. Also, be wary following someone else into a situation like a flood zone. You may think that guy with a boat knows what he is doing, but he is probably just that: a guy with a boat.

I’ll leave you with a pro-tip from one of our vets that went through Hurricane Harvey. Put your phone in a plastic bag and pack some pencils. Wet pens don’t write.

What is it like to cover the storms during the pandemic?

Lauren Walck is senior news editor at the Biloxi Sun Herald.

Walck: Luckily, we have really only had to cover forecasts and preparations so far this year. We had a plan for Marco as of Sunday night but ended up getting zero impacts. I live right by the beach and it rained for maybe 10 minutes — goes to show how unpredictable these storms still are! People are paying attention to tropical forecasts earlier than ever, so with two hurricanes in the Gulf we probably did the most forecast coverage we’ve ever done. We are still watching for tornadoes [Wednesday night] with Laura, but after that hopefully we are out of the woods. 

The number one biggest issue this year is sheltering operations, so that’s also been a focus for coverage. Social distancing is not feasible in a packed shelter, and they can’t turn anyone away. As one EMA manager told me, it’s quite the quandary because COVID may or may not kill but storm surge and the wind will. 

How do you balance the reporting on both crises?

Walck: One thing that’s the same is a hurricane always supersedes anything else, and it’s all hands on deck for coverage. The pandemic definitely fell to second place with two possible hurricanes headed our way. But we’ve also noticed interest significantly waning in pandemic coverage, so we’re talking about what information people really want and need at this point and for the long-term. 

How has your coverage this week changed from previous years?

Walck: Normally if a strong storm was headed our way, we’d send a reporter or two to stay in a hurricane shelter, and have some staff stay in the newsroom overnight with the obligatory trip to Waffle House, which only closes for Armageddon. None of that is possible during a pandemic! 

For example, on Sunday, I was covering the forecast/live updates for Marco and Laura, and a PIO called to see if I wanted to sit in on the county emergency planning meeting, which TV stations like to cover and which they somehow couldn’t livestream. I did not want to be in a room full of people, so the PIO was nice enough to call when it started so I could listen in. 

What are the Sun Herald’s safety policies during hurricane coverage?

Walck: Every storm is different and has different threat levels. Our newsroom has traditionally been close to the water, so we have standing agreements with places further inland to set up a temporary newsroom if needed. But that is a last resort during a pandemic, so everyone is asked to find their own backup option as well. Generally the photographers/videographers are the only ones out in the weather, mostly as the storm is approaching. We talk ahead of time about where they should go so they won’t get trapped by rising water.  We have plenty of PPE on hand and everyone has rain boots. I think the most important thing for a manager is checking in on what each person feels comfortable doing, especially during a pandemic. Some are gung-ho and others are more cautious, and we adjust accordingly!

Can you share general advice for reporters on staying safe while covering natural disasters? 

Walck: It’s not very exciting, but it’s true the most important factor is preparation. Make a plan A, B and C for where and how you will cover it. Make a plan on where you can find refuge and a place to work away from the action. Make a survival kit to make sure your basic needs are covered, including backup battery power, clothing, water and snacks!

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