Natural disaster coverage: CBS News correspondent offers safety and reporting tips

Omar Villafranca CBS News Correspondent
Photo by Michele Crowe/CBS News

When a severe storm like Hurricane Idalia occurs, journalists rush in to cover the impact on communities. This work is sensitive because of the immediate dangers and the long-term recovery process.

CBS news correspondent Omar Villafranca spoke with the Institute about ways reporters can minimize harm and support communities while developing important relationships for follow-up coverage.

What are your top three tips to keep yourself safe when on the ground covering a natural disaster like Idalia?

Villafranca: “Safety first” is the motto for the team. Know the local hazards based on the disaster situation you’re covering, not just the physical ones caused by the disaster. That means if you’re covering a hurricane in the Gulf states, be aware of alligators, snakes, and insects in the water you’re walking through!

Communication is key. Point out things that could be a problem to you or the crew. If you’re talking and watching each other’s backs, it’s easier to work through potential problems.

Take a break if you need it. Covering disasters can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. It’s OK to give yourself a break. Sleep is rare, so take a nap if you need it to recharge and stay alert. And if you come across emotionally tough situations, it’s OK to talk it out.

What is your favorite resource for staying on top of storm news?

Villafranca: I’m a big fan of RadarScope when it comes to tracking weather. The app is fantastic and lets me see storms and weather data. The folks at the National Weather Service are also amazing and helpful.

How do you connect with residents when the power and cell service go out?

Villafranca: If we’re shooting a story in a disaster area, I’ll ask residents if they need water (which we always carry) or if they need to charge their phone in our car or with our gear. It’s a simple gesture, but for them it may be an important way to help stay connected to friends and loved ones. It’s useful and it opens up the lines of communication.

What is your strategy for follow-up coverage?

Villafranca: I always ask for their phone number and then give them my phone number. I tell residents that we reporters can’t see everything after a storm. But if something is happening that doesn’t seem right, if bureaucratic red tape is slowing recovery—or if cleanup is running like a well-oiled machine—I tell them to please let me know and don’t hesitate to call/text. I remind them that it’s our job as journalists to report on these kinds of stories, and we can be a voice for them.

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