MONIQUE BATSON — What happens in a newsroom during a storm so you can stay informed?
Published 12:05 am Friday, October 7, 2022
Even before Hurricane Ian landed in Florida to cause catastrophic devastation, we all began watching news reports to track the monstrous storm.
Some of us at The Port Arthur News kept computer tabs with live camera footage from certain vantage points to see how the weather was changing with Ian’s unwelcome approach.
After all, it’s something we can empathize with. Since Hurricane Rita in 2005, Southeast Texas has been underwater and suffering from hurricane-force winds more times than we ever would have thought.
But each time it was through news stories like those we were reading and social media videos like those we were seeing that the community at large uses to track what’s happening near their home.
Those who evacuate rely on local news to prepare them for what they could return to. Those that don’t leave rely on local news for help. Ultimately, whether you acknowledge the possibility and leave or face the storm, it’s your local journalists who will be telling you the information you truly need to know.
You don’t need to see us standing in a street during a Category 4 storm and narrowly avoiding getting hit by a flying tree branches (yes, I mean you, Jim Cantore) to know there’s a storm.
What you want to know is if your house is safe. Or, if you’re in town, where you can find needed shelter or supplies. And days before the storm arrives, you want to know how your child’s school district is preparing for closures and what gas stations have run out of fuel.
I mentioned something similar during a recent conversation with a fellow Rotarian and he noted the fact the public at large doesn’t necessarily realize what local news does to push this information out. So I’d like to invite you into our world.
First, storm preparation in a newsroom starts much like fire prevention in a household. Before it ever gets close, each person is assigned duties, checkpoints have been established, a method of constant communication has been opened and marching orders are given.
In the event of a mandatory evacuation, the option is presented. But we don’t take it. Instead we send our children off with a loved one and pray we can keep our phones charged long enough to stay in contact with them.
As landfall approaches, one or two people are assigned to start collecting and updating lists of school closures, store closures, etc. We’ll also begin to make a master list of shelters, grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses where people could get essential items.
Someone would call each one to ask the same question: Are you still open? Do you still have bottled water? Do you still have fuel? Do you expect to close soon? These become constant web updates to keep the community abreast at all times.
And by the time you’re done making your way down the list, it’s time to start over.
Staff members will be given cities or areas to keep track of, already having made contact with the leaders in that area to establish effective cell phone numbers and backup methods of communication.
And as the storm starts to land, the shifts begin. You might sleep for a bit, but not for long.
After Hurricane Ike knocked out power, my then-colleagues began using the batteries from their vehicles to power laptops so they could keep the website updated. Those responsible for designing the printed paper were sent to higher ground.
When Harvey inundated Southeast Texas overnight, I woke for my early morning shift and touched base with my starting reporters only to find none of us could leave our areas (we didn’t know what we were waking up to). So priorities shifted and so did our job duties.
We spent the next week using portable restrooms at work and eating on food sent in care packages from other newsrooms across the country.
And still someone continued the calls. Do you have water? Do you have fuel? What are the resources someone can use for emergency assistance?
The weather alert from Imelda woke me at 1:30 a.m. and I immediately began calling the National Weather Service and working online to publish what I knew. Additional team members were called in every 30 minutes until all boots were on the ground.
Some people will be sent to the most flooded areas to share what they see. One will inevitably drown their vehicle.
As Laura approached, I and half my co-workers were sent to Houston to ensure we could continue working if Southeast Texas lost power, while others were spread out among safe places in Southeast Texas — like the courthouse in Beaumont where first responders gathered.
Shifts and duties were assigned so everyone could rest, but there’s no rest to be had when you’re waiting. The five hours I was given to sleep were spent watching the news and helping make calls until I realized it had been almost 24 hours since I had slept.
And that’s when collective community journalism kicks in. No newsroom has the manpower to be everywhere.
And then after the storm comes the hardest part: did we have casualties? Because if so, someone will be knocking on the door of a family who recently lost a loved one to tell their story.
But it’s not done for exploitation or attention. We are your neighbors, your classmates, your friends. We all have family. And we would want them to be known for who they were, not how they died.
So as you watch what unfolds through hurricane season, please keep the local journalists from affected areas in your thoughts. Media in general has gone through its share of slander. But in every city in Florida there are people no different than you and I — some working as their own homes are destroyed — that sent their children away so they could stay behind to let you know where you can find food, fuel and shelter.
Monique Batson is Port Arthur Newsmedia editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.