5 Questions with Miami Herald: Reporting on Irma When You’re in the Path of the Storm
Sometimes in the process of news gathering or carrying out coverage, a defining moment happens to a news agency or blog. Welcome to our new Beyond Bylines series: Five questions about the big stories you’re covering.
The world barely had time to process the impact of Hurricane Harvey on Texas before Hurricane Irma carved her destructive path in the Atlantic, heading toward Florida.
We immediately thought of our Florida colleagues. Like millions in the sunshine state, we knew many who were forced to evacuate.
And while the wind and rain ravaged the state, members of the media stayed put to cover the full story to get the most up-to-date information to its readers.
The Miami Herald hunkered down, provided unique arrangements for its employees, and got to work.
We reached out to Miami Herald Managing Editor Rick Hirsch for insight.
Here’s what he had to say.
What kind of prep did you do before the storm to ready your newsroom for coverage?
At the Miami Herald, we’re experienced covering hurricanes. We’re threatened every year even if we aren’t directly impacted. We have an editor who leads our coverage, and a lead reporter who is knowledgeable. And as storms approach, we put together plans for around-the-clock staffing and a variety of contingencies.
How did you stay in touch with your team during and following the storm?
We position people around our community — and around the state and Caribbean — in anticipation of where the storm will go.
We did not lose power or internet service during the storm. Our building is on the same power grid as the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center and the U.S. Southern Command. We have gas powered generators that can run our building — including A/C — for 10-12 days if we lose power. And we have multiple internet providers to our building. That is not a guarantee of connectivity, but it’s as close as we can get. We also have several satellite phones for deployment in the field in the event cellular service fails, which is inevitable.
Did you think Irma would be as devastating as it was?
For us, Irma was damaging, but less devastating than we feared. Twenty-four hours out, we thought we might get a direct hit in Miami, not a glancing blow. Even in the Florida Keys, which had major impact, there was a point where we feared Irma would be even worse.
Have you ever opened up the newsroom like this – to serve as a shelter for staff and their families? Was it mandatory for them to continue working?
In our old building, the company allowed some employees who had no where else to go to take shelter. We did the same in our new building, which in some ways is even more storm-hardened that our previous headquarters. We expected all newsroom employees to work the storm. Many took shelters in their homes — outside of evacuation zones — and began reporting on their neighborhoods as soon as it was safe to go outside.
What lessons did you learn from this storm, in terms of future hurricane coverage and how you’ll manage events like this?
We think we planned well, and we were pleased with our coverage. We could have more effectively deployed our satellite phones (we had a reporter and photographer in Key West with only one phone; two would have been better). We tried to focus our reporting on the questions people in South Florida had about the storm (how can I tell if I am in an evacuation zone, where can I take my pet, etc), and we saw a great deal of success in doing it. We’d like to build on that.
Thankfully, Hurricane Irma spared Miami, but many Caribbean islands and most recently Puerto Rico hit by Hurricane Maria weren’t as lucky. Covering natural disasters and getting information to victims poses many challenges to the media.
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