Dodging Hurricane Dorian's bullet
The eye of a historic storm was spinning just 100 miles from us. Dorian's 200 mph winds were destroying our neighbors in the Bahamas -- but somehow, South Florida went mostly unscathed. While Bahamians, just a short boat ride away, were going through hell -- all Floridians had to deal with was some wind, waves, minor flooding, and power outages from Dorian's outer bands. When I see the images coming from the island now, I am speechless. I can't help but think that could have been us.
Before I write about what it was like covering this storm, I want to provide links to help those in the Bahamas. My station is partnering with the Bahama Paradise Cruise Line to bring relief to the island right now. More info here. The Red Cross is also a trusted place to donate. The Bahamian Government has provided instructions to wire transfer money to their hurricane relief fund.
The days leading up to Hurricane Dorian's landfall were full of anxiety. I truly think the anticipation was the hardest part. For several days, Dorian's track showed landfall either in Palm Beach County, or right above it. I had never experienced a hurricane before -- let alone reported live in one -- and this one was a Cat 5. I was scared. And stressed. I did my best to do everything you're supposed to: stocking up on supplies, filling up my gas tank, making plans for my family. My fiance and I talked about potential evacuations for him and our cats. I had to smile when friends, family, and viewers reached out to me suggesting I evacuate, too. When you're a reporter, leaving is not an option. When a hurricane is coming, our jobs are never more important.
The week before the storm, my station was continuously offering updates and doing stories about preparations. My role in the newsroom was to pull in elements from all of our day's coverage and put together an all-encompassing summary story for our affiliates around the country to run. We also set up a live shot on Palm Beach and had affiliates tune in to it, providing 10-minute windows for each one of them to take me live and ask me questions in what's called a "talk back." One day, I did about 18 live shots in a row and spoke for nearly 3 hours straight.
As the hurricane got closer to us, my station put together a coverage plan for what's called "wall-to-wall" or non-stop news coverage. Right before and during the storm, we were on the air 24/7, providing continuous weather updates, breaking news items, and reports live in the field from locations throughout our viewing area.
I was sent to Port Saint Lucie, about an hour north of West Palm Beach -- one of the areas expected to be the hardest hit if Dorian didn't turn. Our staff was split into a morning crew and an evening crew, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off. The morning staff started at 2 a.m. and worked until 2 p.m. The evening crew picked up the show at 2 p.m. and went until 2 a.m. Most of the field reporters and photographers had hotels close to their assignment, and most of the producers, managers, anchors, and meteorologists slept at the news station during our continuous coverage.
Based on the recommendations of other reporters who have done hurricane coverage before, I packed rain pants, polos, 3 rain jackets, 3 hats, ski goggles, many many many pairs of socks, lots of water and snacks, and plastic bags to wrap my electronics in. Jeremy gave me a "pre hurricane coverage gift" -- an anemometer to take into the field to measure the wind speed as it happens. All of these supplies were very useful.
When my continuous coverage shift started at 2 p.m. Monday, we were just starting to feel some of the impacts of Dorian's bands. It was so ominous to look at the radar and see the hurricane hugging our coast, only to stall and stop a few miles away. My photographer Max and I got into the groove of finding elements, going live, feeding back footage, and moving again. We captured everything from pre-storm kite surfers, strong winds, coastal flooding, a deserted downtown, and even snagged a live interview with our Congressman while he was visiting first responders under the radar. There was little time to think, eat, or take a break. It wasn't until the end of my shift at 2 a.m. that I realized I hadn't had a bathroom break in 15 hours. I'm being 100% serious. 15. Hours.
The next day, conditions were more intense. Winds were in tropical storm force range, and waves were crashing at Jensen Beach. I happened to be in the same general area as the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore. I tried to get an interview with him, but his company wouldn't allow it. Jim and his producer were very nice about it though. It was a little bizarre to see him out in the elements, battling sea spray and driving rain -- while a small crowd of onlookers gathered to watch him and take photos.
The rain, wind, and salt water proved to be too much for our camera equipment that afternoon. We eventually lost our live shot and started to experience all kind of technical problems. At a certain point, all we could do was record reports, import them into a laptop, establish an internet connection with the station, and send my report back via an FTP site. It felt like everything that could go wrong was going wrong -- but again, there just wasn't time to dwell on it. We just kept working with what we had and moving on to the next thing.
Around 7 p.m. my station received a press release from a local hospital about a baby born during the hurricane. Since the storm was in the process of tapering down, we thought that could be a nice, more lighthearted story to end our coverage with. The hospital's PR person said we could drive over to interview the parents and do a story about the baby. I showed up to the hospital soaking wet from a day in the rain -- and it wasn't until I got there that I learned the mother had given birth just *hours* before. I was so shocked she was willing to go on camera so soon after birth -- but they had a great story to tell and their little one warmed my heart on a day I was mostly cold and drenched. You can watch that story here.
A few days later, the newsroom is slowly getting back into a more normal routine, doing follow up stories about local damage and relief efforts to aid the Bahamas. I'm tired, but at the same time, my adrenaline is still running a bit high. I now feel much more prepared for the next time a hurricane is forecast to come our way -- having leftover supplies on hand, and the experience of continuous coverage behind me. I think our news team as a whole rose to the occasion -- and even though I haven't been working here all that long -- I've never been prouder of CBS12. We did our best, and we got lucky when that monster storm finally made its turn.