How to do journalism after a natural disaster
May 4, 2011
- Wake up in your in-laws’ basement the morning after tornadoes demolish half of your region of the country. Feel thankful and guilty that you’re okay; the house is okay; your husband is upstairs showering like nothing is different. Take him back by your rental house to pick up his car. Note the lack of downed tree limbs from the ancient oak in your front yard. Feel guilty. Wonder if it even really happened at all.
- Get to your office half an hour early instead of your customary half an hour late. It’s sunny out, like nothing is different. Think about crying but don’t. You’re too busy. Instead you make a list of places to send reporters, people for them to call, questions for them to ask. You expect the phones to be buzzing but they’re silent. Half your readers are without power. Some are without homes.
- Get a call, on your cell, from your publisher, on his cell. His office, at your sister paper in the next county, is without power and inaccessible due to debris in the roads. They have been hit much harder than the area you cover. You are on your own – no boss calling the shots. He has more metaphorical fires to put out than you can imagine. This coverage is all yours, baby, and there’s no time to think – just do.
- The reporters, too, are all half an hour early. No wandering in at 9:30 on a day like today. Nobody has slept much. Not many have showered. Some don’t have electricity. Some took long detours around damage to reach the office. Nobody has to be told twice what to do. They are on the phones; they are in the demolished neighborhoods with cameras; they are at the shelters with notebooks. They are calling you, texting you, emailing in copy. You are editing stories, editing photos, posting stories online, sending photos to your home office. There is no time to think about what you are doing. You just do it.
- You get a rhythm down. Get story. Edit story. Download photos. Edit photos. Post story. Post photos. Mark story edited so when the dust settles, you will know what you have been doing. In between, you are trolling Facebook, trying to find leads, compiling a list of aid organizations, directing victims and volunteers, updating the list of needs online, sending Facebook volunteer groups the link to your list, hoping you can connect people to what they need. 4 hours pass. 6 hours. 8 hours. Your husband calls when he gets off work. You are not leaving. It’s not an option with this much information to get out.
- You stagger out after 11 hours at work. You are not done, but if you don’t sleep, you’ll be useless tomorrow, and tomorrow will be worse. You have been eating junk food whenever you could grab it during the day. You are dehydrated. You are exhausted. You’re afraid you’ll cry but you don’t. You’re too tired.
- Tomorrow is worse. Lather, rinse, repeat. Your assistant editor’s apartment, two blocks from the worst of the storms, is unfit for habitation. She is working from her parents’. The entire ad staff of the other paper is camped out in your office. You’re shorthanded half the day. More followup stories. More photos. More requests for help, for volunteers, for direction. More press releases need to be put online. Other papers are calling you, borrowing your photos, your coverage, asking how they can help. The free advertising paper you put out still needs to be paginated as usual. You still have to wait for ads to come in. Yesterday’s and today’s stories need to be compiled to be put in print the next work day. A reporter can handle this better than you can. You pick up her other work to free her for compiling. You’re waiting on the names of the dead from the next county. The stories coming in are heartbreaking. Probable award-winners. There is no time to think about them. Too much to do. 12 hours pass.
- You stumble home just before dark. The drains are clogged at home. You have to go to your in-laws’ to get a shower. The dog gnaws your fingers. You don’t care. You are home and your family is alive. Your home is a home. You can’t cry. You make plans to volunteer the next morning, to donate blood, to do anything, but realize you are too exhausted and dehydrated to be anything but a liability. You and your husband go to his cousin’s house, just to be with family, just to see someone who understands. The cousin works for the roads department. He understands. His wife has a bag of scraps – playing cards, pottery, pages of books – the storms blew into their yard. You show her a Facebook group where she can post the bits and pieces for their owners – how many miles away? – to see and claim. You tear up for the first time looking at the previous postings of photos, check stubs, hats, but you don’t cry.
- You sleep until ten the next morning. You do your best to take care of yourself. Your husband takes care of the dog. Your husband is a godsend. Your in-laws feed you. You meet friends from your alma mater for dinner. The campus is a wreck; trees everywhere. Nobody was hurt. Thank God. Your friends lived in Tuscaloosa for years. They are shell-shocked. You help each other. They are sympathetic. You buy bright pink toenail polish and Rice Krispies. You give yourself permission to baby yourself to get through the next week. You go to a play. You meet your parents for lunch. They are sympathetic. You kiss the dog on the nose. She bites you. Last week this was a problem. This week you are thankful the dog is alive.
- Lather, rinse, repeat. You write a blog post. The plumber comes. Someone calls you at work with a story idea that is not about tornadoes. You agonize over your headline, how to get the right blend of grief and hope. You drink too much coffee and giggle uncontrollably. It’s the alternative to crying. Which you still haven’t done. You wonder to your mother what’s wrong with you, why your subconscious hasn’t let all this sink in yet. She tells you to be kind to yourself. The power comes back on; your coworkers are back in their office. You have to edit the obituaries of the tornado victims. It’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do in this job. You drink some rum when you get home. You walk the dog in the cemetery. It’s strangely comforting.
- It keeps going. You finally get to sleep early. There are emails to be answered, stories to be edited, papers to be paginated. You wait for the weekend. Where does it all end? Still waiting on that one.