How one of Florida's largest newsrooms covers natural disasters

byAnnie JennemannJan 9, 2023 in Local News

On September 28, Hurricane Ian, the fifth strongest hurricane in U.S. history, made landfall in southwest Florida, leaving communities devastated and forcing local reporters to cover yet another major climate disaster.

Journalists at one of the state’s largest outlets, the Tampa Bay Times, were immediately at the scene of the hurricane, where they covered the death count from storm surges and its aftermath.

Reporter Zack Sampson and photographer Douglas Clifford were among the group of Tampa Bay Times’ journalists who reported on Hurricane Ian. They covered the storm's landfall in Fort Myers, Florida.

To better understand what it takes to cover natural disasters, I spoke with Sampson, Clifford and Tampa Bay Times’ managing editor Carolyn Fox about their reporting strategies, safety tips, and how they approached covering communities impacted by hurricanes.

Preparing to cover Hurricane Ian

As the landfall team, Sampson and Clifford’s goal was to be as close as possible to the areas most impacted by the storm. As with their previous coverage of hurricanes, the pair arrived in Fort Myers early to make contacts. This included people in the community that they’ve identified as most likely to be affected by the storm.

Staging their vehicle at a hotel about 12 miles away from Fort Myers Beach, the journalists watched the rotation of the storm and squall lines on radar to decide which area would suffer the most damage. “Once the landfall takes place, we wait for the wind to drop to roughly 50 miles an hour. That's when you can usually drive,” said Clifford.

Their story was published the day after the storm. It highlighted the devastation the hurricane caused in Fort Myers Beach where it killed 14 people, before moving up through Florida and into the Carolinas. 

Humanizing natural disasters

Four or five days after the hurricane moved past Florida, the team at the Tampa Bay Times met to discuss what stories to tell beyond the initial landfall.

Many of the stories published during the immediate aftermath were focused on the high number of deaths — many from drowning, storm surge and flooding, according to Sampson. The Tampa Bay Times reported around 100 deaths as of Oct. 3. As of Oct. 31, there were 125 deaths reported in Florida as a result of the storm.

“I think the biggest thing was, we looked at what angles we should go at for a second week story,” said Fox. “[One thing] I feel the Tampa Bay Times does incredibly well is those follow-up stories that maybe other [newspapers] stop paying attention to.”

With the death toll numbers being reported, the team wanted to connect the faces of real people to these numbers and explain why and how they died, said Fox. This was especially important for Tampa Bay’s residents to read, as the city has regularly missed major hurricanes, causing some residents to not take them seriously. 

“They need to understand the severity of something like a storm surge, and that it's not to be taken lightly,” she said.

One story Sampson worked on celebrated the life of Mitch Pacyna, a victim of Hurricane Ian who was killed during a storm surge in Fort Myers. To write the story, Sampson and Clifford worked with search and rescue teams to find Pacyna’s house, while journalists in the newsroom scoured social media for information on the individual’s life. 

[Our goal was to] try to tell a story about the fact that people died here because that's frankly what matters to most of our readers — they need to know why you evacuate,” said Sampson. 

Maintaining safety

Reporting in pairs is a strategy the Tampa Bay Times uses for hurricane coverage, but it hasn’t always worked in that way, said Clifford. During past coverage, the newsroom found that having both a writer and photographer together helped the journalists make better safety decisions in the field.

“It gives you a little bit more [courage], a little bit more confidence, when you have somebody to help you navigate, or just somebody there to help you make a decision and decide [for example] whether you're going to go down this flooded street,” said Clifford. 

According to tips from the Committee to Protect Journalists, reporters should work in teams of at least two and preferably three while covering disasters. It’s also important for these journalists to be able to work well together, as covering a storm can be a stressful situation.

Physically preparing to go out into the field is crucial to a journalist’s safety. This begins with the type of vehicle they plan to use while out in the field. Most roadways will have up to 24 inches of water, so having a four-wheel drive vehicle in the disaster zone is crucial. Bringing enough fuel is important –  Clifford and his team bring at least one tank worth of fuel in safe gas cans that won’t leak fumes.

Additionally, the team brings a hurricane kit that includes a variety of items that might become vital when out in the field and when stores and other facilities are closed. These items include towing straps, tire plug kits, an air pump, power inverters, battery chargers, a jump station, rope, a tarp, tape and more.

To cover the storm’s landfall, Clifford said he usually picks a hotel made out of concrete and steel less than five stories tall.

“My experience is all the floors above five stories, the windows start getting blown out, it's really dangerous,” he said. “I've been in those rooms where I've actually had my windows blown out.”

Furthering the story

Outside of Hurricane Ian, the Tampa Bay Times has also focused on reporting the risk of storm surge and flooding to the Tampa Bay area in a special report called Rising Threat.

In the report, Sampson and data editor Langston Taylor spoke with over a 100 people, including residents, professors, forecasters, insurance experts, scientists, lawyers and local government officials to understand the extent of the danger that area faces.

“We've been doing a lot of coverage of hurricanes around Tampa Bay,” said Sampson. “We haven't been hit in a long time and we've been focusing on [Tampa Bay’s] vulnerability and danger.” According to the series, Tampa Bay remains “among the riskiest areas in America for destruction from hurricanes,” despite its several recent near-misses.

For the team at the Tampa Bay Times, reporting that communicates risk and potential danger is just as important as covering the impact of hurricanes after landfall. This can help save lives in the event of the next major hurricane.

“The mission is [that] the people who live here know to take a hurricane threat seriously." 

Photo by NASA on Unsplash.