As Sept. 5 careened into Sept. 6 during the North Carolina hurricane summer of 1996, the wind was at locomotive-level decibels outside my father-in-law’s home just outside the Swansboro town limits. Tree limbs were snapping like a super-conducting popcorn popper in the back yard. Many limbs skittered across the roof of the house. Rain fell in torrents. Thankfully we were far from the White Oak River’s flooding, but a nearby creek was beginning to rise — only we couldn’t see it.
It was after midnight, electrical power disappeared shortly before 6 p.m., about 30 minutes after Roselee and left the Jacksonville Daily News newsroom to ride out the storm. Many of us went home or to shelters for the category 3 storm, which arrived less than two months after Hurricane Bertha had already wrecked the coast. We had a reporter assigned to cover the story from a shelter in Swansboro, which I thought might be safer. During Hurricane Bertha we had a reporter at a shelter closer to Topsail Island, at one of the schools nearby, and the roof blew off the joint while she was there. I was never so glad to see anyone as I was Dee Henry when she returned safely to the office, where our staff was trapped in darkness with little food throughout that particular storm. We foolishly thought we could work through Hurricane Bertha as it made landfall. We learned otherwise the hard way.
Believe me when I say ignorance is hardly bliss in this kind of situation.
For Fran we also had reporters monitoring police scanners, taking notes so we would know where to head and what to focus on when the storm finally cleared. We faced a daunting challenge of producing a readable newspaper even if we had power at the Daily News office. That didn’t happen and no generator could even get us very close to operating all the equipment needed for such an event. In those pre-Internet days it took a lot of electricity to produce news — enough to run the computer system and press.
But first we had to get through Friday night when Fran actually made landfall near Topsail Island. I’ll never forget it. My wife and I were the ones who stayed awake throughout the night as the storm raged. A battery-operated radio kept us not only informed, but sane. One of the local radio stations had the foresight to acquire a generator that was enough to power the signal. A broadcaster remained on duty throughout the night taking telephone calls from people in Swansboro, Emerald Isle, Cedar Point, Cape Carteret, Hubert, Richlands, Sneads Ferry and Jacksonville. The callers gave updates on damages to their homes, flooding and where roads were blocked. Harry Pugliese, the now late police chief for the town of Swansboro, called in a couple of times with valuable and startling information.
That little battery-operated radio was a godsend. We went to work at nearly daybreak — after nearly 12 hours of intense storm activity finally subsided — prepared to face the enormous challenge of the day ahead. And there were many. We didn’t get power restored for several hours while our reporters fanned out around the county to find out whatever they could about damage and the start of recovery. Eventually, we sent part of the staff to the newspaper in New Bern, where there was electricity. Our reporters wrote stories by hand outdoors in the sun or by candlelight inside the Daily News’ cave-like office. We then read them to our staff members stationed in New Bern and they put together that first day’s edition, which was printed then trucked back to Jacksonville for delivery. The public, the vast majority without electricity and no access to TV or radio, was elated to read our print edition. It told them what damages had occurred, deaths, injuries, how to contact FEMA or other agencies for help and what to do with storm debris. They were thankful for the news.
I’ve been thinking about the Hurricane Summer of 1996 and that night when Fran roared through a lot this past week, as eastern North Carolina begins its fresh round of recovery from another major hurricane — Florence. We covered a lot of storms in my time on the coast, from 1992 to 2007. Some we handled better than others. One or two handled us. Count Fran among those. When I look at the damage Florence caused to the Swansboro area, it’s like a horrifying flashback.
As a one-time newspaper reporter and editor with 34 years of experience, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how different storm coverage is today. Some, of course, is the result of the diminishing role of print media in today’s news consumption culture. There are fewer reporters available to cover big stories. But the incredible growth of Internet sources and social media altered the landscape even more. In 1996, for example, the Daily News barely had a website, much less one we updated regularly with breaking news, information, photos and video. At that point we had just one computer in the newsroom where the internet could even be accessed. Print and TV were still the primary ways people consumed news. Smart phones were a concept so foreign that it seemed more likely we would encounter Ewoks, than to use such technology.
The web evolution was slow. Up to my last year at the Jacksonville Daily News we relied primarily on print as our delivery method. We had a website but largely updated it once the print edition was put to bed. We did post some breaking news, but did so sporadically. We dabbled in video and photo galleries. And very little to none of our hurricane coverage was impacted by online reporting and certainly not social media.
The landscape now is very different.
Roselee and I were traveling in Maine last week for vacation and monitored the storm easily via our smart phones. We saw regular updates via newspapers on the coast, the National Hurricane Center, the Burlington Times-News, Elon University’s campus e-net and the Elon News Network, operated by students in the School of Communications. We regularly found fresh updates on weather forecasts, storm tracks, closures and preparations. We knew, for example, that Elon was shutting down the latter part of the week, how many students had left campus for home or the homes of friends, how many students were remaining on campus and what services were being provided to them. We monitored video from University Communications, Dr. Connie Ledoux Book’s office and ENN. A handful of students keep local news of the storm flowing via social media, making it a valuable resource for not only the immediate campus community but also students and their parents from other states.
As the storm began to approach the coast and conditions deteriorated, we had access to Facebook posts from friends and family who posted words and images about the the damages. The News & Observer of Raleigh had a team of reporters downeast. The Wilmington Star News also had a fleet of reporters working out of their office building until storm damage forced them elsewhere. With several hundred thousand people without power on the coast, timely print publication was next to impossible in some areas. But journalists tried to keep their phones charged enough to post news folks needed on Facebook and Twitter. This story by the N&O became the enduring image of the storm, based on social media traffic.
After the storm, N&O reporter Andrew Carter returned to New Bern to follow up this first story about Robert Simmons Jr. and his kitten, Survivor. It will be one of the best and most important stories of the year. It was magnified 10-fold by social media.
As things turned out, the storm’s impact on the Piedmont was limited. Students with ENN still continued to professionally report whatever information they had, including news local residents could use about restaurants in town that remained open despite the shortage of students on campus and periods of almost blinding rain.
Dozens upon dozens of reporters are still covering Hurricane Florence and will be for a while. Many of them are exhausted. I know the feeling. The reporters in Wilmington, forced to work from a nearby hotel or TV station, are anxious to return home, survey then repair whatever damages they have, take a warm shower if power has been restored and sleep for a month. Tons of people are still without power, travel is problematic due to continued flooding and water is still rising in places like Kinston and Faytteville. I know, however, the reporters will remain on the job until the job is done.
I also want to salute the student reporters for ENN. While they encountered few of the hurdles their counterparts downeast did, they saw coverage through to the end, pursued every available story and acted in the best tradition of journalism — meeting the needs of an audience under all available circumstances.
As for me, I was happy as hell to be in Maine last week.