Reflections: Covering Hurricane Irma

I’m really proud of the Sun Sentinel’s coverage during Hurricane Irma. All hands were on deck as a group of journalists went into lockdown mode before and during the storm. I was among those journalists selected to spend four nights and three days living in the newsroom, working around the clock.

I was terrified.

Irma was my first Hurricane as an adult and away from my family. I was scared for their safety and mine. I was worried about not being able to contact them or get to them after. I didn’t know how bad the storm would be but projections were telling us to prepare for the worst.

Grocery stories looked like an apocalypse was imminent, with stretches of shelves completely barren of products.

 

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One of the many empty aisles at the grocery store, five days before the storm.

 

Days before the storm were eerie. I live in the mandatory evacuation zone near a major road – I’d peer out the window and couldn’t hear or see any type of vehicle. No birds chirped nearby or flew overhead.

I understood, now, “the calm before the storm.” The energy was odd and I had knots in my stomach. I packed my bag, said goodbye to my apartment and headed to the newsroom. I had enough junk food for a few days. I wasn’t sure what to pack because I’m usually eating fresh seafood or tofu and vegetables. Poptarts, Hello Kitty fruit snacks, and protein shakes became my staples.

 

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My snacks included popcorn and Poptarts, two types of protein shakes and tea and oatmeal.

 

I was able to snag an open office, hanging a sheet over the window for privacy and setting up an air mattress under the desk. My space was actually pretty nice, and I was grateful to have it.

I’d been assigned to the social media team, responsible for digging through multiple platforms in search of leads, images and community reactions. While doing that, I also helped produce our Facebook Live show. Our show aired every three hours for three days, coinciding with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s newest updates.

I helped produce each show. Some of my responsibilities included organizing the rundown and helping write the scripts. I gathered footage, either internally or sourcing externally from social media. I reached out to members of the community for feedback and helped prep reporters before they went on air.

I also co-hosted the show, monitoring the comments during the show and getting questions answered, either while we were live or commenting after and linking to a story on our site.

I was able to all this while completing my other tasks on the social media team. It was exhausting but invigorating, and I was happy to have a hand in producing the news.

On day two, I had the opportunity to host one of the shows.

 

It was important for me to find a way to get SouthFlorida.com involved in our storm coverage. It’s the Sun Sentinel’s entertainment site so it didn’t really have a need to give updates per say, but I wanted to show we were there and cared about our audience, too. 

“Why not play Pictionary on Facebook Live?” I thought.

The game would show our presence during the storm but also serve as a lighthearted way for people to forget about the storm for a few minutes and have a little fun. I knew it could completely flop, but I thought it was worth the risk.

 

That video had more engagement than any other Facebook Live we’ve done on SouthFlorida.com, and one of our highest ratings. People commented that they were appreciative for the break from the stress.

The game was mentioned in a Poynter article, and was given a shoutout at the Society of National Journalism’s National Convention. 

I was happy my little idea was not only successful but appreciated. I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to cover the storm. Initially, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. I cried in my apartment, a lot, before going in for the lockdown. I was not only scared but I was sad – that I wasn’t excited for this opportunity, sad I didn’t feel this was my calling. I thought if I didn’t feel compelled to do this, maybe I shouldn’t be a journalist. The thought devastated me. Once I got to the office, my fears dissipated. I felt alive. I loved running from desk to desk and working in such a high-stress environment with tight deadlines. I loved every second of it. I was happy to take a break from covering happy hours and nightlife to sharing the real news. Hurricane Irma reminded me that even in the craziest of storms, I am a newswoman.

 

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Data reporter Stephen Hobbs and I before one of our storm updates.

 

 

 

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