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|| News Item: Posted 2011-06-14

Hurricane Coverage
It’s All About the Details

By Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

Being the first on scene carries with it a certain responsibility, so in the absence of any rescue workers, render whatever aid is reasonable.
Some decisions in life are easy; so when, a few days before Hurricane Katrina, the nice lady at the Enterprise car rental counter asked me, “Mr. Blanco, are you going to be adding the extra insurance today?” I didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Um, yes ma’am, I’ll take it. As much as I can get thank you.”

That nice lady wasn’t quite so chipper when, a few weeks later, I returned what was left of her brand new Chevy Yukon complete with some mismatched borrowed tires, a single quarter-panel that was sans body damage, a thick layer of Mississippi mud, seawater and gasoline caking the carpet and a funky aroma that even the Extra Strength Febreze couldn’t counter.

I mention this because “Always buy the extra insurance on your rental car” is the absolute second unofficial rule of hurricane coverage… right after the first unofficial rule; the one that states: “Never, ever, take your own car to cover a hurricane.”

With June 1st, the first day of hurricane season, quickly approaching I thought I’d jot down some of the things I’ve picked up over the years as a Florida-based photojournalist covering hurricanes. Maybe these tips will help you; maybe they’ll get you into trouble. Who knows? But either way I hereby absolve myself of liability by stating that I’m not an expert, just a guy who has made a lot of mistakes when covering hurricanes… and has learned from *almost* every one.

Note: Because Hurricane Katrina is the biggest, scariest, and most logistically challenging hurricane I’ve ever covered, I’m writing this article using it as the benchmark. It’s clearly better, and safer, to be over prepared so if we prepare for a Katrina then we should be ready for just about anything that’s thrown our way… God willing.

Once you get the call that you’ve been assigned to cover a particular storm, the time to plan is while the thing is still spinning offshore. First, before anything else, get online now and rent a BGAN and have it shipped Next Day Air to you. Ok, now that that’s done, then this is when your work begins as you start following that storm’s every move. Plot it on a hurricane map, watch the Weather Channel until you cannot stand it anymore and constantly refresh the NOAA website. You’re going to want to know, with as much degree of certainty as possible, where this thing is likely going.

Knowing the basic geographic location of probable landfall gives you a better understanding of what resources might be available to you and what types of situations you may encounter. Is this going to hit a populated urban area like Miami where there are lots of resources in adjacent cities? Or is it going to hit a fairly rural area or an especially vulnerable area like Key West? Or is it heading to an area that will present special obstacles like New Orleans?

Knowing where it may hit will allow you to start to think about your game plan but keep in mind that hurricanes are unpredictable and can make last-minute detours, as was the case with the Cat. 4 Hurricane Charley back in 2004. Also, don’t allow a low category number like a Cat. 1 or 2 to leave you with a false sense of security. As well as last-minute course changes, hurricanes can also intensify fairly quickly right before landfall.

Photo by Brian Blanco

Photo by Brian Blanco

Covering natural disasters can present many hazardous situations for journalists, such as this reporter while covering Hurricane Katrina.
Your Vehicle
Now that you have an idea of where this thing is heading you can start to plan your coverage and start packing the rental car (make a packing list and stick to it). A big question though, and one you can only answer for yourself is, “What type of car am I going to rent?”

This is one of the areas where researching the probable landfall location is important. No matter where the storm hits, the availability of gasoline is going to be a major problem and when renting a car you’ll have to balance the possible need for the ground clearance, power and cargo (and sleeping) space of an SUV against the fuel economy of a smaller car. Gas stations in both rural and urban areas can, and often do, run out of gasoline a couple of days before the storm even hits. Meaning, that whatever gas you’re going to have to cover the storm, is going to have to be gas you buy well outside of the affected area and bring in with you.

Gasoline is the lifeblood of your coverage, if you run out then you do nobody any good, so as soon as possible go out and buy and fill several 5 gal gas tanks. Lowes and Home Depot often sell them in sleeves of 4 at a small discount but keep in mind that they sell out quickly.

I clearly cannot tell you how many tanks to buy as that will depend on how long you intend to be covering the story, the distance to the next unaffected town that still has gas (this could be very far), the geography of the affected area and the fuel economy of the vehicle you rent.

Another big factor in deciding how much gas to carry with you (and how you carry it) is how comfortable you are driving around in a virtual rolling Molotov cocktail. Filled gas tanks spew fumes, spill gas and make you a target of thieves and carjackers. Strapping the tanks to the roof (which may be illegal in some states) certainly gets the fumes and spillage out of the car but leaves you with a security issue, as you’ll certainly get the unwanted attention of desperate people and moochy, less-prepared, colleagues. Outside of renting a pickup truck (which are hard to find as rentals) there is no easy answer to this dilemma.

TIP: I can tell you that if my gas tanks are visible on the outside of the car, then I always mark them, in big black bold letters, as “Diesel” in an attempt to thwart some attention… I think it has worked a couple of times.

Ok, so now that you have your car, it’s time that you view it for what it is: your mobile newsroom, your generator (you’ll have bought a power inverter), your security, your pantry, your hotel room, your kitchen, your medical clinic. Essentially your car, and the stuff you pack into it, are the backbone of your logistical response to a logistical nightmare. Without it you’re essentially done.

We’ve discussed the gas, now let’s talk tires As a photojournalist you’ll be one of the first people into the affected area following the storm, meaning that your tires will be the first to pick up all of the nails, screws, shards of glass, shrapnel, sharp pieces of wood, etc. that litter the streets for the first few days. You WILL get flats and if you’re under the impression that you can drive the streets avoiding the debris and not getting flats then you are straight up delusional.

So, how do we combat the inevitable flat tires? Well, immediately after driving out of the rental car lot (days before the storm makes landfall), drive to one of those shady used tire places and buy a couple of complete tires and wheels that will fit the vehicle you’ve rented and strap them to the roof. These are your tires of last resort, as you’ll try to keep the ones on the car functioning for as long as possible. To that end, go to an auto parts store and buy some of those beef jerky looking tire plugs and the tools that go with them and look up some YouTube videos on how to use those things. Also, buy a bunch of cans of Fix-A- Flat and a big industrial car jack and a big lug wrench, as you won’t want to be messing with the silly Mickey Mouse jacks that they include with cars these days. After the first few days the tire puncturing will slow down as the streets get cleared and the sharp things have already been run over by your colleagues.

It’s getting windy
Ok, so that covers fuel and tires, now lets talk about keeping everything else running. Because your car (and your life) are so important to your coverage, you will want to keep both of them up and running by being WELL OUTSIDE of the storm’s path as it makes landfall. I can’t tell you how far away to be but seriously, you don’t need images during the storm. It’ll be so windy and rainy that they’ll look terrible and all you’re going to do is put yourself, your camera gear and your car in danger and stop your coverage before it even starts.

The images that you’re after are the aftermath photos. Those are the images that tell the story, so the minute you feel the storm has passed and you can safely travel, then that’s when it’s time to make your way into the affected area as safely as possible.

If you leave early enough, then there likely won’t be a lot of vehicles traveling the streets as you make your way into the affected area so traffic shouldn’t be a problem. The biggest issue you’ll face as you make your way from your staging area to the affected area after the storm, is downed power lines.

Because you’re likely to be on the road even before the police, fire rescue, military and power company, you’re likely going to be among the first cars to encounter downed tress, power lines and other obstacles.

Small trees can be handled fairly quickly with a chainsaw and tow rope (that you should have packed) but STAY AWAY from power lines and standing water. Find another way around and NEVER assume that power lines are dead lines or assume that they’re harmless phone lines.

You should have studied the map ahead of time and planned a way into the area that leaves you alternative routes and avoids (as best as you can) traveling over any bridges, which could now be damaged or closed.

Depending on how soon you get on the road after the storm passes, on your way into the affected area you may encounter police or National Guard roadblocks. There’s no steadfast rule with these things or how to deal with them. Sometimes you pull up and politely and confidently show them your media ID and they move aside and wish you luck. Other times they shake their heads and command you to turn around and give you a ton of attitude in the process.

It’s impossible to understand where, when and why there will be roadblocks and if or how you’ll be able to get through them. Having a GPS, a few good maps (and/or a local person) with you to find alternative routes is the best course of action. Arguing with a National Guardsman or an out of town police officer is often a waste of valuable time.

You’ll generally know within the first 30 seconds of your encounter with this uniformed person if you’re getting through or not. If there’s only one way in, then it’s clearly worth standing your ground, explaining your case and requesting, professionally, to speak up the chain of command. Otherwise, just find another way in… 99% of the time there’s another way in and contrary to what some police and military officials may believe, they cannot shut down an entire city to the media (though I’ve seen them try).

So now you’ve made it in to the affected area. You know what to do from here. Go find photos. Meet people. Tell stories. Be a journalist. This is a big story and the world is waiting for the information that you’ve worked so hard and planned so well to gather.

Here are a few things (and these are in no particular order) to keep in mind while you’re working:
• Move photos as quickly as possible upon arrival on the first day, as it may take you hours to find a way (or spot) to transmit if you don’t have a BGAN.
• Have a BGAN, and make sure you’re 100% confident on how to use it BEFORE it gets windy.
• A lot of hurricane victims will be armed and on edge. They’re mostly worried about looters so try to look like a journalist. Keep your credentials around your neck, cameras visible and don’t poke around at night.
• You have a DC to AC power inverter (actually two of them if you’re smart) in the car so use it every chance you get. Top off cell phones, SAT phones, camera and laptop batteries every time you’re in the car driving around. Don’t wait until they run down and you find yourself having to run the car JUST to charge batteries.
• Make sure the reporter you’re working with (if you’re riding with one) is charging his/her phone and laptop while you’re driving too… they never think about those things. • Make sure you have bug spray and a big floppy hat… you’ll thank me for it.
• For the first 8 to 12 hours you and the other journalists will likely be the only ones handing out water. It usually takes a while for the cavalry to arrive so do what you can without depleting all of your won supplies.
• After the first day or two, make sure that you don’t look too clean or well shaven. Disaster victims respect you more if they feel that you’re enduring the same hardships that they are. If you look like a TV person with a tie and make up on they roll their eyes as you walk up. If you look like you also slept on the grass last night they’ll be more inviting and open. Everybody smells like an armpit after the third day so it’s cool.
• If you find a group of affected residents that you feel safe with, then sleep on the grass with them that night as it’ll be a nice break from the car and makes for nice images and even nicer trust building.
• Pack three times the amount of socks that you anticipate you are going to need… and a few pairs of shoes.
• Ask the locals where THEY think you should go and what stories THEY think you should be covering… they’re usually right.
• Find a geographic area and stick to it that day. Driving around sightseeing eats up too much gas that you cannot afford to lose. This is not a two- day story; so spread your fuel out and conserve where you can.
• -Cliff Bars just don’t cut it by the third day. Beef jerky is king.
• If you no longer have enough food or water to share then don’t eat in front of people (this one is obvious but I’ve seen it done). • Don’t be afraid to tell relief workers where you’ve seen pockets of people in need of supplies. Nobody is going to be driving around as much as photojournalists. I once found an elderly couple nearly dead from days of dehydration just a mile (and one turn) away from a military food and water distribution site. • Use hand sanitizer often but realize that it’s no substitute for washing your hands. Diseases spread fairly quickly in disaster areas. • Never let the reporter drive the car. For some reason they all suck at driving. • -Share information with your competition. This is no time to be competitive or hold tight to a “scoop”. Our goal as journalists is to gather as much accurate information as possible and get it out to as many people as possible.
• If your editor is blowing up your SAT or cell phone every 20 minutes with nonsense then just ignore them. It’s easy to say, “Wow, I must not have been getting a signal. Downed towers and all; you understand right?”
• In a Katrina-type storm there will be photographic opportunities surrounding you at every moment and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and overworked. Be disciplined enough to take a time-out and relax. Have a beef jerky and a warm bottle of water and just relax in the shade for an hour or two… it’ll be hot and emotionally draining.
• After a couple of weeks without food or human contact, abandoned dogs, even formerly docile pets, start to run in packs that can be dangerous so, beware of dogs. • Raid the camera closet and take as many bodies as you can (even older ones). You’ll go through a bunch if it’s anything like Katrina. And PLEASE tell me that you’re taking more than one wide lens.
• Cell signals may work but they will be unreliable at best. If you get a connection say what you need to say quickly or move a lower-rez file quickly… now is not the time to check your Facebook.
• Have as many different cell phones and wireless devices from as many different carriers as possible with you… one of them may work.
• Carpool with other shooters if you can as you’ll want to save gas whenever possible.
• Do NOT sleep in a car that has gas tanks in it… come on now, you know better than that.
• Remember that a friendly local is your best resource (particularly in a rural area). Ask them if they’ll drive around with you and show you some sites and introduce you to some folks.
• The bottom line, if you couldn’t tell from reading everything above, is that logistics are the most important thing to think about (after safety of course). You cannot just pile into the car with a gleam in your eye, some bottled water and your cameras and expect everything to work out. You almost have to pack like a cave diver; where you at least one backup (and sometimes three) for every item that is crucial to success.
• Ask yourself “Where is the weakest link in my gear?” It could be power sources, camera bodies, laptops, Internet connection devices, tires, FUEL, etc… any one of these things can stop your coverage cold so remember to plan, in fact, over plan and you should be able to concentrate on making photos.

Good luck, stay safe, and hope it turns back out to sea.

Brian Blanco is a freelance photographer based in Florida. You can see his work on his Sports Shooter member page: and at his personal website site: .

Contents copyright 2018, Do not republish without permission.
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