Preparing For Storm Coverage p.8

By: JOHN MARINO BY THE TIME Hurricane Hortense struck Puerto Rico in early September, the news media there and in the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands had been practicing their storm coverage skills during two of the most active hurricane seasons in recent memory.
Hortense was the third major storm to threaten Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands during 1996, and in 1995 hurricanes Luis and Marilyn cut destructive paths through the region. A number of other storms over the two years threatened to do the same, but blew off course before their fury could hit any islands.
But even with the unusual ? and unwelcome ? number of hurricanes barreling through the Caribbean, newspaper publishers and editors here say that covering a natural disaster remains an unpredictable enterprise that is among the greatest of professional challenges. It requires careful planning, the flexibility to make split-second decisions, a staff willing to go beyond the rigors of ordinary work and often a whole lot of luck. And regardless of how much practice or planning goes into storm coverage, they say that inevitably new lessons are learned with each storm.
"Sure, Hortense surprised us," says Kernan Turner, chief of the Associated Press San Juan bureau. "You learn something new every time you do one of these things."
If there's one thing that the 16-year Caribbean news veteran knows, it's that the number of hurricanes that have blown through the region over the past 24 months is a rarity. Turner spent nine years in Puerto Rico before he covered his first ? 1989's Hurricane Hugo, the worst storm to hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in a half century.
After that, things were relatively quiet until the furious Luis blew into the region in September 1995. It ripped up the Eastern Caribbean from Antigua to Anguilla, then suddenly veering north, narrowly avoiding both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgins Islands. Barely a week later, Marilyn seemed to blow in from nowhere to level St. Thomas and the neighboring Puerto Rican island of Culebra.
"Marilyn took everyone by surprise," says Penny Feuerzeig, executive editor of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning Virgin Islands Daily News. "We were told it was a Category One storm. I don't think anyone took it seriously."
A deadly storm that destroyed or severely damaged most of St. Thomas' residential and commercial structures, Marilyn knocked out power in some areas for months. Last July, Bertha, one of the earliest storms of the year, brushed past Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but turned far enough north so that the islands escaped significant damage. Other tropical storms, notably Eduardo, also put the islands on alert before blowing off course.
But in a manner eerily similar to what Hurricane Marilyn had done to St. Thomas, Hurricane Hortense appeared a week after Eduardo. After feinting southward toward Venezuela, it slammed into Puerto Rico full force.
"The big issue . . . with any hurricane coming towards us is planning and flexibility," says Feuerzeig. "These storms are so erratic and unpredictable that your plans can go a thunder in a flash."
This U.S.V.I. newswoman's advice would have served her Puerto Rican neighbors well a year later, on Sept. 10, when Hurricane Hor-tense hit. "We learned about the sudden whims of hurricanes, about their unpredictability," says Luis Alberto Ferre, editor of El Nuevo Dia and grandson to the founder of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
Hortense was unusual to say the least. A tropical storm on a course that would take it well south of Puerto Rico late Sunday night, it came to a standstill, then swirled into a hurricane that approached Puerto Rico's south coast through the night and into Monday morning.
When Hortense hit Puerto Rico, its eye passed over Guanica, near the island's southwest corner. But much of the storm's punch was felt to the east, where some of its strongest winds and heaviest rains hit ? which is why the worst damage was spread across the island's eastern half and in its central mountain region.
Hortense inflicted her fury through its rains, not its wind. During her passage, more than two feet of rain fell in some places, including several San Juan-area neighborhoods. The offices of the San Juan Star, the island's English daily newspaper, are located in one of them.
"It wasn't in my planning, this kind of flooding," says Barbara LeBlanc, associate editor of the Star, the island's oldest daily and Puerto Rico's only Pulitzer Prize winner. "The most important lesson? Leave a crew in here. Prepare for the very worst," says LeBlanc.
The Star is located off of one of the capital's main thoroughfares, Kennedy Avenue, which Hortense had turned into a lake in a matter of hours. So, although enough editorial staffers made it in to put out a paper, distribution was impossible. Flood waters washed out several vehicles in the parking lot. It wiped out the circulation department.
"The best you can do is to have the paper ready to go, and you circulate it when you can," says LeBlanc.
Despite differences in management philosophies, every newspaper executive says that planning is essential in covering a natural phenomenon such as a hurricane.
"We have a contingency plan. It's not real scientific," says the AP's Turner, who waded through water and climbed over a back fence to get to work the morning that Hortense arrived. "We all know how to do it. It's just a matter of long hours, not much food or sleep, and sometimes working in the dark."
The Star's LeBlanc talks about the need to have two separate reporting crews. The first crew covers a storm's approach, its threat and the government response to it; it also provides readers with basic emergency information.
Another crew, strategically placed along the storm's projected path, is responsible for reporting damage and the storm's impact on the lives of those who experience it. After the storm's passage, the crew that covered its approach begins work on the hurricane's aftermath.
"We designed a plan in which practically everybody on the staff was activated," says Ferre of the Spanish-language Nuevo Dia, the island's most widely circulated daily. "The cellular phones, laptops and the communications strategies were assigned to one person. We had a centralized communications unit, and that helps," he said.
The paper also set up a parallel distribution plan, establishing special deadlines and mapping out alternative circulation routes. The newspaper also checked to ensure that its emergency power and water systems were in top shape.
The Caribbean hurricane season stretches from June through November, but seems to peak in September ? the month when Hugo, Luis, Marilyn and Hortense all struck. The unusually high number of storms produced over the past two years has allowed Caribbean newspapers to fine-tune hurricane contingency plans for the first time in recent memory.
"With Luis and Marilyn we tried many things," Ferre says. "It was good that we had two hurricanes in the same season, because we could put in practice this year the lessons of Luis and Marilyn."
One lesson learned was how long it took to activate staff members and how long it took to move reporters to places they needed to be, Ferrer says.
Newspaper executives say that flexibility is just as important as the best of well-laid plans, and stories of innovation during hurricane coverage abound in Caribbean newsrooms. When the Star's computer system malfunctioned in Hurricane Luis' wake, the staff got the paper out using a handful of Macintosh computers and a lot of experimentation.
Hurricane Hugo destroyed the AP's former offices, so the bureau set up shop within the offices of its long-distance carrier, WorldCom Inc. Hortense knocked out electricity at the AP's new offices, where two backup systems also temporarily lost power. The AP managed to stay up with a portable generator. "We're never going to get knocked out completely," Turner says.
Emergencies also call for special equipment that may not be needed at other times during the year. Spare cellular phones, laptops, photo scanners and four-wheel-drive vehicles are all needed, and much of this equipment may have to be rented as the storm approaches. Turner tried to rent some four-wheel-drive vehicles during Hortense, but area dealers had none available.
The Star's LeBlanc says that since Hortense she has even found out where to rent an outboard motorboat in a hurry. "You need a lot of equipment for the moment," she says.
Of course, newspaper executives say that technological advances have made covering storms easier than before. Cellular telephone systems generally weather hurricanes better than wire-based phones, and portable photo transmitters make it possible to get photos from the field in a matter of hours.
During Hortense, AP's John McConnico captured a dramatic rescue sequence as a swelling river threatened to wash away a house and the five people trapped inside in Guayama, a rural town on Puerto Rico's southern coast. By setting up a photo laboratory in a civil defense office and a portable transmitter, the photos went out over the wires within three hours ? in time to be picked up by newspapers across the country.
Newspaper executives also say that the medium's physical properties present unique challenges, especially as they compete with television and radio, which usually take over as primary sources of information while power is out. Newspapers, in contrast, appear in the wake of a storm, when the often long struggle back to normalcy begins.
LeBlanc says that newspapers should try to bring out coverage that is as comprehensive and level-headed as possible to distinguish them from competing media. "It's always a challenge covering a disaster without being alarmist," she adds.
But hurricane coverage also presents unique challenges because it's one news story that affects a newspaper's staff. "You're preparing for a major tragedy and a major news story at the same time," says LeBlanc.
Newspaper staffers or their families often suffer personal losses in a storm. When Hurricane Marilyn struck St. Thomas, it converted the Virgin Islands Daily News offices into a refuge for staff members whose homes the storm severely damaged. A washer, dryer and ice machine were brought in for staff use, and corporate parent Gannett Co. dispatched extra reporters and editors, as well as much-needed supplies.
"The number one thing we learned is to prepare more effectively to take care of staff members who have become homeless," says Feuerzeig. "These were people who lost everything or had an enormous cleaning-up job to do."
?(Marino is business editor at the San Juan Star. Felix Jimenez, assistant features editor at the Star, contributed to this article.) [Caption]
?(The San Juan Star parking lot was not immune to the flooding as a result of the rains of Hurricane Hortense.) [Caption & Photo]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here