Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cover hurricanes

Since Hurricane Wilma is smashing all previous records, I suppose now would be a good time to post this entry.

I've covered a pair of hurricanes this year. They're never a cake walk and shouldn't be a destination to pad portfolios. However, when they happen close enough for a PJ to help the affected or their families, PJs better be prepared and know what to do.

Have a purpose
Let's be absolutely clear on the purpose of PJ work. Clips aren't a purpose. Portfolio isn't a purpose. In and of themselves, they are selfish and serve no greater good.

PJs are the eyes of a community. PJs go - at grave personal risk - where others don't want to go and sometimes can't go to tell the stories of survivors and emergency workers as well as relay visual information about damage to the displaced.

Why? To keep evacuees out of the way of the people trained to deal with this kind of danger and to motivate trained personnel to come to the area. Secondarily, we show the need of those affected to let others know what blessings they have and (hopefully) share some of their blessings (donations) with the folks most affected.

Therefore, PJs are the visual barometer of safety risk and need. We are often a de facto first responder and assume the responsibility of immediately helping as many people as we can.

Furthermore, we must continue to DELIVER images to the community when the entire infrastructure is destroyed. The images don't do any good trapped inside the crisis zone. The images don't help if they're only posted on someone's portfolio months later. They must be on the wire within hours.

This means folks with film cameras, two bottles of water and a tank of gas should stay home. They have no purpose, do no good and pose a potential hazard to others while absorbing limited supplies.

At its edge, PJ work is a series of calculated risks. There's a line of gravestones to attest to this fact. Some calculations are wrong, and PJs die. Dead PJs don't help the people they came to help. Dead PJs certainly don't turn out images by deadline. Dead PJs only create more problems for crisis-area emergency workers, forensic dentists, newspaper editors and family members (in order notification).

Therefore, PJs must ensure their own lives first. Then, PJs can work to help other survivors. This takes a huge amount of logistical planning, knowledge and support before, during and after the actual hurricane. Eventually, PJs' most precious items narrow to a camera, gasoline, bottled water, laptop, bug spray, communications, canned meat, dry socks, disinfectant and sleeping bag - in this order.

Before the storm
The following are items to handle before a PJ arrives in the strike zone or at least before the winds start increasing.

Take fuel
Fuel is vital to cover a hurricane. It's also most difficult to find after a hurricane. Before leaving to cover a hurricane, fill the tank and refill often along the way.

Additionally, carry extra fuel containers. Most PJs have SUVs. This makes it easier. Buy some shower mats (with suction cups) and place them on the roof to avoid scratching the paint or spilling. Put the full fuel containers on the roof and firmly strap them into place with a ratcheting web strap (moving supply companies have great ones).

Once the hurricane hits, it's important to fill the gas tank frequently with the fuel from these containers. If a looter steals empty containers, you're in trouble. If a looter steals your fuel and leaves your tank empty, you might die.

If no fuel is available, find the closest location and estimate the fuel required to get there. This is a PJ's time limit. If the closest fuel is half a tank away, PJs must leave the hurricane zone when they're down to a half tank. If there's room, help evacuate others.

PJs with cars aren't going to do well. Cars don't have clearance needed and have nowhere to store extra gear and fuel. DON'T put fuel containers inside a car or car trunk. Consider buying a detatchable roof rack or tow caddy to carry fuel or plan to limit time and/or depth into the hurricane zone.

Research the suspected strike zone
PJs need to know much before the hurricane's eye passes overhead. This knowledge becomes critical as the clock ticks between disaster and recovery.

Learn about the topography (terrain) of the area (first for survival, then for coverage). Understand the demographics of an area to know where survivors are most likely to be found (poor parts of a town have more survivors/casualties). Learn about iconic landmarks, historical sites, key infrastructure facilities as well as potential rally points.

Most of this information can be found on the Internet. However, get plenty of updated waterproof maps to assist with navigation. Since most roadways are blocked with debris and obscured by flooding, it's important to find alternate routes to all destinations. These maps are available at truck stops on the way into the strike zone.

Be in place
To have immediate access to a hurricane zone, PJs must be SAFELY in the path. This doesn't mean standing on the beach waiting on a 50-foot wave or 130 MPH flying truck or shrimp boat. Instead, PJs should be located within the strike zone - preferably on the "good side" (west) - before it hits.

Furthermore, be in place with ample supplies (see the list) and a shooting plan (to come) days before the hurricane hits. The story begins at least a week before a hurricane and everything becomes more difficult by the minute.

The days before a hurricane are typically sunny, dry, hot and calm because all moisture is sucked into the low-pressure zone. These nights can be spent at a local hotel or camping out (car or tent). Use this time to locate and confirm access to real shelter when the clouds appear.

Shelter takes on a new meaning during hurricanes. A tent won't do. A car won't do either. Shelter must meet the following criteria:
* Poured cement support around a steel structure.
* Windowless areas or hurricane-resistant windows (very expensive and rare).
* Sufficient elevation to avoid flooding problems caused by rain or storm surge.
* Upper level evacuation doors (flooding).
* Cross ventilation to handle rapid pressure changes.
* Broad enough base structure to tolerate winds without falling.
* Protection provided by similar large buildings without a possibility of domino effect.
* Adequately clear surroundings (no large trees, boats or other large flying debris).
* Similarly constructed and protected parking garage with upper floors.

It's best to find a hurricane-safe structure about 30 to 60 miles inland. It's common for large newspapers to meet hurricane-safe building standards. The building itself may need to be torn down afterward, but everyone should survive the actual hurricane.

It's also common for working pro PJs to request a section of floor at large newspapers during a hurricane. This professional courtesy is eventually returned. Similarly, the host newspaper is likely to maintain high-speed internet connections for image transmission after the hurricane. As other alternative means of transmission fail, it's an additional back-up plan.

Since hurricanes are unpredictable, they can land anywhere along a thousand miles of shoreline. Front line, national PJs need to have a list of newspapers, addresses, contact names and numbers for the entire potential strike zone. It's best to make arrangements for the most likely location, but adapt to the situation and make contingency plans for other locations (a call to the photo department normally works).

The Baton Rouge Advocate allowed us and other national media to transmit from their office after Katrina. Our paper hosted at least eight other brand-name PJs as well as various reporters during Rita and into its aftermath. Unfortunately, our newsroom was badly damaged, so we lost our ability to help folks transmit during the first few days.

Clear access issues
After really major catastrophes, the common reaction by authorities is to clamp down a city and keep order. This is fine. However, media aren't looters. We're doing a legitimate, Constitutionally-guaranteed service. We must be free to do our jobs without prior restraint. We take responsibility for our own safety.

If time allows, have higher authorities in the media organization talk to state and local leaders before everything goes crazy. Get assurances that legitimate, credentialed media representatives will continue to have freedom to do our job without interference. Demand nothing more and nothing less.

Because we may be covering news outside a major urban area, we'll also need authorization to travel past curfew. If it requires a paper from the state police or whatever, secure it to keep freedom of movement after dark. It's far easier to secure the paperwork before the crisis than after.

Initially, we need to show citizens' properties are secure and police are still doing their job. This allows evacuees to stay out of the way until it's safe to return. Otherwise, evacuees may return with a truckload of guns to protect their property. This isn't what the police or emergency workers need. Consequently, it benefits law enforcement officials to allow us to do our job.

Get a buddy
PJs are completely alone on the streets after the hurricane. Unless they have satellite communications, they're often without communication as well. It's important to find a buddy before the storm and keep each other updated on daily plans.

Shooting buddies make sure everyone gets to go home alive when the crisis ends.

Each morning, the buddies should check with each other and exchange plans. Part of this is to avoid duplicity of coverage. Most importantly, it's to ensure survival of both shooters. If one isn't around for the morning meeting, the other should try to contact or locate the missing shooter.

Flat tires and low gas are common in hurricane zones. So are alligators, snakes, armed looters and all kinds of other nastiness. Either way, there isn't an infrastructure to provide help when immediately needed. Consequently, it's good for everyone to have someone watching their back and coming to the rescue if needed.

During the storm
Don't be stupid. Smart people aren't on the street - they wait until the winds die down. Furthermore, blowing rain and water on filters makes everything appear out of focus. Lastly, if the hurricane comes ashore at night and the power is off, what is there to shoot? There are only Weather Channel people showing how windy it is. If they die, everyone will see it live. Take advantage of the time to prepare and rest.

Protect self and equipment
Again, a dead PJ is useless. Similarly, damaged cameras, trucks and kayaks are equally useless. Protect yourself and equipment during the storm. There's ample opportunity to destroy any of the above within the next few days. At least get an image or two onto the wire before it happens.

Electric-powered devices
Electricity fails during a storm. This is preferred for our safety later. However, it causes huge problems the second it happens and the second it returns. Anticipate these problems and avoid them.

Do NOT use elevators once the storm starts. A PJ trapped on an elevator isn't going to do much during the first few days and creates extra work for others.

Make sure all electrically-powered exit gates are chained open. A blocked exit is unacceptable and possibly deadly.

Unplug everything, turn lights off and cover equipment with plastic sheeting.

Everything should be charged long before the peak of the storm. When the power does come back, electrical surges are highly probable. Yes, surge protectors help, but the surge could be too much and destroy the equipment or cause a fire (or charge the water standing in a room full of people).

Prepare equipment
Use the time during the storm to prepare equipment for the upcoming shoot.

Securely chain or tie kayaks and/or canoes to support posts inside the parking garage. Get the truck interior ready for immediate needs (first aid, rescue equipment, etc...).

Weatherproof cameras with sheet plastic and gaffer's tape. Since it would be crazy to try to change lenses in the storm, put a wide-angle zoom on one camera and seal it and a telephoto zoom on the other camera and seal it.

Check all camera straps and other fasteners. Tape everything into place. Make sure waders are ready and have no holes.

Mark vehicles
Clearly mark the vehicle with "NEWS MEDIA" signs. Often video folks duct tape "TV" on unmarked trucks. On normal days, these same signs are an invitation for broken windows and missing equipment, but nothing is normal after a hurricane.

Police and military folks still want to see credentials at each roadblock, but it speeds things along occasionally as they begin to recognize the same vehicles and drivers. The markings also help slightly after curfew.

Be ready to move
Hurricanes love to point out flaws to architects. A roof can vaporize in a second. Windows can break. A wall of water can easily destroy a heavy support wall. A swarm of tornados can take turns smashing into a building. Nothing is certain during a hurricane.

Consequently, if there's a structural flaw, it'll be immediately evident. Only keep essential items in the building and have everything ready to move without notice on one trip.

Know where to go next. Know how to get there without lights (headlamps are invaluable after power is cut). Know where the most dangerous areas are before windows break. Know the location of every protected exit.

Use the same planning techniques as in a combat zone. Instead of taking cannon rounds, a building might take Volkswagons. Cover is cover. Understand the best movement routes before required. Know if hallways are brick or dry wall.

Stay calm and focused through each move. Although seasoned PJs understand moves are often precautionary, neophyte hurricane PJs and reporters might overreact if they see one of the veterans moving too quickly.

Try not to shout unless danger is high. People at the edge of the shouting distance don't know what is said, they only hear shouting through the staircase and freak out.

Everyone looks to the veterans for appropriate stress levels. Stay calm and keep everyone moving smoothly to the next evacuation location.

Test communications
If possible, test communications a few times throughout the night. Have as many back-up systems as possible. As different systems go down, test back-ups systems to make sure there's some way to get images out.

If all communications fail, plan enough time to pull back far enough to find a way to transmit before deadline.

Obviously, the ideal communication method is satellite. It works regardless of ground damage. Next would be broadband cellular cards. These are followed by WiFi, high-speed Internet, cellular modem and finally standard telephone modem. Configure computer software and be prepared to use all these methods as situations dictate. Each city inside an affected zone may require a different means of transmission.

Although some folks get nervous and won't be able to sleep, sleep is the best way to wait out a storm. Once the storm passes, it's unlikely PJs will get much sleep for the next few days. Rest now for what's about to come. If the ceiling caves in, someone is awake and tells everyone else to move.

After the storm - in position
Once the eye passes, every minute gets a little better. As soon as it's relatively safe, PJs can tentatively venture into the chaos and try to make images.

If PJs were on the "bad side" expect to launch a canoe or kayak. If PJs were on the "good side" and have a high enough truck, they might make better progress.

Either way, it's still very dangerous. Furthermore, it'll be hours if not days before someone can come to the rescue if something goes wrong. Lastly, don't count on the cell phone working to call for help if the poop hits the propeller.

Ensure the power is off
Electrical lines and water are everywhere after a hurricane. Make sure the power is off, or it's a quick end to any PJ's day. Although some folks insist cars are grounded, don't count on it.

Personally, I don't want to see any working lights near a fallen power line. If there's light, there's power and possible death. Better safe than sorry on this issue. I can find a different street.

Canoes and kayaks aren't grounded.

Power lines on the ground aren't the big danger. The dangerous lines are neck-high or barely under the water level. They're the hardest to spot (particularly at night and during the storm) and cause the most damage. If the wire is live, it can be deadly.

Look for warnings
Immediately after a hurricane, nothing looks right. Most landmarks are gone and other landmarks are gnarled and plopped in the middle of the road about five miles away from where they belong.

Even on the "good side" of the hurricane, the streets are flooded because the city pumps were probably shut down. Consequently there's no certainty about the road depth, direction or dangers.

Drive slowly and cautiously down known streets toward a specific destination. The first outing after a hurricane should be toward a predetermined location. There's probably no traffic or people around, so take time to arrive alive.

Pay particular attention to signs and building heights. If the signs or buildings look too small, they are probably in low spots and could indicate a flooded area. Make a U-turn or back up to safety.

Follow other vehicles
If PJs are lucky, they find an emergency vehicle to follow. Don't ride their butt, but watch carefully how much water they're traveling through and compare it to the PJ's vehicle. If the vehicles have about the same clearance, it's probably OK to continue. If there's a foot difference, be extra careful.

If water is flowing rapidly across the road, consider finding a new route - particularly if the PJ's vehicle is lighter than the lead truck.

Breakin' the law
Immediately after a hurricane, most standard rules are placed on hold. PJs need to drive unlike they normally do. The police are doing the same (it's legal for them by the way), but they have bigger worries than which way a marked media vehicle is going down a freeway covered in power lines, trees and whatever else.

Since most fences have blown away and security is lax, it's possible to walk to places not normally accessible for PJs. Since everything is a news scene for the first day or two, go where the news leads the PJ. If someone has a problem, they'll let PJs know. Say, "Oops," and go somewhere else.

Typically, if security is posted at a commercial location with massive damage, show security the camera and an ID if necessary. They'll often let the PJ work without problems. However, don't touch anything. PJs are people of honor. We don't need someone messing up our reputation. Get the shots, go away and leave everything as it was found. This is how we work every day. When everyone is jumpy and looter crazy, it's not the time to do something strange.

Conserve fuel
When the rain stops, open the windows and turn off the air conditioner. Gas mileage is better, and PJs can travel farther each day. Fuel is a precious commodity and the gas cans strapped onto the roof get more attention than a steak dinner.

Expect flats
As mentioned, everything from roof tacks to shards of metal and glass litter the roadways. Consequently, everyone gets flat tires.

Make sure everything is ready to change a tire. It's best to carry more than one full-size spare tire, but at least carry a small direct current (DC) air compressor and a can of Fix-A-Flat in addition to the standard spare tire.

After the storm - moving in
Often newspapers can't afford a major news expedition. Consequently, PJs need to drive in after the hurricane, hook up with local story angles, catch some of the larger overall story and return to the daily grind at home. AP images round out the whole story.

It's not the best way to cover a major catastrophe, but it allows us to motivate our readers to help folks who need the help most.

This approach requires the same research and preparation as riding out the storm. However, gaining access may be more difficult. If an area is completely closed, the local connections (usually power or volunteer organizations) often provide access inside the affected area. Once in, access is relatively open again.

Bring supplies
Bring twice as many supplies as expected. Ask folks if they need food and water. If they need some, give them some. If they need medical attention, take them to the hospital (it might provide a way inside as well).

Be ready to rough it
Arriving late means those who rode out the storm are unlikely to make extra room for the stragglers. Near-death situations make folks bond and "outsiders" aren't immediately welcomed with open arms.

Ask around for a piece of floor and a bed might become available. In any case, bring a sleeping bag to provide ground cover (it'll be too hot for the bag, but a layer of padding on a tile floor is better than snuggling with a wet floormat.

Have contact info
When moving in after a hurricane, have contact names, numbers and locations before hitting the road. Don't waste any time on location. Make every second count.

If possible, avoid getting tied to a reporter. Their mission is the opposite of a PJ's. They need folks to stop working and talk to them. PJs need to shoot what's actually happening. A series of folks talking to a reporter doesn't tell the story. Get the action and collect cell numbers for the reporter.

Even better, while covering a crisis, PJs should be able to wear two hats and carry a cassette recorder in the camera bag. Ask pointed, intelligent questions to get a story and background information for a shoot. The resulting package is unified and coherent.

Keep focused
Readers need to know about the human condition of survivors and the valiant efforts of emergency workers. Hurricanes are like a Tour de France. It's a sprint during daylight hours and then transmission of images at dark. A quick nap and off again before sunrise - for at least two weeks.

There's no power, so there's no light at night. Believe me, the folks who are working, sweating and bleeding all day don't sit around a campfire and sing cowboy songs. They eat and crash because they'll be up before sunrise too.

Enough for now,


Marie said...

I first saw this post a day or two ago but had to save it till I could read and absorb it for later. The only thing that I may add to your list is to listen to a battery powered scanner constantly. Mainly because emergency personel constantly communicate to each other the conditions that they happened upon. By listening to the scanner a photog knows immediately where potential hotspots are and immediate dangers. I was spared tumbling into a mudslide last year because I heard about it on the scanner first.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks Marie. :-)

During the actual hurricane, scanner traffic was dead. I'm not sure if it was because the towers all went down or everyone was hunkered down in the same place (most likely). Either way, there was nothing happening after 10 p.m. and well into the next day.

The scanner is a great help after day two when communications come back up and additional resources come into the area.

CarmenSisson said...

I wish I'd read this earlier in the week. I just got through covering Gustav for TIME. Stupidly, I assumed Walmart would be open for supplies -- I hadn't gathered any. I didn't expect everything to close early and to end up with a pack of matches with no candles and a flashlight with no batteries. My coverage went ok, but my personal comfort and safety was jeopardized by my lack of planning. I'm making an emergency bugout bag right now as I had no warning -- TIME called and I was gone within an hour with little ore than my camera and laptop.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Congrats on the Time gig. I'm glad you survived. :-)

I hoped PJs would read this before they needed the information.

I keep a two-day scramble pack in the closet. It's easier to add items for longer trips (major hurricanes) than to start from scratch.

CarmenSisson said...

One advantage I had was I was there as a writer, so I wasn't expected to go out and shoot the flooding, etc. Writers truly do have the easier job.

However, I was asked to go to Houma at the height of the storm. Winds were at 70 mph in Gulfport, where I was. I had 3/4 a tank of gas, $1, and a Pontiac GrandAm not made to handle flooded streets. I had to say no.

I'm not sure how to handle the gas situation though. Carry extra in the trunk? Is that even safe?

As for your mini bugout bag, do you have a list of what's in it?

I've spent the day cleaning my trunk and gathering whatever supplies I have on hand. I didn't even bring my raincoat. I spent five days constantly wet and cold. This was a baptism of sorts, but I learned.

I expect I'll be called to cover Ike soon.

Mark M. Hancock said...

I wouldn't try it in a GrandAm either. :-)

I put a shower mat (with suction cups) on the roof of my Sportage and strap plastic portable gas containers together across the roof rack. I keep enough fuel to evacuate if everything fails.

Note: gas goes into the tank as used. I'd rather looters take empty containers while I have a full tank than lose everything and have an empty tank.

Since this hurricane season is crazy, I'll work on the list and post it later tonight.

nat bromhead photography said...

Great advice their Mark and thanks for the pointer !

With a large storm off our coast at present it is timely to read and absorb this invaluable info.

Fortunately I drive a diesel Landrover Discovery - loads of ground clearance( Ive lifted it a further 2 inches), lots of storage in the back, racks on the roof and 900km on a tank.
For me it's the perfect PJ vehicle.

Thanks again