When I worked for the Daily News in Jacksonville, covering disasters was part of the job description. There was a regular run of not only hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and humongous forest fires but major military-related calamities in which several people would be killed and dozens injured. The worst by far on civilian soil came when two military helicopters collided in mid-air during a training exercise at Onslow Beach, killing 14 Marines. Military air crashes were the things we feared and dreaded the most.
So we knew how to handle major events as they unfolded. For hurricanes, the plans were more stable. After all, you can see the storms coming. But no plan can adequately prepare a news staff for what might happen during a major storm with sustained winds of 100 mph. Could be almost anything. During Hurricane Fran in 1996, some Marines got caught at North Topsail Beach when waves washed over the road. At least one was killed. One was found in a tree. At North Topsail, it wasn’t unusual for new inlets to be created where roads once held purchase.
Military tragedies were more problematic. Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station officials are always quick to secure the scenes. Information can be hard to come by quickly. The stories are sensitive because of the impact on families.
We covered all disasters — natural or otherwise — with as much information as possible and by putting reporters in as many sites as we could. In a lot of cases we put photographers in airplanes to get aerial photographs of impacted areas that couldn’t be reached by more conventional means. Once, I had a reporter at a hurricane shelter near Topsail Island during a storm. The roof blew off at the shelter. I was worried sick about the reporter until she got back to the office.
It was all very structured, sometimes scary, often sad, usually adrenaline-producing and always exhausting. Years of experience led newspapers to that point.
What I learned via an interesting post on Poynter’s website is the modern-day disaster coverage was created in 1912 by the New York Times and one of its editors simply known as “Boss.” The sinking of the unsinkable Titanic kicked the Times editor and his staff into the swiftest action possible. The full-bore coverage — sending reporters out on ships or by any means possible — set the tone of disaster coverage for decades — including today.
The learning curve when things are covered on the fly is always steep. And while there is no blueprint for how reporting a disaster is accomplished, the understanding that extreme times call for exceptional measures by newspapers and other media wasn’t lost on the Times in 1912 or for metro and local papers today.