Sunday, September 14
Today I spent 80 percent of my day figuring out how to survive. But hopefully the way I spent the last 20 percent will help thousands of others survive similar circumstances.
Eric and I had an awful night's sleep last night. We parked the blazer in fire lane next to a downtown office building, near a light – and prayed the police wouldn't disturb the shut eye. We never got a hotel room, nor did we get a hot dinner. I don't think anyone in or near Houston had a warm meal. It was worse than a tent because 1) it rained very hard (the last bands of Ike) and 2) I couldn't lie completely prone in the passenger's seat.
After we did our two broadcasts Sunday morning, we hooked up with some ABC network people who felt sorry for us. They let us shower in their hotel bathrooms. Their hotel – connected to a mall – had power and a restaurant where we ate breakfast. We waited forever, but it was worth it! Not that the food was exceptional, but it was hot.
Our next issue: gas. Again the ABC Network people gave us 15 gallons.
For you to really appreciate this generosity, understand that not too many people around here can get gasoline at this point. We encountered a convenience store that had people waiting hours. The customers thought it could open at any second, so they could fill their tanks. It never did. Price gouging is prevalent.
When we cover these storms the company usually hires a mobile gas service. It's how we can drive all over the place and cover stories when supply doesn't quite seem to meet demand elsewhere. The ABC Network techs were very generous to give us most of their reserve.
We then had to worry about where to book hotel rooms to avoid sleeping in the blazer a second night. We hooked up with KTRK. KTRK is our sister station here in Houston. Since they have been covering this storm continuously for about six days straight, they booked rooms near their studios for staff. The hotel is currently without power, but they haven't yet booted anyone. They gave us two of their rooms. We've been complete vagabonds today – mooching off of everyone we possibly can to bring the news in Houston to our viewers in the Triangle.
At around three p.m. eastern, we recorded our first story. We noticed long lines outside of a Kroger. It's reminiscent of Hurricane Fran for us back in 1996, when long lines enveloped the exteriors of grocery stores. Here stores had been closed since Friday, and re-opened for the first time today. The chaos was somewhat controlled and people were cordial, but everyone wanted water and ice. Eventually the store ran out. It was neat to see how resilient people's positive attitudes seem to be. The power company believes it could be weeks before things are back to normal here.
The second story was from Galveston, Island. It's abysmal there – so much that the federal government won't let people who evacuated before the storm return. The National Guard was there to bus more than 2000 people, who stayed during the storm, to San Antonio for shelter indefinitely. I recall the National Weather Service urging people to leave because death was certain for those who stayed. It's sad because people there have died. Just today rescuers found three bodies – one in a car submerged in water, near the airport. It didn't have to happen. The other sad thing is that people who remain feel like the National Guard response is slow.
The last 25 percent of my day mattered most, because of these two stories. We covered them and will continue to cover more until it sinks in and people learn these value lessons.
First we were reminded of how crucial it is to get non perishable and survival kits together BEFORE the storm. We sound like a broke record reporting this leading up to every hurricane we cover. It wasn't absolutely compulsory for everyone to go to the grocery store today, but most absolutely felt compelled because they didn't stock up adequately Second, evacuate when advised. People in Galveston who died ignored the warnings.
Some people say it's dumb that we cover Hurricanes. (As I've mentioned in a previous blog, it's how we cover them sometimes that's questionable). I say, there won't be much to cover when people start listening.
Saturday, September 13
Food and Shelter; access to both are two things I've definitely taken for granted before.
Overnight photojournalist Eric Hunker and I hardly got any good sleep. After getting battered by wind and sideways rain during two late evening newscasts, the power outages started. Even the Hilton Hotel, where all of the broadcasters were staged, lost electricity at some point. The quandary: whether to stay there or go back to our reserved rooms in a hotel 20 miles inland. If we stay, we potentially get the most compelling video and interviews. To leave will most likely mean sleep and safer conditions. We opted for the latter.
There were sporadic outages on the way back. Working lights at our hotel were a welcomed sight when we pulled up. It was a long day! I could just taste the warm, microwaved hungry man soup (you know the kind that eats like a meal) and a nice air conditioned room. Our rooms, by the way, were brand new and outfitted with these nice 42 inch flat screens. I mean – we were overwhelmingly surprised by the quality; this by no means was roughing it. Or so I thought! Any way, as cruel fate would have it, the lights started flickering and went out right as we entered our rooms.
The night was awful. The howling sound of the wind (the window next to my bed sounded like it could go at any second), the humid temp in the room and pelting rain kept me tossing all night long. No electricity and no 42 inch flat screen. But I did enjoy lukewarm hungry man soup straight out of the can.
We awoke the next morning awestruck by the damage. Downed trees, severed power lines and flooded roads made the drive back to the Hilton nearly impossible. It's a good thing we had a Chevy Blazer.
Along the way I met a man who spends his time cleaning up after storms. His name is Gary Babb. In fact, Mr. Babb spent last week in New Orleans – following hurricane Gustav. No one pays this guy. He just does it out of the goodness of his heart. Isn't that remarkable? What a blessing.
I also met Toni Drummond. Mrs. Drummond decided to ride out Ike from home. Before each storm, she and her family make it a ritual to design boards over the windows with catchy phrases. For example, she had, "LILLY go away 03'," "I'd rather have a margaRITA 05'," and, "yIKEs 08." Despite having no power, a tree on top of her home and no relief in near sight, Drummond and her two sons were charming. She seemed to understand the importance of patience. We shared her and Mr. Babb's experiences with our viewers.
When we returned to the Hilton to air the stories, we discovered that the other journalists probably got less sleep than us. Ike destroyed their hotel's lobby. Pieces of ceiling tile were missing and chandeliers were dangling from an intrusive ocean breeze. I have to be honest, Mrs. Drummond's attitude convicts me to guilt at this point, because I don't feel much sympathy for the reporters who were staying in the Hilton. They have since found new rooms in downtown Houston. We, however, are sleeping in our car tonight. We returned to our hotel to find power outages forced the owners to shutdown (I'm mad I didn't get to see that 42 inch screen). As of this writing, there are no available rooms with-in 50 miles of Houston.
Cold soup again tonight – maybe with some crackers this time around. I shouldn't complain. At the end of the day, I know I'm paid to cover Ike – not live it. (Mr. Babb doesn't get paid to help others). I meet neat people, tell their stories and rest knowing that I have a home intact to eventually return to. Ike has left thousands here with no food or shelter for quite some time.
Friday, September 12
It's amazing how many people ignore the warnings to leave when huge hurricanes are expected to do significant damage.
I'm also amazed - every time - to see how many news crews show up to cover them. We encountered CNN, The Weather Channel, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel. I even saw a French speaking outlet.
Our actions as TV reporters often speak louder than our words. No doubt, the signals are sometimes mixed.
There were 15 people on my flight into Houston Friday morning. It was a ghost town when we arrived. Matter-of-fact, an eerie quiet hung over the entire city. Driving southwest of city limits, we saw boarded up Wal-Marts, out-of-order gas pumps covered with plastic bags and shut down restaurants along coastal communities. The National Weather Service said that failing to evacuate some of those areas could result in certain death. Photojournalist Eric Hunker and I knew that if the storm were really going to be that severe - we'd need some none perishable vittles. First stop was one of the only grocery stores open. It took us an hour to get three minutes worth of shopping done. Eggs, milk and all of the other stuff that spoils when the power goes was depleted from shelves.
The irony in all of this continued as we started to talk to evacuees. We talked with one family who'd weathered Hurricane Alicia in 1983 (she killed 21) and Rita in 2005, but felt compelled to leave for Ike. We also talked to a boater earlier in the day, already depressed over his eminent losses aboard a houseboat docked in Galveston Bay. That boater asked me where I'd be staying overnight, and if I had some swim trunks - seriously.
The irony is that sometimes journalists (specifically TV folks) get so caught up in the theatrics of the storm that we ignore common sense. Stand-ups are a daily routine, but not in danger zones. Is it really necessary to do one under a dangling rooftop. Seldom do you see the people who choose to ride out the storm standing in an exposed prairie getting battered by the wind and flying debris. I stopped counting the number of reporters we saw broadcasting under a falling facade in hotel breezeway we used as a staging area. The whole set up was misleading. Not only was it a wind tunnel that exaggerated the wind effect, but it was extremely dangerous. I saw another reporter in a soup of cloudy water immediately following power outages. Who knows what was in that water. We get training at ABC about these specific scenarios. These are just a couple examples - there are many more.
The bottom line: after day one of Hurricane Ike. I'm reminded of the responsibility we have to not only get it right. But do it right. When we're warning people about safety, we should heed our own words. Our credibility is at stake. And just think, this is only the beginning. There are countless stories that will result from this natural phenomenon we call Ike. Happy anecdotes, sobering tales, critical revelations that could make the next go around better for people who live here and those who serve them. There should be no irony there.