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First Person

Storm chaser

In a weather disaster, the worst day of someone's life can be a reporter's big break

By Jessica Palombo Gustafson

“Bring rain boots today. You’re going to get wet.”

That’s the email I just got from my new boss. It’s June 26, 2012, my third week of my first real job as a public radio reporter for WFSU, the NPR affiliate for Tallahassee and much of the Florida Panhandle. Tropical Storm Debby is on track to arrive after spawning deadly tornadoes to our south, and a relentless rain has already been inundating the roads and seeping inside homes in our lowest-lying areas.

In the sleepier parts of Florida, catastrophic weather is one of the surest bets for a local public radio reporter to get national pickup. The worst day of someone’s life can also mean a reporter’s big break. And so — despite the fact that it’s my birthday and I have plans — I look out at our sodden parking lot teeming with frogs and brownish-pink worms and agree to do the story. I try to avoid squishing any wriggling fauna with my polka-dotted rain boots as I trudge toward my little red Toyota Yaris.

Storm reporting is basically a rite of passage for journalists in the South. It involves driving into the bad weather, rather than away from it like most sane evacuees. It requires scoping out shelters to interview those evacuees, though it doesn’t hurt to know where they are in case things get hairy. And it requires a bit of editorial gymnastics. Editors, especially on a national level, want a hurricane story to be as harrowing as possible — not to mention infused with authentic “local color” — despite the fact that reporting, even in a catastrophe, can sometimes be ridiculously mundane. It’s a lot of driving, a lot of waiting, and a lot of hours in less-than-exciting locales.

As children scream in the background, the call ends with his parting command: “I need to hear a thick Southern accent in this story.”

Take the place I find myself mid-morning: a squat, cinder block emergency operations center of a neighboring rural county. Florida Governor Rick Scott has stopped in to talk to local emergency managers about preparedness, and to make sure the news cameras get clear shots of him looking prepared. As I walk out of the building, I end up face to face with the governor for the first time ever. I shake his hand, wondering if I register as a reporter in his eyes.

He’s on his way to the Sopchoppy River in coastal Wakulla County. This part of the Panhandle is getting the brunt of Debby’s rain, and might be my opportunity: a governor’s surveying the scary rising water is exactly the kind of “scene” NPR will want to bring this story to life.

But following a governor in a tropical storm isn’t so easy. Windshield wipers on full blast, I squint through the gray sheet of rain as I begin following Scott’s caravan of black SUVs down a two-lane back road. Judging by his speed, the governor’s chauffeur hasn’t noticed the copious standing water that covers the roadway. I’m struggling to keep up as we zoom mile after waterlogged mile toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Eventually, I realize that if I go any farther, there’s no way I will be able to get back and put a short local version of the story together before the afternoon show starts airing at 4 p.m. But that means I won’t be getting that “rushing river” sound that I know the editors are looking for. I watch the governor disappear around a curve, and dread starts rising from my stomach as I pull into a Family Dollar parking lot. I’m still in the probationary period of my hiring and it feels like I’m failing my first big test.

I dial my national editor in Washington, D.C. “He’s the fastest governor alive. It’s still raining. I have nothing,” I say. The editor is taking his kids to a swim lesson and doesn’t mind letting me know he’s in a hurry to get off the phone.

As children scream in the background, the call ends with his parting command: “I need to hear a thick Southern accent in this story.” 

Now, I’m legitimately worried. This region is sprawling and rural; I can’t just go into a dense downtown area bustling with dozens of potential interview subjects. And we’re in the middle of a storm. Driving in any direction and finding anyone, let alone someone who can tell a harrowing, radio-ready tale and sound like Blanche Devereaux while doing it, is a crapshoot, and I’m running out of time. Still squinting through the rain, I pass through a tiny town called Panacea on my way back to the station. I stop at a roadside diner called Coastal Restaurant. It’s the first place I’ve seen in several miles that isn’t a house.

Inside, the waitress tells me that the night before, when she tried to drive home after her shift, a fast-moving current of water had suddenly swirled over the street in front of her, basically turning it into a river, but she kept going thanks to her heavy-duty ride.

“I drive a Ford F-150 pickup truck, thank goodness!” she drawls into my microphone. Got my soundbite. I glance down and mentally note the time code on my digital recorder.

Panacea indeed.

Back at the radio station, the evening wears on, and I play phone tag with the editor, shaping the story as he feeds his kids dinner. As he times me, I read him my script and play the day’s “tape,” including a clip from a state meteorologist warning people not to drive through flooded streets.

“Turn around, don’t drown,” she says.

“Oh, that’s so weird and morbid,” he says without a laugh. “Keep it in.”

Despite the governor’s driver’s best efforts, I hadn’t come close to drowning that day. I traded a mostly tedious, occasionally frustrating 12-hour workday for the crowning achievement of my short career: hearing my voice on the national airwaves.

The next morning, I awake before 7 to catch the story live along with millions of strangers. Still in bed, I grin as I hear “For NPR News, I’m Jessica Palombo in Tallahassee.”

It’s one of the best days of my life. But the conundrum of disaster reporting is that for many others, the storm has been devastating. Miles down the road, some of my neighbors are returning home to find water covering their floors. They won’t ever be able to move back in because of the mold that will fester in their walls and carpet. Tropical Storm Debby will be blamed for at least seven deaths by the time it moves across Florida and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, my phone lights up as friends and family text to congratulate me.

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Jessica Palombo Gustafson is news director for WJCT, the NPR station in Jacksonville, Florida.

 

Photo of an anchor reporting from Cedar Key, Fla., during Hurricane Hermine in 2016 by the Associated Press.

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