Hurricane Irma How the Guardian reported the chaos
David Taylor reports on how our journalists on three continents used pictures, words and video to capture the devastation of the storm
Sometimes major global events happen suddenly and without warning, testing the agility, authority and accuracy of a news operation. Other times, we can watch them building from a distance until they fill our entire field of vision, hoping that the plans we put in place actually come together in the moment.
Hurricane Irma, barrelling through the Caribbean at upwards of 185mph, arrived with plenty of warning, but still, no less unpredictability.
The Guardian’s US operation had just finished reporting on the flooding of Houston, the fourth-largest US city, during Hurricane Harvey, when it became clear another category-five hurricane was on the way.
Moving and equipping journalists on the ground is expensive and not done lightly, but after a number of days watching the skies, it became clear we should mobilise. As millions were travelling north as they fled Florida, our journalists headed the other way.
Richard Luscombe, a Miami-based reporter who contributes regularly to the Guardian, had been filing for days on the preparations, the dire forecasts and the calls from officials to get out of harm’s way. Breaking from reporting, he boarded up his home, and made plans for his family to shelter safely.
On Saturday, he wrote: “It’s a scary time. Shelter for us consists of four of us, including my two sons aged 10 and eight, squeezing into a 5ft x 5ft interior closet with no windows, away from exterior walls and doors. My youngest has his teddy bear and some chicken nuggets for comfort. The fact a tornado has actually struck nearby, instead of there just being the possibility of one, is sobering. It’s likely to be a long night in the closet with the kids.”
The family survived a sleepless night and as Miami dodged the eye of the storm, Richard carried on reporting through the week.
Our US chief reporter, Ed Pilkington, has covered most things the world can throw at a journalist but had not experienced a hurricane first-hand. Stocking up on airport sandwiches, he got ready for the deluge on Friday in his hotel near Miami airport. By the afternoon, fuel for the car was his worry as he reported on the tale of two Irmas, in which poor residents stayed behind while the wealthy left Miami.
By Saturday, forecasters suggested the storm was moving west and Ed made the call to drive 100 miles across the state to Naples on the Gulf coast of Florida. A hair-raising drive followed as rains blew sideways and trees littered the deserted highway. When the hurricane reached Florida a day later, Ed was providing words, pictures and video for our live blog and via Twitter.
Jessica Glenza, a health reporter who is based in New York, returned to her hometown of St Petersburg, Florida, and wrote movingly about sheltering with her family, bolting boards to her mother’s conservatory, her father’s account of a near-death experience in a previous storm, and going through a wild night with trees falling outside.
In New York, Martin Pengelly, the weekend editor of Guardian US, had a lot of plates spinning, running the Guardian’s online coverage and keeping the newspapers supplied with coverage of Hurricane Irma’s US landfall. “A team of three reporters spread out. When the storm threatened, they hunkered down. In New York, with a small team of sub-editors and a constant stream of emails, messages and phone calls to and from the foreign desk in London, I worked out what they could write, when to have them deliver it – and how to keep them safe.
“In the newsroom an experienced live-blogger, Alan Yuhas, kept a 10-hour vigil on the wires, cable television, government briefings and short dispatches sent from the writers in the field, producing a rolling report.”
As Alan flagged, our colleagues in Australia took over, led by Claire Phipps, the Guardian’s senior live blogger, who updated around the clock. “The key thing for us when covering Irma live was to convey its full destructive effects,” she said. “And that meant from the moment it struck Barbuda and made its way across the Caribbean, not just as it approached Florida. We started our live coverage on 5 September [US time] and through the week of live blogging that followed we strove to tell the story of as many of the people and places in its path as possible: before Irma hit, as it swept through, and during the immediate recovery efforts.
“A crucial part of any live coverage is sourcing quick and reliable information. Twitter, for all its faults and irritations, can be an excellent source, whether it’s finding people on the ground in every location raked by Irma or bringing together meteorologists and other experts who know a lot about hurricanes. Verification is always key: who are they, where are they, can we speak to them?
“But the overriding push behind any live blog is to tell the story, to be fast but accurate, and to be honest about what is known and what isn’t – especially important when, as with Irma, there might be readers who are looking for information to protect their lives.”
Words and pictures are not the only ways to tell stories today. Josh Holder, a developer who makes interactive online stories as part of the Guardian visuals team in London, worked with three other colleagues harnessing technology to show the storm in real time. He explained: “Just before Hurricane Irma hit the first islands in the Caribbean – and as the world started to grasp its full extent – we set up a small project team to track the storm over the coming days.
“The team set out to answer some of the key questions our readers were asking, such as: ‘Where is Hurricane Irma going?’ and ‘When will Irma hit Florida?’ We decided to add context around the severity of the storm, how well equipped countries were to cope and how it compared to recent storms in the area.”
The visuals team creates the Guardian’s maps and charts as well as interactive content. “In the case of Irma,” Josh said, “we knew we could best explain the hurricane’s path with a map that allowed readers to see the areas likely to be hit by its winds.
“We sourced data from the National Hurricane Center and built an interactive map on top of Google’s mapping platform in a few hours. With the projections for Irma’s path updating every few hours, it was essential to come up with a workflow that allowed us to easily keep our map up to date. As a result, we were one of the most up-todate news websites for tracking Irma’s path,” Josh said.
By Tuesday, Ed Pilkington was one of the first to make it to the Florida Keys, where he found shellshocked residents who had remained behind – too poor, or bloody-minded, to leave. Roofs had been torn off, seawater had invaded homes and there was no food or water reaching the chain of islands linked to the US mainland by the improbable bridges of “US 1”, the highway that runs down the length of the US east coast.
The Guardian had a video team in Florida too – their first film from Bonita Springs on the Gulf coast captured the almost serene reaction of people turning to religion for strength as they contemplated the damage to homes awash with flood waters.
By midweek, with information still only coming in fits and starts from the Caribbean, Caroline Davies was on her way to the British Virgin Islands, at the heart of the controversy over the response and preparedness of the UK government. Even as the death toll rose to 12 in Florida, bringing the total from Irma to 55, the full devastation in the islands was still to become clear.
As for the apparent increase in the severity of extreme weather events, one key aspect of the way we told the story of hurricanes Irma and Harvey was our decision to grapple with the causes, while others were reluctant to talk about climate change. (The US environmental secretary, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier, insisted it was “very insensitive” to the people of Florida to talk about the cause and effect of the storm.)
Oliver Milman, our New York-based environment correspondent, has examined not only how scientists have warned that higher temperatures have contributed to the severity of tropical storms, but has also highlighted the consequences of planning failures that have left cities vulnerable to inundation.
So Guardian journalists on three continents, using words, pictures and video, processing official and unofficial accounts, brought the deadly power of the hurricane to millions of readers around the world.
Did we get everything right? Hardly. You can never have too many people on the ground witnessing events for themselves and it is, unfortunately, true that more focus goes on those places that are more developed, and easiest to reach and communicate with.
Then the lessons to be drawn and vigilance required for reporting on the aftermath are tested, as attention wanders for audience and newsroom. Even in a dysfunctional seat of government such as Washington DC, aid worth billions is unlocked rapidly for national disasters. The restoration of Florida will surely be taken up with greater urgency than repairing the devastation in the Caribbean.
We were one of the most up-to-date news websites for tracking Irma’s path
Alice Barber walks through her damaged home after the hurricane in Immokalee, Florida Photograph: Marcus Yam/ Polaris