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

The Guardian - - MEMBERSHIP - David Tay­lor is deputy ed­i­tor, news, of Guardian US

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

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