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Covering Hurricane Ian: Correspondents Talk About Conveying The Personal Loss And Destruction Of The Storm — And What It Means For The Future

When President Joe Biden visits Florida on Wednesday, he will be seeing for himself the destructive impact of Hurricane Ian, which has claimed more than 100 lives, wiped out entire neighborhoods and left questions of the timing of evacuation orders. 

Before the storm made landfall, networks dispatched crews, and eventually their major anchors, but even as there was anticipation of a major disaster, correspondents on the ground reported with expressions of surprise at the ultimate scale, scope and intensity of the hurricane and its impact. 

ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee, CBS News lead national correspondent David Begnaud, CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir, Fox Weather/Fox News correspondent Robert Ray, NBC News correspondent Steve Patterson and The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams separately shared their experiences covering Ian and the aftermath.

Most of them have a long track record of covering the storms — and some see Ian as unusual in its intensification as it approached the southwestern Florida coast for a direct hit. 

A number of reports captured the many people who stayed and rode out the storm, some by choice and others because they had so few other options. Begnaud, a native of Louisiana, said, “Hurricane fatigue is like a relative I know all too well,” adding that, “rather than judging or trying to shame or think less of someone,” it is important to remember, “That is their story.”

One of the reports was Begnaud’s account of a couple with two young children who remained on Sanibel Island and rode out the storm, but ended up having to be rescued by the Coast Guard because the hurricane wiped out the main causeway. The family was interviewed for a news segment, and shared video of their experience, including harrowing images of the the rising storm surge. Begnaud said that they ended up offering the family one of the network’s booked hotel rooms. Later, when he and the father were getting something to eat at a food truck, Begnaud said he “had a moment where I just said, ‘Why in the hell did you stay?’” The father, he said, was “full of regret” for doing so. The reason they stayed: they had 90-pound tortoises as pets that could not be moved. Unfortunately, they did not survive the storm.

The impending storm

BILL WEIR: The new term of the day is “rapid intensification.” I went to bed on Tuesday night and I think it was just about a Category 2 [storm] at that point. … I got a phone call at 5 in the morning [on Wednesday] saying “It’s now a Category 4. This thing has caught everybody off guard. Get ready.” And we saw the same thing a week prior on the other side of the world, in the South China Sea, Typhoon Noru went from a Category 1 to a 5 in less than 12 hours. It blew the minds of everyone. Veteran meteorologists at CNN had never seen anything like that before. And again, when it comes to hurricanes, the more time you have to evacuate, more time you have to brace, the more lives will be saved.

ROBERT RAY: What we decided to do was to stay in a hotel that was closed; the manager allowed us to stay on Tuesday night, and we woke up and started doing our live shots at 5 a.m., while the outer bands [of the storm] were beginning to come in. And so we strategically put ourselves on Fort Myers Beach near the bridge that crosses over the inlet so that when the surge began to come in, we could make our exit safely and get out of harm’s way. 

STEPHANIE ABRAMS: [Abrams was in Englewood, FL and provided reports before, during and after Ian passed.] [During any major storm] we all find a safe room that if we have to go to, everyone knows there’s a plan in place. I like to put a garbage bag over my luggage. I pack everything up in case there’s some sort of leak in the house [they are renting] or boards get ripped off the window. We keep everything very organized in the house so it’s not chaos, and we make sure that we are close enough to our safe place so that if it is easy to go in and we all know what the plan is. We fill up a tub with water in case we lose water, which we did. Thankfully there wasn’t damage to the house. There was a little leak, but we managed to put a little bucket under it.

RAY: This hotel that had no guests and just the manager was there and an engineer and a couple of workers and [I was] speaking to them about what they were expecting the next day as the storm came in, if they were concerned and what they would do if the storm surge came in. Their answer and their faces had fear in them. I think that they anticipated that perhaps the island would be wiped away. That they had to hunker down and monitor this business. And they knew that they would lose their vehicles likely as well. And to see them say to me and my photographer, “We’re going to be as safe as we can, but we’re expecting the worst.” They got the worst, and I’m sure that they’re okay. But I know that their vehicles and their homes are not okay. And to see them know what was ahead and yet, forging forward. Their jobs, their roles, were inspiring. But yet [it] makes you think that maybe we need to start taking lives a little bit more seriously in these situations. There were dire projections. Businesses perhaps need to let their employees leave and not make them stay.

STEVE PATTERSON: As the storm makes landfall, I truly believe it’s part of our duty to show it. That’s what we do for every story. It’s a privilege, a service and the reason why we’re able to harness such a powerful medium. While it’s happening, it’s on us to accurately and clearly state what we’re experiencing while simultaneously bracing ourselves with proper posturing against a wall of wind and rain. 

ABRAMS: I think there is a big difference between us and the average person, because we’re all highly trained. We’re constantly tracking the storm. We have a whole team of meteorologists back at The Weather Channel. They have got my ear. They’re like, ‘Steph, you’ve got 10 more minutes until the eye wall’…We know all that is going to happen, and of course, we take extreme safety precautions…Once I see debris really flying, we will go inside. Just to take extra precaution I was wearing a baseball helmet.

GINGER ZEE: Unlike Hurricane Laura or Ida in the last few years where the forecast was within a few miles of the actual track for a week in advance [from the National Hurricane Center], Ian’s track varied greatly because both long-term computer models that we rely on were incredibly divergent. My producer and I as of the Saturday before felt confident in making a flight to Fort Myers, as the European model was stubborn, six days in advance, that a major hurricane would hit Fort Myers that Wednesday. As Monday, our travel day, approached, we saw the NHC being influenced by the American model which was much further north. We felt it prudent to start in Tampa and drive south if the track did what we thought… it did and thankfully our management is incredibly nimble and helped us execute this move, which proved to put us in exactly the right place ahead of the storm. We were in the eye wall of Ian for six hours.

WEIR: You just sort of, you brace and you wait, and then we’re at a certain point, we can no longer be outside. We are inside the hallway of this motel, the four of us trying to hold the door shut with power cables as ropes, and pipes as leverage to try to hold this thing. We’re looking out through there as the storm is pretty much emptying the swimming pool that’s right outside this glass door. Then the eye came and … in typical fashion in Florida, during the eye people go out and walk their dogs and have a cigarette and look at the birds and the parrots flying around and take shelter again to the back end of the storm. And that’s when you think, “OK, here’s when we need to get ready for the surge.” And [a predicted 17-foot surge] never came, thankfully. But what we didn’t know at that time is that it was coming ashore, not 17 feet, but six or seven or eight feet, which was enough to do the most apocalyptic damage I’ve seen covering storms in a long time along Fort Myers Beach, a stretch along that coast, when you saw the utter devastation the next day that so much of it was storm surge. The winds will rip the roof off your house. The storm surge will lift the entire thing up off the foundation and move it across the street into the mangroves.

Surveying the damage

DAVID BEGNAUD: We needed to get in the air just to survey the damage and report. [Begnaud and his producer eventually got a helicopter to fly from Tampa, the pilot said there was a temporary flight restriction over Sanibel Island, where there already were reports of major destruction. Begnaud said his heart sank. Then they learned that the restriction was over an even wider area.]

You have this moment where we are thinking like, “This is costly. We need to get back on the ground.” [Producers, he said, were texting him from New York as they needed a piece for CBS Evening News that evening.]

I told the pilot to just keep flying south [toward Fort Myers and Naples]. … We came over a ridge [and saw] Little Hickory Island. It was breathtaking in its storm surge damage. What surprised me was how widespread it was.

RAY: In the aftermath, the next day [we were] trying to get on the Fort Myers Beach — the 10-or-so-mile drive from downtown Fort Myers to the bridge that we exited. It was very, very difficult because of standing water and a convoy of vehicles. downed power lines, boats on sides of the road, trees down, and then when we got to the base of that bridge to get back over, officials, understandably, were not allowing anyone over including media because of the active search and rescue. 

WEIR: [Later in the week he traveled with the Cajun Navy, a volunteer recuse group, to search coastal islands]. What really struck me was the dichotomy of the severity, depending on ZIP code or the socio-economics of that particular neighborhood. Where we were on Sanibel Island, these are beautiful, million-dollar homes, most of them recently constructed in the last decade, up to the strictest codes. There were some that were really flattened and there was a lot of infrastructure that was jumbled. … But by and large it wasn’t like these neighborhoods were flattened the way we saw on St. James City, Pine Island, for example, which is middle class, retirees, mobile homes, prefab construction, which just cannot stand up to these storms. And so the folks on Sanibel, absolutely I feel for them. I didn’t get the full tour of the place. But the impression I took away from it was: these folks have had an inconvenience in their lives. They can probably afford that, whereas these folks over here [at St. James City] have nothing. They’ve lost everything, and they didn’t start with much. And so what happens to these folks?

RAY: I would say next to coverage of Hurricane Katrina, this is probably the second most difficult scenario that I’ve covered as far as aftermath. And the reason why, ultimately, is the dense population of southwest Florida. There is an elderly population in that part of Florida, people who have retired, moved there, not just in the U.S. but from all around the world. And there are many people at this point that are displaced from their homes, condominiums or even even senior-care facilities right now. And I think that as time goes on here in the days ahead, it is a very important subject to touch on, the fact that, are these folks getting the care they need? Prescriptions? If they have people to take care of them, like in some of the senior facilities, how are they doing at this point? My in-laws live in Naples in one of those high rises. The surge came in there went into the basement destroying every single vehicle including their two vehicles. On top of that, not only did they live there, but my mother-in-law’s mother was evacuated from a senior-care facility there and is now with them. They’re concerned about how they can take care of her at this point, how they can get the proper meds. … And I think we’re seeing that all around.

PATTERSON: When you have destruction on a scale like this, it’s nearly impossible to describe just how widespread the devastation is. Pictures help, but they don’t do it justice. Seeing it in person is so overwhelming that often when you try to describe it, what you say sometimes just comes out sounding like hyperbole. While reporting, I try to focus on the details. It’s much more personal and relatable. Those details, that people can see in their own homes or lives, help to share the sorrow of what’s happened.

ZEE: I repeated over and over through the week that a surge of eight-plus feet could destroy homes and move cars, 12-plus feet could move homes from their foundations. I’ve seen it before firsthand in Michael four years ago. I was in Mexico Beach watching homes float away, I’ve seen it in Sandy and when I covered Katrina. But I really don’t know if people understand how that works even after we show them the power of water [asphalt obliterated and foundations exploded] after Ian. I think many assume it’s the wind.

BEGNAUD: Hurricanes expose you to all types of folks. People who have no insurance, and people with amazing insurance coverage and who will be OK. Then there are those who are in shelters, and literally just don’t have the money to even pick up the pieces.

ZEE: Bruce Paulel [who she interviewed]… woke up early Wednesday. He knew he had to get out but thought he had a bit of time and hadn’t slept that well the night before. Told himself he would lay down for a nap. He woke up to his bed floating. He called 911 and they told him they couldn’t help in the middle of the storm and if it got that bad go to the roof. He did. He stayed on his roof for five hours in the whipping winds of a Category 4.

Reserving judgment

WEIR: Over the years I’ve learned that it’s easy to be judgmental. And for some people they deserve to be judged if they have the means and the information and they’re choosing not to go somewhere because of pride or a sense of invulnerability. That’s not great. You want to convince those folks not to do that. You realize though, for a lot of folks, they can’t afford to leave. They’re living check to check, or they don’t have a car or there’s no place for them to go, and so that they have no other choice. I met a lot of us folks, and your heart breaks for them. We rescued with the Cajun Navy this couple — older gentleman, he was an amputee, and his wife. They had been on the phone with their granddaughter, and then the phone went out in the middle of the storm and the kids were terrified for what was happening to grandma and grandpa. So they called the Cajun Navy, and we went and found them, and they were so happy and relieved to take that ride out. They said that they thought about leaving but really just didn’t even have the means to do that. Meanwhile, over on Sanibel, when we went to rescue some folks, we heard a cry from a window. “Yes, I’ll take some help,” and we pulled ashore and this gentleman, he was very eager to leave, but his wife, she wasn’t ready to go yet. And so you see people sort of cycling through the five stages of grief in that moment. … I went into a mobile home park with a woman who was looking at her place for the first time and as she walked around the corner and saw things. “Oh I can probably … doesn’t look too bad. This might be salvageable.” And then watching her come to grips that her place is gone and likely to be bulldozed. It’s so powerful. It’s so emotional. You’re just sick in your guts for these folks.

RAY: The tenacity of this storm, and the way it kept changing where its path was going to go, was so unpredictable, and it happened so quickly, that I think many people in southwest Florida were caught off guard. … So the amount, the amount of strategy and plans that people were trying to plan for it was so up in the air to changing so quickly that I think that’s why a lot of people said, “Okay, well, here we go. We’re just going to hunker down and we’re going to deal with this.”

PATTERSON: Tom Lothamer and his wife rode out the storm in the seventh story of a high rise overlooking our live shot location. I met him by chance on the side of the road; he was bringing back water bottles to the building. Tom, along with everyone in that building, had been living for days trapped with no running water, power or a good way to communicate to the outside world, and no way to get fuel. Plus, all their cars were wiped away and they were starting to run out of food. On top of that, many of the occupants were elderly. When we met, Tom shook my hand confidently with a smile. I’ll never forget his resilience. He had maybe walked up and down that pitch-black staircase a hundred times, bringing back whatever he could find for his family and people who needed help. He took me up there and pointed to times of the night when the storm made landfall: When the dock blew out, when the boats flew out of the harbor, when the trees gave way. The thumping in his chest when the doors shook. I brought him to our setup and made sure he took all the food and water he could carry back. While I interviewed him, I remember grinding my teeth to stop myself from welling up, not because what he was saying was sad, although it was, but because I was so enamored with his spirit. Here was a guy that just lived through hell, just to start living an even fresher one and he’s smiling, happy to be alive, happy his wife is alive and with that gift: helping everyone he sees.

ZEE: “I’m so stupid.” “I’m such a jerk.” “They told us to evacuate, and we didn’t.” Those were direct quotes from Halie B and Bruce, who I interviewed in Fort Myers on Thursday. Both barely survived when their small homes filled with water almost to the ceiling. Both were told to evacuate but didn’t. Both live almost three miles from open ocean. I hated hearing that. Making the decision 30 hours in advance when evacuations were hoisted in Lee County is not easy. Very few have the budget to up and leave. Shelters seem daunting. Some don’t speak English and don’t get the updates as quickly. Some have no family as an option to stay with. I’ve seen this more and more the last few storms, and it is so sad.

Climate change

WEIR: It’s not more hurricanes. It’s more powerful hurricanes. So instead of seeing a survivable Category 1, 2 or 3, we’re now seeing a lot more 3s and 4s. In fact, I think this is the 47th Category 4 or 5 of the last 20 years. We tend to try to short things in our minds and categorize them to create some order around this, but the difference between a Category 2 or 3 or 5 is the difference between dozens of lives lost, millions of dollars in property damage, countless days of lost work productivity. What’s sobering is this is the biggest storm in this part of Florida in known history. Unfortunately, this is now going to be the new normal, and this could be an average storm for the rest of our lives.

RAY: I’ll just say, there is no doubt that in the past year, from my experience, covering disasters and not just tropical systems but tornadoes, floods, fires, there is an uptick. That is undeniable. And I’ll leave the science to the scientists. But I’ve been on the ground, more disasters on a constant basis in the past few years than in my 20 years covering the news around the world.

ABRAMS: I think as you look over time and we see more and more of these, that seems to be where some of the trends are going towards. So I think it is fair to say that, if you just look back the last handful of years or so, we are just seeing more intense storms that you could make that connection.

WEIR: Punta Gorda is a great example. They got rocked by Hurricane Charley [in 2004] and it woke them up, and they lost half the buildings. The ones they did rebuild are much stronger. They got the roof ripped off the brand new emergency operations center, so they moved it to higher ground. They bought up low-lying flood-prone areas and turned them into parks. … Unfortunately, even the words “climate change” have been so politicized by special interests, and the politicians who love them, that in some places they can’t even get past that to think about mitigation adaptation for the future. We’ve seen research and studies where regardless of political party, people who have been through these incredible sort of events on natural disasters are much more likely to say, “Yes, climate change is here and it is happening.”

Preparing for the next

RAY: It’s gonna take a lot of very smart minds, not only from a logistical standpoint, I think from the military who knows how to mobilize, and re-mobilize, but also from the state and local governments and how you move people, how you get contraflow, how you reallocate resources and house people. How you make sure that people are safe, especially elderly, children, elderly with their medicines. I think that that is a very large discussion that probably should happen. And I don’t think it should happen in your typical federal government bureaucracy scenario that gets bogged down. It takes five years to plan. I think it needs to happen sooner than later. And clear minds need to be involved. 

WEIR: I think the biggest near-term effects will all be financial. Insurance markets in Florida are already teetering, and this may push those over the edge. … So we’re moving toward I think a world where Louisiana, the Gulf Coast, just financially, [the threat of storms] makes coastal living more tenuous. We may reach a place where if you want to live on the beach, you assume all that risk because no one will cover you.

ABRAMS: I had friend in Florida who said, ‘Do I need to worry about another one right now?’ Right now everyone can just concentrate on cleanup. At the moment, we don’t have to worry about anything coming to the United States, for now at least.

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