As crisis unfolds in Puerto Rico, journalists help connect families

Courtesy of Univision.

On Saturday, Ferdinand Avila-Medina found a video on Twitter he had been waiting for days to see. In the video, a woman wearing a grey V-neck T-shirt and sunglasses tells her relatives she is doing well and hopes to see them soon.

The woman is Ruth Feliciano, Avila-Medina’s aunt. Avila-Medina, who lives in Zanesville, Ohio, says that when he first saw Feliciano’s face, he laughed with joy. Ever since Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico last Wednesday, he and thousands of other Puerto Ricans on the mainland have frantically turned to journalists and news organizations on social media for updates on loved ones.

Avila-Medina was one of the lucky ones. News updates have been scarce since the storm knocked out power for most residents of Puerto Rico, a US territory that has struggled to get attention from the US government and from mainland journalists. The relative lack of news coming out of the crisis has prompted some sharp media critiques from local residents and elected officials, who say the island’s plight has until very recently been ignored, particularly compared with the copious coverage of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in South Florida.

RELATED: Univision goes on lockdown ahead of Hurricane Irma

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News organizations on the ground are stepping in, using social media and satellite phones to connect residents with their loved ones. CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud made the connection for Avila-Medina. An anchor for NBC 6 in South Florida, Sheli Muñiz, used Instagram to get a message from Peter Sanchez to his daughter, Patricia Sanchez Vazquez, in Wisconsin, while reporting for Telemundo’s local station on the island. A chance encounter between NBC News reporter Gabe Gutierrez and resident Robert Martinez allowed Martinez to connect with his three daughters in Pennsylvania for the first time since the hurricane made landfall on September 20. Gutierrez featured the couple in a news report and let the family members talk for a few minutes via his satellite phone. Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske was reporting on a road outside of San Juan when she offered up her cell phone to 78-year-old Elba Laboi to call her daughter in Cleveland.

Univision has gone even further, leaning on its team of 25 journalists covering the tragedy to feed updates into an interactive map that provides updates on damage. The network is also proactively connecting family members with loved ones via a database that compiles information on members of the Puerto Rican diaspora trying to connect with family and friends on the island (there are 8,000 entries so far). Using that information, the Miami-based news network is dispatching television, radio, and digital reporters working on the ground to set up phone calls or record video messages.

“These are US citizens,” says María Martínez-Guzmán, Univision’s vice president and director of news. “It’s 3.5 million people.”

On Tuesday, Telemundo host Vanessa Hauc lent her satellite phone so a survivor could inform a relative that someone had passed away. Both Telemundo and Univision held separate telethons last weekend to raise funds for victims in Puerto Rico, as well as the Caribbean, the United States, and Mexico.

One of the Univision News crews in Puerto Rico reports on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria from the different regions of the island. Courtesy photo.

Univision’s Puerto Rico Facebook page has added more than 27,000 new followers in the past seven days for its news and video updates about aid efforts and survivors. The Spanish-language news channel sent three of its reporting teams, a total of nine people, to the island before Hurricane Maria hit, as its audience includes many of the five million Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States.

ICYMI: “I’ve never seen lying and obstruction like this.” 

For Univision journalists like managing editor and senior director of digital Selymar Colón, Maria was deeply personal. “What happened the day of the hurricane was the same situation for millions of people as well,” she tells CJR. “I had no news about my family.”

The morning after the hurricane hit, Colón and her digital team brainstormed how to overcome the collapse of the island’s communications towers to connect folks on the mainland with people on the island. “We knew we had to go on a different route and provide this to our audience,” she says.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Univision had 25 people on the ground in Puerto Rico, including engineers, producers, six reporters and two anchors. Four of the staff flew into the area from the United States, and 12 came from Univision’s Mexico team. A dearth of flights from commercial airlines meant Univision used three private jets to get their staff into the area, arriving via the Dominican Republic and Miami.

Meantime, Noticias Telemundo has sent three correspondents, a host, and a team of producers, cameramen, and fixers. Telemundo spokesman Camilo Pino estimates the company dispatched at least 10 people from the Spanish-language news channel’s headquarters in Miami. NBC News has utilized six correspondents in its coverage of Puerto Rico (three arrived before the hurricane hit) and Lester Holt anchored NBC Nightly News from San Juan on Monday.

Univision has directed its digital team on the ground to work on connecting residents with friends and family. “People need to know, they need to hear, ‘I’m okay’,” Colón says. “That’s all people wanted. Even myself, I just need someone, anybody, to tell me, [my family’s] okay. And I can continue, I can move forward.”

Univision News correspondent Galo Arellano reports from Puerto Rico. Courtesy photo.

Univision’s effort has led to 60 successful, often tearful, phone calls and connections between families all over the island; the network is also providing news updates through an interactive map of the island’s 78 towns and villages.

Colón, who estimates 15 to 20 members of her own family still live on the island, did not hear from her own brother until Friday, after he had driven to San Juan and called her. “You have one town out of 78 that has communication [abilities],” she says. “The important thing here was [figuring out] how to provide that service to the Puerto Ricans on the islands and to the families outside.”

After Hurricane Harvey, Irma, DACA and two earthquakes in Mexico, Martínez-Guzmán says the news cycle has been brutal. “Some of us still didn’t have electricity in our homes still while we were coming to work covering these problems,” she says.

ICYMI: The problem with local TV isn’t that the product is partisan or under-resourced or “fake.” The problem is that it’s lame.

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Karen K. Ho is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.