United States Project

How major storms alter the local news landscape

May 2, 2019
A photo of Veterans Park in Callaway, Florida, after Hurricane Michael. The storm toppled an F-15 displayed at the park. Photo via Justin Kiefer.

Two days before Hurricane Michael hit Panama City, Florida, Justin Kiefer’s wife and their two sons headed for Nashville, Tennessee. Kiefer, who was chief meteorologist for Panama City station WMBB-TV, stayed to cover the storm. He and his family had weathered minor hurricanes and tropical storms during his career, but Hurricane Michael was different. The hurricane, which headed directly for Panama City in October 2018, became one of the strongest storms to hit the continental US.

“The level of intensity between a Category One and a Category Four, eventually a [Category] Five hurricane, is astronomical,” Kiefer says. “All the storms that I had to work with over the years never came into our television market like Michael did.”

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After the storm ended, Kiefer’s family could not resume life as usual in a devastated Panama City. Area schools, including the high school where his youngest son was completing his junior year,  suffered damage. His oldest son’s junior college was also temporarily closed because of hurricane damage.

“That kind of tipped the domino,” Kiefer says. In the weeks following the storm, his youngest son enrolled in a Tennessee high school. His wife took a teaching job in the same district. His oldest son got a job in Nashville. “All of the sudden, they’re relocated instead of evacuated,” he says. “And I’m still in Florida.”

Kiefer, who now works as a meteorologist at WATE-TV (Knoxville, Tennessee), was not the first employee to leave WMBB after Hurricane Michael, and he certainly wasn’t the last. After the hurricane landed, the station lost five reporters, a producer, a part time photographer, and Kiefer—eight employees overall. Filling those open positions has become an added burden for WMBB’s staff, which already has to navigate the challenges that come with living and working in a community after a major natural disaster.

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“All the hires have been very difficult,” WMBB news director Tom Lewis says. “There’s no place for people to live here.”

A photo from the roof of former WMBB meteorologist Justin Kiefer’s home in Panama City, Florida. Photo via Justin Kiefer.

The situation is not unique. Freeman Rogers, editor at The BVI Beacon, says he was left with only one reporter when Hurricane Irma arrived in the British Virgin Islands in 2017. His other three staff members used relief flights to leave.

Lewis’ and Rogers’ experiences show that an outlet’s ability to cover disasters can be hampered by more than infrastructure damage. Storm-related trauma, among other factors, can drive journalists to seek new coverage areas, or even new professions altogether. In some cases, an outlet may even have to cut jobs to cover the costs caused by damages.

“Our paper kind of downsized after the storm in a big way,” Rogers says. “If people hadn’t left, I’m not sure what would have happened.”

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One of Rogers’ original team members returned to work two weeks after Hurricane Irma. The paper also hired a third reporter. But Rogers says he had to turn down a former employee when that reporter wanted to come back; another former staffer, who now lives in the United Kingdom, is only open to remote work.

“She wasn’t willing to chance another hurricane, which was certainly fair enough,” Rogers says. “I can’t fault anybody for that after seeing Irma.”

Outlets don’t only lose staff members to fear of future storms. In some cases, a skilled reporter’s coverage of the disaster can attract offers from higher-paying outlets. After Hurricane Michael, Lewis says his station’s parent company, Nexstar Media Group, sent news directors and reporters from across the country to help with disaster coverage. Since then, at least two of his reporters have left to work with other Nexstar stations. “They saw that we had some pretty good talent,” Lewis says. “When they had openings when they got back home, they just naturally thought about our talent.”

The increased cost of living in Panama City has also hindered recruitment efforts, Lewis says. After the hurricane, some landlords increased rents by as much as 70 percent. Station executives are considering whether to increase the amount of money offered to new recruits, Lewis says; new hires can no longer afford to live on the outlets’ usual starter salaries. One apartment occupied by two former employees jumped from $1,300 per month to $2,100 per month after they moved out.

To retain applicants WMBB has tried to show that Panama City can still be an attractive place to live. The outlet has rented out a three-bedroom condo on the beach where potential recruits and visiting Nexstar workers alike can stay. The damage downtown, where the station is located, is notable, but the beach remains virtually unchanged.

“We bring people out to the beach to show them, ‘Look, life can be normal, we just got some work to do,’” he says. “And there are people here who, their lives are in shambles. We’re trying to tell their stories and get them some relief.”

In some cases, appealing to journalistic opportunity can be the right approach. “I’ve found that there are a lot of adventurous, young journalists out there who seem pretty excited to cover this kind of stuff and aren’t worried about the lack of creature comforts,” Rogers says.

But that lure is not always a fruitful one. Lewis says promoting the chance to write about recovery efforts in Panama City draws interest at first, but once a potential recruit starts looking for places to live, that perk is no longer enough.

“I’ve tried to appeal to people’s sense of journalistic adventure, trying to get them to tackle what is an immense story,” Lewis says. “But reality has to set in. At some point you go, ‘Well, I can’t live in a tent.’”

“The bottom line is, no one wants to live here right now,” he says.

It’s uncertain when WMBB will return to normal. As of mid-April, Lewis was still looking for four reporters, a part-time photographer, a morning meteorologist, a producer and a digital specialist. He says the station is committed to drawing attention to the continuing need for state and federal aid in the area, which affords new hires ample opportunity for enterprise reporting. The challenges facing new recruits to the area may be high, Lewis said, but for committed reporters, the chance to make a difference in Panama City might be worth it.

“We tell people, ‘Look, this place is not much to look at right now,’” he says. “But our station is going to be state of the art when they’re finished with it. We’re going to be doing stories about people that need help and stories that matter. And we want you to be a part of that.”

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Tadhg Hylier Stevens is an independent journalist living in Seattle, Washington. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community, and the triumphs and trials facing marginalized communities throughout the US. Follow them on Twitter at @tadhgstevens.