As Hurricane Irma moved up the west coast of Florida, one group of journalists after another had to figure out how to keep covering the storm while evacuating their newsrooms and losing power.
Or, in the case of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, how to work in a building suddenly crowded with families and reporters from a range of local and national media outlets. The office was built to military-grade specifications for the Defense Department in the 1990s, making it a prime destination for people who can’t miss work because of inclement weather.
Three and a half hours north of Miami, the Bradenton Herald started operating out of a Holiday Inn in west Bradenton Saturday. Executive editor Joan Krauter had to evacuate both her home and her newsroom before landing at the hotel, where staffers were stocked with tuna, popcorn and pretzels.
“The hotel actually served a hot breakfast this morning,” she said Sunday. “Might be our last one for a while.”
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Just after 4:30 p.m. Sunday, with the eye of the storm about two hours away, Krauter knew where the Herald staffers were – two embedded at shelters, one at the Emergency Operations Center and four still out in the storm.
“They’re going to turn around soon,” she said.
The Miami Herald and the Bradenton Herald are both owned by McClatchy, the California-based media company that also owns The Charlotte Observer. And up and down Florida this week, reporters at those publications —plus smaller McClatchy properties in the Florida Keys — captured the personal side of the huge storm.
Evacuees from the Florida Keys were relieved to find a hot meal amid a curfew and increasingly bad weather. Coffee supplies ran out at an elementary school shelter, where one mom tried to prepare her young sons for the sound of howling wind by talking about how hurricanes work.
Krauter said the staff was ready to work until the power went out, and then to keep working as long as the juice on mobile devices would last.
An hour or two later, Krauter told Julie Moos, McClatchy’s Shared News Director in Washington, D.C., that the Holiday Inn lights were flickering.
The D.C. team had already taken on some of the Herald editors’ website and social media responsibilities as the storm approached, and this was their cue to handle more of it until the Herald’s hotel had power again, Moos said.
Moos said the weekend was nerve-wracking but inspiring.
“You hope all of the things that you know about serving the public and covering the news accurately and respectfully are coming together, and when they do, that’s also really gratifying,” she said.
In south Florida, 50 to 60 people were living out of the Miami Herald building, managing editor Rick Hirsch estimated. Some staffers brought their families, and journalists from other publications crowded in, too.
David Goodhue, one of two McClatchy editors for the Florida Keys, moved in at the Herald with his family on Saturday. They slept under desks in the advertising offices, eating granola bars and turkey jerky.
“My kids are pretty young – they’re 8 and 9 – so they think this is all a big adventure. Which it is, I guess,” he said.
Goodhue said he had filed about nine stories in two days. He had no idea Sunday night about the condition of his newsroom, in the upper Keys.
The other Keys editor, Larry Kahn, stayed in the Keys at a shelter, Goodhue said. They had decided that it was best if one of them – Goodhue – went to the Herald to maintain internet access.
Kahn’s shelter lost power, and his phone didn’t have enough power to even send a photo, Goodhue said.
“I actually interviewed him, which was awkward,” Goodhue said. Kahn and the Miami Herald’s David Ovalle were among the only reporters left in the Keys, and in the interview he described how his “shelter of last resort” in the Middle Keys had no running water and diminishing food supplies.
As Irma hit Miami, pairs of Herald reporters and photographers were still out in SUVs covering damage and flooding, Hirsch said, and more will be on the roads Monday.
Hirsch was one of several Herald staffers to lose his home during Hurricane Andrew, and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to go home after this storm.
He said the staff has been sleeping when they can on air mattresses and working untold hours because their coverage is a public service.
“We brought this story home to people hiding in their houses,” he said.