I learned so much in covering this one disaster. I know now that there are stories that hit home. It's easy for a reporter to become removed from a story when you interview a victim. But in this case, everyone was a victim. I was a victim. And so many people needed their stories told. The power of broadcasting never ceases to amaze me. I would interview a family who'd lost their home and weren't allowed to keep their pet in a shelter. Within hours of our broadcast, a good Samaritan would call our station offering their home to the family and their furry companion.
People were really hooked into local news after Charley. But we had to be careful what we said. One time, a reporter at our competing station reported live from a Walgreen's drugstore, saying they were handing out free ice (really, just a few bags to the needy); within 20 minutes of that broadcast there was a line in the parking lot!
People called with questions, and we got them answers. It seems simple, but in the aftermath of a disaster it's impossible to place phone calls and find people. One woman called us distraught because she couldn't find her elderly father. The nursing home where he was staying had evacuated at the last minute, and she didn't know where they'd taken the residents. We put the story out, and she got a phone call.
In the days after Charley we went live with all sorts of small details: where to find sandbags, what stores still had plywood in stock, who was getting in a shipment of generators, where to find free ice, and so forth. This service was so basic and yet so invaluable. People were spending their days in the blazing hot sun, waiting for insurance adjusters. They were craving information about everything. We warned our viewers about scam artists, told them where they could apply for loans, informed people where they could cash checks or use ATMs. It's impossible to fully describe how devastated a disaster area really is. In Charlotte County after Charley, there was nothing. People couldn't afford to waste the gasoline in their car tanks (because there were no shipments coming into southwest Florida) so they needed immediate, accurate information. Fox 4 stayed live with updated reports.
I've covered two hurricanes since Charley: Frances and Jeanne. Those were not landfall hits for our coast, thankfully; that makes a big difference in terms of how much devastation your area suffers. However, people in southwest Florida have dealt with recurring problems like power outages and extensive flooding. We are still very much in a recovery phase, and it will take years for the community to rebuild. It will certainly take a long time before a "Charley-angle" story stops being a part of our daily newscast.
Disaster coverage is not as much fun as it looks on CNN, and nothing really prepares you for it. Ithaca College provided me with a foundation, and everything else was just learned on the fly. Turning in taped reports in 80 mph winds requires a lot of stamina when it takes sheer effort just to stand upright. Walking through pummeled communities in 90-degree heat all day is not just exhausting -- it's heartbreaking. And seeing your neighbors, your friends, your community devastated is just indescribable. It changes you, as a person and as a journalist. When the story hits home, it's nothing like that Journalism 101 class. It's something very real. And right now, I'm living it.
Jenny Rizzo '01 took a much-needed short vacation in mid-October before going back on the job. A native of Buffalo, New York, she worked for two years at WVMY in Vermont before joining Fox 4 News in Fort Myers, Florida, as a reporter in July 2003. After her work covering Hurricane Charley (actually during Hurricane Francis) she was named anchor of the 10:00 p.m. newscast.
Photos of Jenny at work, courtesy of Fox 4 News, Fort Myers
Other photos by Chris Heikel