TV news reporter Jenny Rizzo '01 covers Hurricane Charley up close and personal.
by Jenny Rizzo '01
From Introduction to Journalism through Television Journalism Workshop, Ithaca College professors taught me about broadcast writing, interviewing, and how to deal with a deadline. But there never was a class on how to cover a disaster. Little did I realize how important it would be to learn the virtues of carrying a manual can opener in your purse, zipping up your underwear in tiny plastic bags, and slipping a nonlubricated condom over a shotgun microphone so your $35,000 digital camera doesn't become waterlogged.
Hurricane Charley was the biggest story I've ever covered in my three-year local television news reporting career. The last time a large hurricane came through the southwestern part of Florida was Donna in 1960. In 2004 no one in the Fort Myers-Naples area was truly prepared for what would come. There was a pervasive "Hurricanes always miss us" mentality.
The storm track was forecast for Tampa the morning of Friday, August 13. Our station's hurricane game plan was to start early-morning coverage the day the storm hit, and then stay on as long as our people-power would allow. Since the bad weather was supposed to start late on Thursday, I decided to sleep overnight at the Fox 4 station because I didn't want to have to cross the bridge to work during hurricane-force wind. I brought my dog, Bailey, since no kennel would accept a dog during the county's declared state of emergency.
On the morning of the hurricane I awoke from two hours of sleep on the floor of an edit bay to rush to Lee County's emergency operations center. Every county has an EOC, and all the vital people from local, state, and federal government are represented there to guide emergency planning during and after the storm. It's built like a bunker to withstand a category five hurricane (winds over 155 mph, storm surge of 18+ feet), so it was the safest place in the county for me to be.
I began the day there at 5:00 a.m. doing live reports from indoors and outside. By late morning the storm was still tracking north to Tampa, and only at category two strength (winds 96-110 mph). This is an important point to note, because our station, located in Cape Coral, can withstand up to a one, maybe a two -- nothing more. (There was a backup plan in place, but it involved evacuating everyone and moving to a studio across town with few broadcast facilities. Everyone wanted to stay in the Fox 4 building.)
Around 2:00 p.m. my world blew apart, literally. I was watching a bank of local TV sets in the hallway of the EOC. All four local meteorologists were on air, as they'd just been handed the 2:00 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center. There was a moment of silence, where no one uttered a word as mental calculations set in and the looks of disbelief morphed into amazement and fear. Suddenly everything appeared like slow-motion movements, as the folks in the EOC started running screaming for each other, fists full of printouts. (It's never a comforting sight, when the trained people who are supposed to rebuild your community are running around screaming.)
The meteorologists started explaining the latest update. All I heard was: "Category four hurricane . . . storm surge of 15 to 18 feet . . . headed right for us." Bull's-eye: Lee County.
I thought I was shaking until I realized my cell phone was vibrating. On the other end, my news director abruptly explained that everyone was evacuating the station and they were tossing the live show out to me. They expected me to stay reporting live nonstop until they could get set up at the backup studio. They were sending the main anchor and a meteorologist to EOC to cohost with me what was now "the show."
I went from dazed to crazed, as I realized my dog was still at the station and my news director had hung up on me. I frantically tried to reach him and anyone else on their cell phones, but at this point the winds were over 80 mph and the cell towers were down. Bailey was stuck in Cape Coral, and I was stuck at EOC until it was over.