In the wake of Hurricane Michael, many journalists in the Florida panhandle are living through the same nightmare as other local residents, and working in incredibly difficult conditions.
Power grids are down. Communications are spotty. Some local newsrooms suffered severe damage. So did the homes of some of the reporters.
The city’s two biggest TV stations, ABC-affiliated WMBB and NBC-affiliated WJHG, were knocked off the air as Michael’s eyewall approached on Wednesday, and they were still off the air as of Friday evening. So both stations are using Facebook to send out updates and improvised live shows. While the digital audience is smaller, and power is sporadic in many places, it’s a partial solution to the problem at hand.
WMBB’s Facebook page is full of posts like this one from Friday afternoon: “Federal help IS COMING in the next 24 hours. Hang in there! In the meantime, neighbors should help others.”
During Wednesday’s broadcast, one of the last things viewers heard was a reporter saying “it sounds like a train is coming over the roof of the TV station. The whole building is shaking.”
Parts of the roof started to cave in. Rainwater started seeping in. By 12:45 p.m., the broadcast was over. A piece of a nearby building hit the station’s generator and “knocked us off the air,” Cole told CNN in an interview on Friday.
Cole had a backup plan, “but I never thought we’d use it,” he said. His staff evacuated to First Baptist Church next door. WFLA, a sister TV station in Tampa, took over live coverage for anyone who was still able to see WMBB’s signal via cable or antenna.
Cole said his staff worked and slept at the church on Wednesday and into Thursday. One of WMBB’s sister stations from Mobile, Alabama, arrived with a satellite truck so that the anchors and reporters could go live again on Thursday evening. They anchored from the parking lot. The staff set up six chairs and three cameras, and the journalists shared their reporting and personal reflections. They’ve been doing an “incredible job,” Cole said.
The morning assignment meeting on Friday was held in a circle in the parking lot. The staff produced another newscast from the parking lot on Friday night. The backdrop was a giant chunk of roof that flew off a nearby building.
While the anchors marveled at the acts of kindness by community members throughout the area, two engineers were working several hundred feet above them, trying to repair a satellite at the top of a WMBB transmission tower. The satellite was apparently pushed in the opposite direction by the winds.
Like WMBB, WJHG has been using Facebook Live to produce live streams of news. It could take weeks for the stations to get back to normal.
The city’s daily paper, the Panama City News Herald, was also battered by Michael. When the storm made landfall, the station’s Twitter feed said, “On generators at office, crashing thunder shaking building. Lost internet, wifi.”
The newspaper office sustained damage. And it still has no power. Cleanup crews were present when a CNN crew stopped by on Friday. But the office was pretty much empty – the journalists were all out trying to cover stories.
“With damaged homes, no power or cell service, our reporters have been hard at work,” News Herald reporter Eryn Dion tweeted on Thursday.
Reporters at the Northwest Florida Daily News loaded up a car full of supplies for the News Herald on Friday, according to Annie Blanks of the Daily News.
She tweeted that her colleagues in Panama City “have been working without power and without basic needs since Wednesday, but are STILL putting out their paper.”
Dianne Gallagher reported from Panama City, Florida, and Brian Stelter from New York.