How a Florida newsroom prepares for hurricane season

The Tampa Bay Times has learned a few lessons over the years.
A look inside one of the Tampa Bay Times' hurricane kits.  (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
A look inside one of the Tampa Bay Times' hurricane kits. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published June 13

When it comes to hurricane preparation, the Tampa Bay Times is always in motion.

Our job is to keep you in the know.

That means we train and equip a team to cover storms. We secure reliable communication methods. And we even have hotel rooms on hold to make mobile newsrooms around the Tampa Bay area.

“We try to at least mentally prepare everyone on staff to get ready for hurricane season,” said Boyzell Hosey, our deputy editor for photography.

Strategically, we have “first responders,” reporters and photographers ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Hurricane Guide: Prepare yourself now. We have lots of advice.

Special report: In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a family looks to rebuild in a ruined town

This year we’re relying on staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, Josh Solomon and Kathryn Varn. And staff photographers Douglas R. Clifford and Luis Santana.

These staffers know the drill: You can’t wear cotton in a storm. It’s all dry-wick workout gear. Don’t take anything that you’d hate to throw away afterward. You need a rain jacket, rain pants and rubber boots. Bring your medicine, spare glasses, a pillow, anything you might need in an emergency. Most likely, you’ll be living out of an SUV for two to three days.

What do we take on the road?

Lots and lots of water. Food that won’t go bad or expire. Government-approved gas cans. Wipes, because in a hurricane, you won’t be showering. Lots of plastic.

“Everything gets wet in a storm,” said Jamal Thalji, our hurricane editor. “Just opening your SUV becomes an ordeal. Ziploc bags can keep your notebooks and electronics dry. Hefty bags can cover up your suitcase, or cover up a busted car window.”

The Times assembles hurricane kits that are sturdy 24-gallon plastic bins packed with supplies.

“We stock stuff like tow straps, in case the team needs to pull someone out of a ditch, or they need to be pulled out of a ditch,” Thalji said. Also an AM/FM National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio; waterproof flashlights; headlamps; a back-up fuse kit; a tire plug kit; duct tape; microfiber towels; an LED lantern and portable, battery-powered fan; batteries; a first-aid kit; hydrogen peroxide; and aloe vera (think fire ants).

Communication is the big hurdle in hurricane conditions, but especially for reporters and photographers trying to transmit stories and videos.

“Relying on cellular service and WiFi has left us more vulnerable to losing communications now than 10 years ago,” Thalji said.

During Hurricane Michael last year, our reporters and photographers had to drive hours from the storm site just to send video. Occasionally, a nearby bridge would provide a few bars of cellular service.

We have used satellite phones, but they’re cost prohibitive and we often had trouble getting them to work. This year, we’re trying to sign on to a robust cellular network being set up for first and second responders in disaster situations.

“By getting on that network,” Hosey said, “we should be able to more effectively communicate and transmit data during an emergency situation.”

On top of all that, we worry about the security of our offices.

Two years ago, Hurricane Irma forced us to evacuate our downtown St. Pete newsroom and our downtown Tampa newsroom.

In St. Pete, we quickly set up a mobile newsroom at our printing plant on 34th Street. More than 30 people worked, ate and slept there, covering the storm 24/7 on and putting out the daily newspaper.

In Tampa, our office is near Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough River, an area that gets shut down pretty fast in storm conditions.

So months in advance, we reserve hotel rooms. People who can work from home will, but during Irma, we had several staffers in those hotel rooms.

This year, we have rooms on hold in Carrollwood and Brandon. Knock on wood that we won’t need them.

“For a while, hurricane season just seemed to come and go,” Thalji said. “We’d drill and, thank goodness, nothing happened. I miss the days when I’d buy my hurricane supplies and not have to use them.”