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Hurricane Ian’s arrival meant we all covered the story

At the Tampa Bay Times, our newsroom was emptied out. Our coverage was comprehensive.
Jake Moses, 19, left, and Heather Jones, 18, of Fort Myers, explore a section of destroyed businesses at Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022. The community was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Wednesday.
Jake Moses, 19, left, and Heather Jones, 18, of Fort Myers, explore a section of destroyed businesses at Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022. The community was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall on Wednesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 1|Updated Oct. 1

Every journalist at the Tampa Bay Times became a hurricane reporter this week. Our food and dining critic led one of our “go teams,” ready to deploy where needed. Sports writers filed photos of downed trees from their neighborhood. Investigative reporters set project work aside and compiled live updates. Our editorial page editor took video. Even I got out my notebook.

Hurricane veterans Zachary T. Sampson and Douglas R. Clifford headed toward the projected eye of the storm Tuesday night in a rented SUV, equipped with a satellite phone and hurricane kits. The storm knocked out power at their hotel. That didn’t deter them.

In darkness, they began a mile-long trek to the bridge to Sanibel Island to see what they could find. After the toll booth, what they discovered was emptiness. A section of the Sanibel Causeway, the only way in and out, had been washed away by Hurricane Ian. Zachary and Doug were the first to report this.

A section of the causeway leading to Sanibel in Lee County was knocked out by Hurricane Ian.
A section of the causeway leading to Sanibel in Lee County was knocked out by Hurricane Ian. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The next morning, they slept for a couple hours in their vehicle in a Walmart parking lot before going to Fort Myers Beach. Photographers Luis Santana and Ivy Ceballo and reporters Anastasia Dawson, Colleen Wright, Hannah Critchfield and Kirby Wilson also deployed to the area. Other reporters and photographers fanned out around Tampa Bay.

When Ian’s eyewall struck Florida, our newsrooms in Tampa and St. Petersburg stood empty. But our coverage was full and comprehensive. Deploying for breaking news of this magnitude made us forget, for the moment, that we’re still living on the outer edges of a pandemic.

But, in some ways, COVID’s lasting effects factored squarely into the way we worked. We learned during the pandemic how effectively we could publish without being together. That carried over into our hurricane planning. Instead of gathering in a newsroom or an operations center, most of our news production staff worked from homes and hotels outside evacuation zones. A big editing and reporting load was handled by staffers who had relocated out of state or already work remotely.

During past disasters, our publication plans would have led us to our printing plant on high ground in St. Petersburg, where a powerful generator ensured we could publish without interruptions. That’s where a team hunkered down for Irma in 2017 and Charley in 2004. In those instances, staff brought sleeping bags and pillows and slept on air mattresses. The old printing plants were impregnable fortresses that served as emergency publication hubs for any news organization that owned one. We sold ours in 2021.

This year, we needed to spread out. The goal was to get enough people out of evacuation zones and into places where they had Wi-Fi and power and could report from the field when it was safe to do so. It didn’t always work. Several staffers lost electricity and connectivity. And our plans to send a group of people to a hotel in Tampa were dashed when the hotel shut down. Through it all, the herculean efforts from our entire organization were on full display.

We didn’t print a Wednesday newspaper. And readers seemed to understand, given that massive swaths of our subscriber base remained under a mandatory evacuation order. The safety of our carriers also played a key part in the company’s decision. The team that puts out the e-Newspaper, meanwhile, lengthened the deadlines. That allowed us to publish later news as the storm punished the west coast of Florida.

Tomorrow, some of the sections we would have delivered Wednesday should arrive with your Sunday paper, including the TV Weekly for those who subscribe to it.

Personally, our family battened down the hatches in Tampa, corralled our two small dogs and drove to an Orlando hotel. Our managing editor, Carolyn Fox, and our assistant managing editor for news, Michael Van Sickler, arrived at the same hotel a day earlier with their families. We plugged in our laptops in the lobby and got to work, while a group of mostly Tampa Bay refugees milled about. It was comforting knowing our kids and dogs were with us. Their occasional visits during the day brought smiles and welcome relief.

Throughout the storm, courageous reporters and photographers were right in the heart of it all, doing extraordinary things while coping with their own adversity. Our website saw record-breaking traffic, a sign that readers knew where to turn for reliable 24/7 coverage.

We are sometimes obligated to be in risky situations to serve you. But a top priority for our senior leadership team was ensuring that our journalists were safe. I couldn’t be more proud and inspired by the total team effort to bring you the news.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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