Hurricane Ian decimated the southwest coast of the Florida peninsula two weeks ago, causing catastrophic storm surge, winds, flooding and loss of life in the Sunshine State.
The eye of Ian was originally expected to make landfall at Tampa Bay, however, its route ended up moving south and the Fort Myers area received the brunt of the damage.
With a hurricane as slow-moving and severe as Ian, TV news outlets dispatched their anchors and correspondents to the scene.
This week, we caught up with a number of on-air journalists who were on the ground and have covered more than their fair share of hurricanes over the years: ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee, CBS Mornings lead national correspondent David Begnaud, CNN anchor Boris Sanchez, The Weather Channel national correspondent Justin Michaels and on-camera meteorologist Jordan Steele, Fox Weather multimedia journalist Will Nunley, CNBC The News with Shepard Smith correspondent Perry Russom and PBS NewsHour national correspondent John Yang. They detailed their respective experiences covering Ian, during and after, from Florida, the influence social media plays in relaying information to the viewer, and how they will continue to cover the story in the weeks, months and even years to come.
TVNewser: How does Hurricane Ian compare with other stories you’ve covered in your career?
Begnaud: In terms of storm surge, it was the most destructive I’ve ever seen in 22 years of covering stories.
Michaels: Every instance of extreme weather brings its own challenges, heartaches, and unique circumstances. Hurricane Ian was no different. It, like all hurricanes before it, has changed lives forever, and hopefully given those who lived through it a new appreciation for the power of wind and water. Ian certainly ranks among the most impactful storms or weather events I’ve covered. This hurricane is made even more impactful because so far, it’s the only one in this hurricane season to impact the U.S. mainland, and population centers. It’s difficult to compare different beasts, but this storm is one that I’ll remember.
Nunley: Ian certainly ranks within my top three. The size and ‘impact zone’ of this storm is what sticks out to me. So much of Florida is affected by this disaster. The shape and size of barrier islands has transformed, buildings have disappeared, lives torn apart. This storm lived up to our fears.
Russom: Hurricane Ian’s destruction was incredibly widespread. In the 24 hours post-storm, downed trees, boats blocking roads, and flood water made it difficult to navigate. We found ourselves hitchhiking in the back of high-suspension trucks and walking in calf-deep water to see what Ian left behind. With power out and cell service essentially nonexistent, we found ourselves reporting in the dark for the first few days. Our team back in New Jersey told us we were in the destruction zone, but we couldn’t fully see the scope. We kept asking people we met on the ground, “Where should we go?” and “What have you seen?” We went as far as word of mouth could take us. Every day, it felt as if we were looking at just one puzzle piece in a 100-piece puzzle.
Sanchez: I’ve covered many other storms, including Hurricane Maria’s aftermath in Puerto Rico, and lived through many growing up as a Floridian. I’d never seen damage from a storm surge like this: Dozens of boats flung around neighborhoods like toys and entire neighborhoods that looked like they were leveled and washed out to see. The death toll was also surprising considering Hurricane Andrew – a direct-hit category five to Miami-Dade County caused roughly half the fatalities.
Steele: This storm was a bit different for me because I went in about 4 days AFTER Ian arrived. Therefore it was all about recovery and getting to experience heavy loss with the residents. I think the biggest takeaway was the mindset so many of the survivors had. After losing everything, some of them are moving forward by taking one step at a time, but most important is the way they look at life. The resiliency of these people impacted by Ian is infectious. Going through the emotional hit of what Ian did, as well as trying to figure out what your life will look like in the coming weeks can be very difficult and traumatic. But the community stepped in 100% and it was also nice to see people coming down to Florida from other states to help out.
Yang: This was the first hurricane I’ve covered from Ground Zero, as it were (in the past I was dispatched to places within the cone of uncertainty but they were all places that got missed). What struck me was how big the area was that experienced the powerful winds and torrential rains. One thing I hadn’t thought about was the second wave of flooding in areas along the Gulf Coast as a result of the heavy rains traveling downstream. We captured some of that on Saturday in the aptly named Venice, Fla.
Zee: Each natural disaster is unique both scientifically and in terms of humanity. Scientifically I’ve seen 12-15 feet of surge with my own eyes ripping holes from their foundations (when I was in the eye wall of Category 5 Michael in 2018 in Mexico Beach, Fla., watching homes carried off their foundation and shredded in the surge).
I’ve seen the power of Katrina, Ida, Sandy and so many other storms take lives and forever change landscapes. Ian looks like it will be similar in the 12-15 feet of surge. It was like Ida in strength and longevity of horrific winds. Michael was a buzzsaw, Ian was much more lumbering and sloppy, impacting so many more people.
What made Ian different was where the storm hit — a populated area, not all barrier islands and beach homes, but places like the 900 mobile home Siesta Bay RV park where I went the day after sitting in the eye wall for six hours at the end of the Sanibel causeway (at the Marriott Sanibel).
How has social media influenced how you report on hurricanes?
Begnaud: I love it in that I can find out in real time who is posting about being trapped, in need of rescue or see what people are experiencing as it’s happening. I hate it in that old video from previous storms gets recycled on social media by people who were pulling pranks, or just pressing send, without verifying or vetting what they’re spreading.
Michaels: Social media has changed every facet of life, including the coverage of extreme weather like hurricanes. Instantaneously information, or misinformation, can spread like wildfire, which challenges reporters and networks like The Weather Channel to not only disseminate important, life-saving information, but also clean up the mess delivered by those offering Clickbait to attract larger audiences. It’s the quickest way to get out good information and bad information with a single click.
Nunley: I feel that social media has made some people cavalier about the seriousness of tropical events. As a society, we sometimes get too caught up in the ‘category’ of a storm, without factoring the totality of what tropical systems of any magnitude can bring. While social media is incredible, it also introduces many amateur ‘opinions’ into the landscape, that people sometimes perceive as fact. I feel it is important for us to be very blunt and no-nonsense in our coverage, on-air and online, and gain trust with our audience by showcasing experts, experience, and truth about the power of storms. I hope people see how much respect we must give to Mother Nature. Your home can flood in a tropical storm. Your trees can come down in a tropical storm. Each storm is unique and deserves attention.
Russom: On these bigger stories, I see a more general interest in news than the typical day-to-day. It allows us to reach a larger audience on social media. The views on stories I posted to Instagram tripled compared to what they usually are. For Twitter, I treated it as a reporter’s notebook with threads. I think of it as an auxiliary report to what we do for TV. For example, there was one woman we met who wanted to show us her home. She rode out the storm in a raft in her living room. We were done gathering for the day, but I recorded her story on my phone and posted it to Twitter. That gave us the option of using it the next day for TV, if needed.
Sanchez: It’s facilitated communication, so it’s made locating and identifying the people and areas hardest hit a bit easier. You also have more immediate access to what emergency officials are trying to get out into the public. At the same time, I saw a lot of people post content that was misleading – either out of context or from entirely different storms. So, as always, exercising caution when reposting or retweeting is critical.
Steele: Social media gives us real time information about what people are seeing — as long as they have service. Some of the images in real time were stunning to see. It really helps first responders to know where the hardest-hit areas are. We can forecast storm surge, let’s say 8-12 feet, but when we can see that in real time, and potentially see it coming in higher — this will give residents and viewers life-saving information.
Yang: Most of my experience with natural disasters has been tornadoes in the Midwest. Then and again with Ian social media is an effective way to quickly get important information from officials and get a sense of the areas in which people were hardest hit.
Zee: Social media allows me to update much more frequently and most importantly answer specific questions that people have. When I can do an Instagram Live and share the latest forecasts, stand on Sanibel Island and say “I am leaving and NO ONE should be on here after tonight.” – there is great power in being able to answer people’s questions and point them to the evidence before, during and after a storm. I often utilize my 3D graphic we made a few years back to help people visualize what 8 feet of storm surge looks like— and how quickly it can decimate.
Tell us one specific rescue effort or story that you didn’t have the opportunity to mention on-air or deserves more attention.
Michaels: So far, I haven’t come across a rescue effort or story that I haven’t mentioned on air or social media. If I learn about it, I get it out there as quickly as possible.
Nunley: I admire how quickly most people are ready to throw out the rulebook and offer anything they have in service to others. They ask for vacation from work to drive down and cook meals. They bring their RVs down to shelter other volunteers and operate their own emergency centers out of the goodness of their hearts. Friends will drive down grills and cook on street corners for anyone that needs a meal. These individuals are all around and often don’t receive the spotlight. No PR agencies are documenting or promoting their individual work. No fundraising drives. Good people funding their own missions and offering what they can.
Russom: The story of Kevin Ott deserves as much attention as possible. After the worst of Ian passed, Kevin jumped in one of his boats with his three children and went door to door searching for survivors. He tells us he saved 16 people, including family members huddled in a canoe inside a house. Flood water reached about 8 feet. “We saved a lot of people,” Kevin told us in tears. “People that would’ve never made it…we had to leave a lot of people, too.” For all the good Kevin did, he couldn’t forget the faces he had to leave behind.
Sanchez: Captain Robert Donze and a crewmate rode out the storm on their boat—the Sea-Trek and wound up settled in a mangrove swamp hundreds of feet from their marina, which was decimated. They share a story about seeing a few other young men trying to ride out the storm nearby but being uncertain as to whether they were able to make it out. One of so many unfortunate stories we heard from folks on the ground.
Steele: We had done a story with a commercial fishing company. The company owner had 11 shrimp boats and nine of them ended up on shore with some kind of damage. The captains of each vessel stayed in the boats during the storm to ride it out. It was the job of the captain and crewmates to keep the lines tight, and manage the storm in hopes the vessel could make it out. The important part about being a captain is making sure your vessel can survive, whatever condition it gets put through. In this situation, Ian smacked them in the face. One of the highlights was about a specific captain and his entire family staying in the boat to ride it out. It was him, his wife, and their four kids. That vessel ended up on shore and completely tilted on its side, with other boats crashing into it. I couldn’t imagine the sounds and sights they saw while they were in Ian’s eyewall. Absolutely stunning. The good news is every one of them survived and now have a story that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.
Zee: The dedication of the first responders is always something to be enamored with — but with a disaster of this scale — I was floored by the dedication I saw. Once we safely exited our hotel, which was not a viable place to stay any longer, we drove inland toward the communities of Ft. Myers searching for cell signal. We passed a police car on the side of the highway and noticed a vehicle half submerged in leftover floodwater and a body covered in a tarp that had likely been pulled from that vehicle.
We passed this scene four more times that day — the officer there, protecting the body and waiting for pickup. It was a testament to how big the response was — this body sat for eight hours guarded by this one officer because I am sure other resources were busy saving those that could be saved. Every officer, every firefighter, the volunteers and neighbors. From wildfires to tornadoes, flash floods and hurricanes — the grace people give nature and the grace and beauty after a storm like this is astounding.
At the Siesta Bay RV park, the two survivors I met right away had their homes fill with water, one had only 18” of air to breathe as her bed floated to the ceiling, the other climbed to his roof to survive… they told me “I’m so stupid” “I’m such a jerk” — “they told me to leave and I didn’t.” They were in zone A.
My best friend’s parents live in Ft. Myers and they did not get evacuated (they are zone C) until about 24 hours before. Once they got the notice they saw that I-75 was a parking lot and decided not to leave. My best friend called me panicked that they weren’t evacuating and I plotted where they lived with the flood maps (they are way inland) and felt good with the specs on their house for wind. They were fine and very little damage to their home but still wished they had known earlier so they could have made plans to leave as they don’t like pushing it, ever.
What I worry when it comes to the cone vs no cone (most of Lee County was in the cone the entire lifecycle of the path from the National Hurricane Center), is that the message I and every meteorologist I know try to emphasize every single storm: don’t look at the track, watch the cone AND impacts can be felt well beyond the cone.
The surge warning for Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers, for example, was for 4-8 feet Monday morning. That’s about 55 hours before the storm hit. If you have people living on a barrier island and 4-8 feet of surge is in a forecast, I tell them that type of water moves cars and can cause great damage to homes — you have to leave to be safe.
On Tuesday when it was 8-12 feet I would yell from the rooftops— in less than 30 hours, the ocean will overtake this island: 12 feet of surge easily moves homes from foundations and causes catastrophic damage.
Based on your conversations with everyday Floridians, and just being on the ground, how well or poorly have the state and federal government responded to this crisis?
Begnaud: I wouldn’t say I have a pulse on this to answer the question like an expert but from the general consensus I got being on the grounds, people were pleased with both the state and federal response.
Michaels: One thing Florida has experience doing is responding to tropical weather of all kinds including hurricanes. It’s not my place, as a reporter, to comment on whether or not government is doing a good job or not, but people on the ground, with few exceptions, seem to express their opinions positively when talking about this topic. Of course, there will always be a segment of the population, who has nothing good to say, and wants everything immediately and for free. But for the most part, Floridians know how to deal with this, and know what to expect from the government and the timelines on which things happen. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Nunley: Based on my experience, an overwhelming force has rushed in to handle this storm. I’m not here to advocate for any particular agency, but overall I have witnessed an incredible amount of quick work. Let’s take electricity for example. Within an eight-day timeline, nearly two million customers were restored. That’s a tremendous testimony to planning, execution, sacrifice and talent. For our governments, on all levels, to figure out how to clear roads, remove enough debris, stand up poles, and safety restore connections in that short of time, is a modern miracle. Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies are feeding and sheltering, working in [an] amazing concert. Are there areas that need more attention? Yes. Do I feel that people from across the southeast and the nation are showing up to be part of the solution? Absolutely.
Russom: In the immediate 24-48 hours, we heard from people on San Carlos Island who were desperate for food and water, left between devastation and livable conditions. With how large the destruction field was, first responders were focused on search and rescue. That appeared to have left a gap with getting emergency supplies to those who stuck in the middle. With cell towers down and power out, there was no form of communication to tell people where to go. One woman told us she was trying to reach FEMA to figure out what to do, but FEMA was directing her to go online. “We don’t have internet,” she told us.
A week after the storm, we traveled to Harlem Heights in Fort Myers. It’s a lower-income neighborhood where not many people have insurance. The insides of gutted homes were stacked high on the sidewalk. A Red Cross van drove down the street offering food and water. There was a fear among neighbors that they’d be left behind. I asked one man why he thought there was so much focus on the barrier islands. “That’s where the money is,” he said. “(Harlem Heights) has always been a place you drive through to get to those places. For years that’s all it’s been, a cut through. I just hope they don’t go around us this time – that they come by and help.”
Sanchez: I spoke to some in Lee County who felt evacuation orders weren’t issued as quickly as they could’ve been – including a woman who was caught totally off guard and she tried to ride out the storm in her boat but wound up taking shelter inside a public restroom, alongside her cats.
Others had views similar to the sheriff of Lee County and Gov. DeSantis: Arguing that no matter when evacuation orders were put in place, some folks would simply refuse to go.
Steele: What I saw when I was down there was an immediate response from the local, state, and federal government. And that’s not including the amazing volunteers and local businesses that stepped up to help. The power came back remarkably fast for these areas and supplies were delivered as swiftly as possible after landfall. I feel like if there were individuals that needed something, others were there to step in and give them information about how to acquire information. FEMA stepped up, and kept giving additional funding to the state, whenever the Governor asked the President for additional resources, it seemed like they came to an agreement extremely fast. Cleaning up and getting everything back in order after an historic storm like this isn’t easy, but I feel like the speed of the recovery (so far) has been pretty incredible.
How do you plan on continuing to cover the story in the weeks, months and possibly years ahead?
Begnaud: I can see myself checking in on the people we met in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Those are the human-driven stories that I personally like to tell.
Michaels: I’ll approach coverage over the coming weeks and months as I do for every natural disaster — by solely focusing on the people. How are they impacted? How are they moving forward? What’s being done to help them? Everything we do is about the people involved in these situations. Before, during, and after the storm, people are the focus. Getting them accurate and timely information is always the goal. My job is to take that information and weave it into a quality story.
Nunley: Fox Weather is committed. Returning to follow-up on natural disasters and sharing Americans’ experiences months and years after a storm is a cornerstone of our journalistic approach. Frankly, it was one of the first discussions we had as we launched – standing by our audience and sharing stories of struggle and triumph. Even as we cover Ian, we have plans to return for updates on Mayfield, Ky., Virginia flooding victims, Jackson, Miss., water customers, California fire victims … the list goes on. That’s what makes our operation stand out — a team of journalists that keep the weather conversation going, each day.
Sanchez: There are still many threads to pursue, including whether there will be any kind of investigation into the decision-making behind the evacuation order and what lessons officials will take into the future. I’m also curious to see how officials might reevaluate the infrastructure in southwest Florida, considering climate scientists point to data that shows climate change will lead to hurricanes with stronger, more devastating storm surges.
Yang: Yes. That’s one of the things I like about how the NewsHour covers natural disasters–or even other issues like the Flint water crisis. We go back after most of our colleagues have been long gone to follow up.
Zee: Like all storms where I am by no coincidence in the very spot where the worst damage happens, I hope to return, watch the progress and decisions in rebuilding both for sustainability and equity. More importantly, I hope to do more stories before a storm because we know where it’s going to be the worst — why can’t we be part of the rescue before the rescue. That would be powerful.