We were all braced for it, I suppose, but I don’t think many of us really knew what to expect from Hurricane Igor.
We got nailed with more than 50 mm of rain before the storm had even started, so a few could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Is that all there is?’
Then Igor hit, before noon on the Avalon, and didn’t let up for more than nine hours.
The house moaned and shook. There were moments I feared the windows might blow out. I listened to the radio, and monitored status updates from Facebook friends for firsthand accounts of what was going on across the province.
Then, around 3:00 pm, the power went, and I was left in the dark with my transistor radio and iPhone.
The radio, already important, became everything. And CBC emerged as the clear winner, in terms of the comprehensiveness of its coverage. If you were listening, you know what I mean.
It started with the Morning Show, before the storm had reached its full force. The show did not switch over to the national feed at the usual time of 9 am. Instead, host Jeff Gilhooly stayed on, continuing with live interviews from affected communities, weather updates from Ryan Snoddon, and reports from journalists out in the field (honk if you love Cecil Haire!).
At about 10:30 am, Ramona Dearing, host of Radio Noon, stepped in to relieve Gilhooly, and the coverage continued. She worked into the afternoon, until On The Go host Ted Blades stepped in to replace her. Then, John Furlong, host of the Fisheries Broadcast, came on after Blades, and the hurricane coverage continued up until 9:00 pm.
“After that, we continued with a local newsreader doing a local newscast all night, replacing the national hourly news,” said Janice Stein, News Director for TV, Radio and Online with CBC NL. “So we were able to update during the night, including the response from the Prime Minister.”
Stein said is not unusual for CBC to override national programming when there is a public safety concern. “We are the emergency broadcaster for the country. There are protocols in place for when we do it. Weather is a reason. Fire might be another. The Cougar helicopter crash was another.”
That said, this was the longest period of time – in my memory – that CBC has supplanted the national signal, to deal with a local event. And the coverage really was stellar.
The interviews were thorough but sensitive – many people were so distraught, you could hear the stress in their voices – but all hosts were compassionate and respectful in their questioning.
The merging of radio and TV newsrooms – a controversial move when it was announced a few years back – has paid real dividends. We now have a province-wide, integrated team that, when layered with the online service, is far and away the most effective news gathering machine in the province. That fact was in ample evidence throughout the Igor situation.
The big disappointment for the day was VOCM, a station that used to be king when it comes to storm coverage. On the day that Igor hit with all its fury, VOCM was not doing anything that was obviously different. The morning show was peppered with cancellations, commercials, and country music. The Open Line program was business as usual, as Randy Simms took calls on a full variety of topics. Yes, most of it was about the storm, by default. But if callers wanted to vent about the gun registry or any other topic, they were free to do so.
I just think they underestimated the impact that Igor was going to have in this province.
It was the same thing that afternoon, on VOCM’s Backtalk. Most calls fielded by Bill Rowe related to the storm, but they were not restricted to it. I know the newsroom was maxed out in trying to cover the storm, and that the producers were no doubt calling and lining up people for storm information. However, it had the appearance of being random and haphazard. When Backtalk ended at 4:00, there was the usual newscast, after which they played a country song. With that, I was out of there for the rest of the day.
Contrast VOCM’s random, listener-fueled content – which I concede was, at times, interesting and important – with CBC’s coordinated and strategic approach, in which interviews with community leaders were pre-arranged, reporters across the province fed continuous updates (including Ryan Snoddon, a tornado with feet), and calls from the public carefully vetted to ensure relevance.
I didn’t see CBC Here & Now that night because I had no power, though I did watch it online the next day. The show was excellent, holding up the many strands of this story and tying them into one tidy knot, with input from videojournalists all over the province. However, it would not be fair to say they were better than the NTV Evening Newshour, because I didn’t see NTV’s program that evening.
CBC’s online presence played no small part in its coverage. It was successful in connecting people all over the province to the latest information, and uniting them collectively in the shock, wonder and tragedy as it unfolded that day. The remarkably comprehensive Storm Centre – operated by Kathryn King – posted cancellations, announcements, road closures, and other storm-related information.
But the Storm Centre went one better. It received a steady stream of audience-submitted photos from all areas affected by the disaster, which were posted immediately. In no time, a jaw-dropping gallery of photos accumulated, showing roads dissolving, rivers going rogue, houses flooding and buildings being washed into the bay.
The width and breadth of the devastation – the sheer totality and expanse of it – was almost incomprehensible. And people were watching, virtually as it happened.
CBC also gets points for being ahead of the pack in its use of social media. Several on-air personalities have been growing their base of Twitter followers for months now – and were perfectly positioned to amplify the story through that medium. People were quick to retweet, share in Facebook, email links to others, and visitor traffic at cbc.ca/nl grew exponentially during the day.
“We aren’t allowed to release exact numbers, as much as I’d like to shout it from the rooftops,” said John Gushue, who manages the site with colleague Mark Quinn. “But the number of visitors was huge – well into the six-digits, which is amazing for a single day.” He noted that many readers were using their phones, and CBC was able to harness a wide network of audience members.
Gushue and his team created the #igornl hashtag just hours before the hurricane hit, giving web surfers a common frame of reference and boosting hits on Twitter. Inside the newsroom, they also created an internal chat room for staff, so that the latest information could be shared instantly for all the media lines, especially for the marathon radio broadcast.
“The amount of time and effort we’ve invested in social media has really paid off. The dividends from that work have been remarkable. It was a busy, exhausting day, but exhilarating and gratifying too.”
I fired off emails yesterday, congratulating the hosts of the CBC Radio programs who worked during Igor, and inviting them to comment on stand-out memories of that day. I received replies from two, so far.
“What struck me,” said Ted Blades, “was how we were able to help people communicate with each other, not just receive broadcast information. Best example: a woman in the Southlands was in a bit of a panic. Her husband needed mechanical support to breathe. They'd been out of electricity for three hours, and she was afraid his battery back-up wouldn't last until the power came back on, but she couldn't get through to Newfoundland Power. The power company heard her message on the air, but before they could respond, a neighbour, who had heard of her problem on our show, called in to say he was on his way over with a generator.”
The Ladies Auxiliary on Port Blandford had set up a soup and sandwiches operation at the local Legion, and spread the word by calling the station, Blade added. The most telling moment, he said, was the fellow in Trouty
“He stayed in his house while the waters rose, but had to finally abandon it after the flood started to sweep it away. First he threw his dog out the window – she made it; she swam to shore – then he leapt into the water himself (and also made it to shore).”
Ramona Dearing offered some thoughts as well.
“An image that will stay with me is reporter Lee Pitts coming into the studio, straight from a road trip, and sitting down at a microphone to give us an update with all his rain gear still on. He didn't even take the time to shrug off his raincoat. Just sat down and calmly delivered his update.”
Dearing said it became even clearer, one day later, just how terrible Igor was. “It's the strangest feeling to talk to people who are cut off from the outside world, save for their phones. Makes you feel powerless to help them – the media can't fix highways or switch the power back on. But at least we can make our own contribution by keeping people up-to-date about when the lights will come back on, and when those roads will be passable again.”
There is no question about it: with its coverage of Hurricane Igor, CBC NL is the best news delivery organization in the province.
Let’s hope their resources don’t get a similar test for a long, long time.