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Tips for covering natural disasters from two experienced correspondents

CBS correspondent Omar Villafranca reports from Florida as Hurricane Idalia caused massive flooding and wind damage. (Screen shot by National Press Club Journalism Institute)

The Global Business Journalism program is proud to launch a new partnership with the National Press Club Journalistic Institute, the nonprofit educational and charitable arm of the National Press Club of Washington, D.C. We are thankful to the NPCJI and its executive director, Beth Francesco, for allowing us to share invaluable professional tips first published in the institute's invaluable newsletter, "The Latest."

Today, we share advice on covering natural disasters from Q&A's with CBS News correspondents Omar Villafranca and Jonathan Vigliotti, who covered Hurricane Idalia in the southeastern United States and the wildfires on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

Omar Villafranca

Q: What are your top three tips to keep yourself safe when on the ground covering a natural disaster like Hurricane Idalia?

Villafranca: “Safety first” is the motto for the team. Know the local hazards based on the disaster situation you’re covering, not just the physical ones caused by the disaster. That means if you’re covering a hurricane in the Gulf states, be aware of alligators, snakes, and insects in the water you’re walking through!

Communication is key. Point out things that could be a problem to you or the crew. If you’re talking and watching each other’s backs, it's easier to work through potential problems.

Take a break if you need it. Covering disasters can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. It’s OK to give yourself a break. Sleep is rare, so take a nap if you need it to recharge and stay alert. And if you come across emotionally tough situations, it’s OK to talk it out.

Q: What is your favorite resource for staying on top of storm news?

A: Villafranca: I’m a big fan of RadarScope when it comes to tracking weather. The app is fantastic and lets me see storms and weather data. The folks at the National Weather Service are also amazing and helpful.

Q: How do you connect with residents when the power and cell service go out?

Villafranca: If we’re shooting a story in a disaster area, I’ll ask residents if they need water (which we always carry) or if they need to charge their phone in our car or with our gear. It’s a simple gesture, but for them it may be an important way to help stay connected to friends and loved ones. It's useful and it opens up the lines of communication.

Q: What is your strategy for follow-up coverage?

Villafranca: I always ask for their phone number and then give them my phone number. I tell residents that we reporters can’t see everything after a storm. But if something is happening that doesn’t seem right, if bureaucratic red tape is slowing recovery — or if cleanup is running like a well-oiled machine — I tell them to please let me know and don’t hesitate to call/text. I remind them that it’s our job as journalists to report on these kinds of stories, and we can be a voice for them.

Jonathan Vigliotti reports live from Maui for CBS News. (Screen shot by Rick Dunham)

Jonathan Vigliotti

Q: What are your top three tips for covering a natural disaster like the Maui wildfires with empathy?

Vigliotti: Approach victims with care. Listen more, talk less. And forget the deadline.

When I’m launched on an assignment like the wildfire in Lahaina, the first thing I think about when I arrive in a community is, “This is someone’s home.”

Reporting with empathy begins with first respecting this visitor status, and then when someone decides to share their story, take a breath and remember to listen. And listening takes time. If there’s a deadline looming, I’ll wait until I’m done filing a report to start a conversation. I can’t think of anything more hurtful to a survivor, and the heart of a story, than cutting someone off.

How do you get up to speed in a new location when you are not a local?

Vigliotti: The quickest way to get to know a place when you’re not a local is to talk to the locals. I know, big surprise. I get some of the best info and tips when I pick-up a Red Bull (I drink too many a day) at the gas station and speak to the clerk, or when I’m checking into whatever hotel will be serving as a base camp.

What are your tips for holding public officials accountable during and after the disaster?

Vigliotti: If something doesn’t add up, question whoever is in charge of the math. And don’t forget the follow-up.

Immediately after the Lahaina fire, survivors told my producer Christian Duran and me there were no evacuations and sirens (used for all disasters including wildfires) were not activated. Initially, county officials claimed the sirens were knocked offline by the wind and fire. We later learned they not only worked (and there was plenty of time to use them), the man in charge of activating them intentionally chose not to do so.

In a press conference, I asked Herman Andaya, the head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, if he regretted his decision and if it “was time he handed over the reins “to someone else.” Andaya defended his background, which did not include emergency management, but did not respond to my question about the sirens. Before he could walk away, I followed up: “But do you regret your decision to not activate the sirens?” His response: “I do not.” That Q&A quickly went viral. He resigned less than 24 hours later.

Q: What is your process for finding sources, both experts and locals, impacted by the disaster?

Vigliotti: Sourcing begins with engagement and trust. In television news, what people say on camera is only a fraction of the whole story and usually by design. I find the best information comes when the camera stops rolling. If someone is not willing or able to say it on camera, don’t push. But do stay engaged. Exchange phone numbers. Seek guidance. Communicate. And what’s said on background stays on background.

Q: Climate change continues to impact communities. What advice do you have for others to incorporate the climate angle into the story?

Vigliotti: It will take time to reduce our carbon footprint and roll back the consequences of human-caused climate change. In the meantime, there are actions communities can take now to protect themselves from future weather threats. Federal and state funding is available to help with this fortification and, in some cases, local governments are dragging their heels.

In Maui, a state-backed 2014 Wildfire Prevention Plan warned of a growing fire risk in and around Lahaina and made suggestions including reducing fuel loads, creating fire breaks, building defensible space, and conserving water. Officials committed to implementing those changes. Federal funding would have helped foot the bill. But nearly a decade later, there’s no documentation showing any of those changes were executed.

Q: How many other communities are running out of time? We should all be asking this question.


These interviews were published in "The Latest" on August 31 and September 5.

"The Latest" newsletter is written and edited by the National Press Club Journalism Institute staff: Beth Francesco and Holly Butcher Grant. You can send questions and suggestions for topics to cover. We recommend that you subscribe. You also can view the newsletter's archives.

>>> The complete list of Global Business Journalism tipsheets is available on our website.

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