Tip of the Week | 3 Tips After 3 Decades Covering Hurricanes

Richard Adkins (Photojournalist -- WRAL; Raleigh, NC)
Richard Adkins (Photojournalist — WRAL; Raleigh, NC)

3 Tips After 3 Decades Covering Hurricanes

Written by Richard Adkins


Highway 264 in North Carolina between Belhaven and Bath rides low along farmland and riverbanks.  When a hurricane howls the Pungo River is pushed from its basin and trespasses along this tar ribbon.

In 2011 Irene came to visit.

Reporter Ken Smith and I found ourselves on that stretch of road.  Or at least we think we were on the road.  The water was so deep it was coming over the hood, seeping in through the door jams and splashing into our open windows.  I dared not let up on the accelerator for fear of stalling out.  More than 3 decades of covering hurricanes and I found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I began to wonder if they would ever find our bodies.

That’s just one of the many scary moments I’ve had while covering storms.

Now it’s the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season and we’ve made it past the hump.  We’re on the backside of the season; been pretty lucky so far.  Four tropical storms, three becoming hurricanes, and only Arthur making landfall along the Eastern US coastline.

You folks in the mid-west can keep your tornadoes, I chased them for 5 years in Oklahoma.  The California crowd can hold on to your earthquakes, I woke up to one in a hotel in the middle of the night.  If I have to cover nature at it’s worst, I’ll take a hurricane any day over those others.  Why?  Because you can plan for a hurricane.  Hurricanes announce their arrival a week or more in advance.

I’ve covered every major hurricane that has come up the eastern coastline for more than 30 years.  The one thing I can tell you is to be prepared.  And prepare twice as much as you think you’ll need.  Talk with the old-timers like myself.  I can tell you story after story of rookie mistakes I’ve made and seen.  I’ve actually been to a hurricane with a reporter who didn’t bring rain gear.

The temptation here is to preach… but I’d rather prep you.  So here’s a few thoughts I hope you can hold on to.

Richard Adkins (Photojournalist -- WRAL; Raleigh, NC)
Richard Adkins (Photojournalist — WRAL; Raleigh, NC)

1.  Prepare yourself

Bring all the rain gear you want, but in a real storm you’re going to get wet.  So have towels to dry with and plenty of extra clothes.  Wear comfortable clothes that breathe, wet cotton gets uncomfortable very fast.  I generally wear shorts, less wet fabric to weigh you down and easier to wear under weather gear.  Leave the high fashion at home.  Hard-sole low boots are better than waders in my opinion.  The goal is to stay out of flood water, but if you must venture in, you don’t want to step on nails or have your knee high boots fill with water.

When you leave your hotel room, take everything with you.  Your hotel may flood, you may get trapped or reassigned, you want your stuff with you.

2.  Prepare the gear

The most common rookie mistake I see is “Lens Fog.”  Understand what makes the lens fog up.  Anyone who wears glasses knows you can’t move cold glass into warm moist environments.  Stow the camera where its subject to the outside temperatures.  With the camera in your car, keep the windows rolled down slightly, don’t over crank your air conditioning. In the hotel, I try to keep the camera on the balcony when possible.

Keep your gear dry.  The rain cover that came with your camera isn’t going to do it.  Keep plenty of plastic garbage bags handy, don’t be shy about using them.

Keep Fuel in the car, top it off often.  You’ll need to keep your car running to power your inverter when the local power goes out.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse -- Richard Adkins
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse — Richard Adkins

3.  Prepare for your coverage

When the power lines go down and telephones cut off, people will jam the local cell service.  Your Live-U or other cellular device may not work.  Nothing is more dependable than having your sat truck on site.  Parking a sat truck for a hurricane is an art form.  You need a building to block the wind from ripping the dish off your truck, and enough elevation to keep it out of the water.

Find a place with dependable wired internet.  Even without the power, often the internet line will work.

I could list a hundred tips for you, your gear and your coverage, but instead I suggest you talk with some ‘Togs with experience.

Looking back to 2011, I have no idea how we made it out of that flooded stretch of highway.  We didn’t drive into it, the water came up around us.  Every storm brings its own unique challenges.  You have to be tough, and be prepared to come out on the other end.