While tornadoes bounced around our part of the country last night, they didn’t touch this little corner of Kentucky. It appears we got really lucky. Daylight brought word of dozens of deaths and devastating damage in the nation’s midsection. The news coming out of Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and other parts of Kentucky is horrible and will probably get a little worse before it gets better. It’s at times like these that I don’t miss being in the news business. This region has suffered the wrath of twisters a few times, and it is no fun to be in the middle of such devastation and pain. I’ve stood beside folks who have lost everything, watched people pick through the rubble of their homes and witnessed the strength of beaten up communities. Despite the public perception of reporters, I can tell you they do not enjoy witnessing tragedy.
Journalism has changed a lot since I became a part of it twenty four years ago. (Geez, that number makes me feel old.) I’m old school, and while I find fault with most aspects of television news these days, I do think TV stations are usually at their best when providing warnings during severe storms. They’re helping to save lives, for goodness sake and sometimes putting their own lives at risk in the process. Some of the work I’m most proud of during my time as News Director of our local TV station came during a tornado outbreak five years ago. It was also a turning point in my decision to change careers.
I got a call from our 10 o’clock newscast producer around 8:30pm. The projections from the National Weather Service sounded severe and it was my practice to head to the station if we were in for really severe weather. By 9:50pm the skies were in chaos, and the warnings were rolling in quickly. Minutes away from the start of the newscast, I took my producer by the shoulders, told him to throw out the newscast he had just spent four hours writing and be ready to wing it. I could hear his ulcer start to churn. I relayed the same message into the earpieces of our anchors and watched them frown. Thirty minutes without a script is nerve wracking. Thirty minutes ended up being two hours of non-stop coverage. Numerous tornadoes pummeled our area that night. At least one was an F-4. It cut a wide path from one side of my home county to the other side. We gave warning after warning, spoke live on the air to emergency services staff trying to get safety information to the public and heard from eyewitnesses who couldn’t believe what they had seen. The most touching moment came when a woman called us and asked for help in locating her husband. She was so desperate she gave out his cell phone number over the air. A little while later, a complete stranger to this woman called to say she had contacted the man, and he was okay. It was genuine and oh so raw.
On the scanner we could hear the desperate search for missing people and the calls for a coroner. Under my breath I muttered, “This is bad, really bad”. Very softly, the director said, “Yes”. We could also hear the warning sirens outside the station walls. The tornadoes were all around us and moving closer. At one point a funnel cloud was very near the station. The sirens outside our station were audible on the air as our meteorologist relayed to viewers how close the funnel cloud was to us. The producer looked at me, and said, “Where do WE go?” I said, “Nowhere. We’re supposed to stay right here.” The significance of that hit him, and I could see the fear in his eyes. I hoped he couldn’t see the fear in mine. I wanted so badly at that moment to be at home with my family. In the midst of barking out orders, I had managed a quick call home to tell my family to take cover. I wanted to be huddled in our hallway with them. Instead, I had to take care of our viewers. I didn't like putting them before my family.
The funnel cloud passed over us, but I barely had a chance to catch my breath because the damage reports started rolling in, and they were in places where my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived. It was really bad, and it was all around my friends and family. I wanted to throw up.
I managed another quick call, this time to my mother. She and my baby brother were okay. Daddy was okay, too. He had clocked out at his security job at the local college as the storm started but had stayed put to wait out the weather. Good thing. If he had driven home at his normal time, he would probably have driven right into the path of the tornado. Super Cop was fine, too. By morning we would learn that the tornado had destroyed the home of my aunt and uncle while they were camping at a local campground. They rode out the storm in the bathhouse of the campground while the twister was tearing up their house. It also destroyed my cousin’s daughter’s house. It blew away the homes of family friends. An old neighbor of ours and her husband went flying through the air in bathtubs when the tornado wiped out their house. They both ended up in the hospital. They never found their truck. We assumed it ended up at the bottom of the lake on their property. Another friend grabbed the leg of his son and barely managed to hold onto the boy as the suction of the storm tried to pull him away. Everywhere I turned I heard stories about someone I knew. This storm was personal.
Our coverage that night was superb. We didn’t sensationalize. We didn’t dramatize. We simply told real stories and worked to protect people. In the days that followed, we were sensitive to people’s pain and respectful in our story telling. I was very proud of our work, but I didn’t feel good. That’s because I knew I didn’t want to be in the middle of the chaos any more. It was getting too hard to tell stories about people I knew, a hazard of covering news in the area where you grew up, and I was tired of running toward storms instead of huddling with my family when there was a chance we might all get blown away. I was staring my 40th birthday in the eyes but feeling much older. The business was making me very old, very fast, and it was always pulling me away from my family. There was a twister of another kind brewing inside me, and it would take about a year for it to finally blow over. When it did, I had made a career change that lessened my stress, gave me the opportunity to be creative and allowed me to spend much more time with my family. I have never looked back. It always amazes me how bright the sun seems after a storm.
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