Why a natural disaster is the hardest story to report
As the people in Texas continue to face the devastation wrought by Mother Nature’s fury, it’s hard not to recall the days and weeks after Superstorm Sandy battered Long Island.
At the time, I was a young reporter, two years into doing this professionally. What I’d witness amid the devastation was something I knew I’d never forget: a father stubbornly fighting back tears so as not to rattle his children that his eyes seemed to well up like a ball — too proud to give in to the pain. The mother surveying the devastation, yet finding a tiny sliver of hope in the fact that her family emerged relatively unscathed. The neighbors in a tiny village along the coast thanking journalists for listening and recording their plight because they feared no one else would come. The communities feverishly crafting large hand-made signs warning looters they’d be gravely injured if they even dare consider breaking into their homes.
Those early days were a whirlwind. My family had our own problems — our electricity out for a week — but that paled in comparison to what most others were going through. Myself and my colleagues knew where we had to be: with the people who were suffering the most. Honestly, it was a helpless feeling. As if you were the intruders who were warned to stay away. Sometimes you didn’t know what to ask. A simple, “How’s your family?” never seemed so inappropriate.
Yet I quickly discovered that just listening and recording their thoughts was cathartic for them. They wanted to talk, hoping a local official or anyone for that matter, would answer their cries for help. So we did our jobs. It seemed as if were in the field for hours on end, occasionally escaping to a nearby Starbucks and huddling up by an outlet so we could file a story and do it all again.
There’s nothing journalists can really do to stem the suffering. We’re not the First Responder or the Good Samaritan. We’re not the doctor working a seemingly endless shift or the relief agency volunteer aiding families inside a shelter. We’re not the mom-and-pop shop owner who can’t survive even one day with their doors shuttered.
We do what we’re trained to do: ask questions. If the words don’t come, you can bet the people — even those suffering the most — will find the words for you. They’re the real heroes. And they deserve to have their stories told.