Covering disasters

May 24, 2013 

Community journalists rarely get the call to cover something as overwhelming or emotionally draining as a tornado.

Believe me when I tell you we are just fine with that.

But when that phone call comes in, the reporter in you immediately snaps into action and editors begin to put plans in place for coverage.

It’s what the Joplin Globe did so well two years ago and something I had to do in Iowa in 2008.

While the tornado that struck a Boy Scout camp in Little Sioux, Iowa, on June 11, 2008 didn’t have nearly the destruction path of Joplin or the recent Moore, Okla., twister, it was ravaging and relentless nonetheless, killing four teenage scouts that day and forever changing families’ lives.

All of us in this business have heightened senses during certain events. It’s something that you have to possess in journalism.

Severe weather episodes, certainly, bring out that sense of urgency.

As the thunderstorms and ominous clouds barreled toward us in Harrison County, Iowa that afternoon and evening, we could not have envisioned the horror that would follow hours later.

Yes, we were in a tornado watch. And yes, we knew these storms had a history of producing extreme conditions.

But the thought of a tornado dropping down squarely on a remote Boy Scout camp never entered our minds.

In the moments directly following the tornado’s hit, reports started flowing in to all of us in the tiny communities of Logan and Woodbine, and all around Harrison County and southwest Iowa.

Exact information was hard to come by, but it was sounding more and more like the worst possible news was coming out of that area – a tornado had indeed struck and children were injured and deceased.

The isolated area in and out of the scout camp was bottled up with emergency personnel and volunteers, so our plan became simple: get our lone reporter to the high school staging area and I would hit the hospital to see who was there and hopefully talk to some that were at the camp.

The scene that played out of the next few hours broke our hearts and tested our ability to stay composed in a situation so tragic.

As parents picked up their children, it became more apparent which ones were going to get the worst news they could imagine.

At the hospital, teenagers with injuries shared stories of hunkering down inside a different cabins and small buildings and survive a tornado surrounded by fellow scouts and adults, only to have an airborne vehicle smash into a brick chimney in one cabin that would topple over and end four lives.

Covering tragedies, while part of the job, tests us in many different ways.

Watching the coverage of this week’s tornado that tore through two elementary schools in Moore brought back many of those memories.

The silver lining, if there is one, can be found in the heroes, the helpers and the first responders that are usually the dads, uncles, coaches and business owners in these communities.

And those are the stories we need to remember to tell, too.

John Beaudoin is the publisher of the Lee’s Summit Journal. To comment, call 816-282-7001 or e-mail jbeaudoin@lsjournal.com.

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