Bob Longo, news director of Cox Media’s CBS-Fox (WJAX-WFOX) duopoly in Jacksonville, Fla., explains the challenges his station faced, and overcame, while covering the powerful hurricane.
A News Director’s-Eye View Of Hurricane Irma
Sometimes things go right. Cox Media’s CBS-Fox (WJAX-WFOX) duopoly in Jacksonville, Fla., did its job in the face of Hurricane Irma over the past weekend, warning viewers to prepare or evacuate as the storm approached and then providing blow-by-blow coverage of the damaging wind and rain and the widespread flooding that surprised just about everybody on Monday.
And after the worst had passed, News Director Bob Longo was able to report yesterday afternoon that the station came through it intact, all hands were accounted for, dramatic stories had been told and the brand-new news set that was rush into on-air service performed admirably and enhanced the coverage.
Here’s his edited debriefing by TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell as TV’s 47th largest market was just beginning to dry out.
I was surprised to see the extensive flooding in Jacksonville on Monday because the storm had veered west and looked as it might spare the east coast. Were you?
I’d use the word shocked, because of the damage amount and the amount of water, but I can’t say as I was surprised by it. Our chief meteorologist Mike Buresh had been saying for about 10 days that it was an east-coast threat and that the storm surge was our biggest threat.
We lived through [Hurricane] Matthew last year, which was kind of a grazing hit, but it did a lot of damage. It was the first hurricane that’d come through here in decades.
People had had an it-will-never-happen-here attitude, and Matthew really eliminated that attitude. It just wiped it clean. And so this year, people really listened and paid attention during the build-up.
So, the flooding came Monday morning.
The hurricane came through, and we got anywhere between 10 and 15 inches of rain. And there was, coincidentally, a localized nor’easter on Thursday-Friday. So, the hurricane was on top of that, right? So, there was a lot of water.
What all the meteorologists, including the ones that the city and the county are using in their news conferences seem to agree on, is that this thing came through here Sunday night/Monday morning, as a [category] one, but with a storm surge equivalent of a three because for so many days water was just accumulating. So, it kind of didn’t matter that the storm itself had degraded. The water was still there and pushing, and that’s really what caused the flooding in our area.
So people were waking up on Monday morning with water. That’s when this thing was the worst?
Yeah. The water started to accumulate in the dead of the night, early morning hours. Low tide was 6 a.m. So, as the morning progressed, the storm lessened, but the water increased because it was pushing with high tide in the [St. Johns] river, high tide on the beaches, all that stuff. That’s what caught people off guard.
So, there was never a time when you said, oh, this thing’s going west, it’s not going to be so bad?
No, our language really wasn’t that. We really took care not to say the track has moved west, it won’t be so bad. The track did wobble west. But these things are still unpredictable in their last hours. Our meteorologists were clear that that threat was going to be wind and there was going to be storm surge. So, we were on with it.
Talk about your actual coverage of the story.
How about this one? We launched a new set, and new graphics and music on Wednesday. We had done two weeks of rehearsals behind the scenes, and we moved it along. It was built. But we sped it up to get it. We launched it five or six days before we originally planned. But we just felt that it had so many areas where we could showcase video and talent. You know, 27 monitors behind the set, two touch screens, two other large, multi-screen areas. It just really enabled us to tell a more visual story, and a more compelling story. So, we really rushed to get it on.
That was bold.
Yeah. I don’t think anyone’s used that word when they’re talking to me. There were other, saltier words, but bold was definitely what it was. It was a crazy weekend, right?
On Sunday evening, we had two crews in St. John’s County [south of Jacksonville]. One of them was in our First Alert storm tracker. It’s a big Jeep with a satellite, a LiveU, six cameras, weather equipment and all that.
So we called that up, and we did this 30-minute play-by-play where Mike [Buresh] was: Look, here’s where I want you to drive. I want you to drive here, I want you to drive here, point the camera to your east, and slow down, and let’s see what we can see when we’re looking into this thing.
And it was really dramatic because he was talking about the threat of tornadoes popping up. They’re in the wind and in the rain, and you really can’t see them. And lo and behold, fast forward, we find out today that there were three tornadoes that struck St. John’s County.
We had another amazing moment on Monday. Russell [Colburn] is again in the storm tracker. And he’s in Riverside [on the St. Johns River, south of downtown], and it’s flooded out. The river had crested over the banks, it was high tide, there was four, five, six feet of water through the streets. All these homes are flooded out. He got as far in as he could with the storm tracker.
These folks who live close by have a retro-fitted military-like truck. It’s got four-foot tires on it. It’s huge. They roll up to him. He says, “Hey man, can I jump on?” He jumps on, and they go in and they start hauling people out of buildings and things like that. It was crazy! He was on TV for an hour doing that.
You know, you’ve watched enough TV, there are a lot of what I would call remarkable moments in disasters like this — of awfulness, of vigilance, of humanity where people are helping each other. That was one of those moments.
TV stations received a lot of criticism this week for sending crews out in the storm where they could be knocked over by the wind or hit by flying debris. What’s your policy?
This has been going on for decades, right? And I think there has to be some common sense to it all. I’ve seen some videos of people — reporters, journalists — in the streets in some pretty bad situations that I’m not so sure that I would want to put myself in.
We had probably a dozen meetings between Friday and Monday morning with full-on staff. So every 12 hours, a new bunch of people come in, same thing. Rule No. 1, safety first. Our safety first. Do not put yourself in harm’s way.
In the night, look out for power lines, listen for noise. If you see crackling transformers, get clear of that. Don’t get out into that stuff.
If you’re in water, be careful what you’re walking in. Make sure you have waders on. Make sure you’re taking small steps. If you’re in the wind and the rain, are you protected, at least on one side, by a building or truck? Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Do not be exposed.
I believe all of what we did never put anybody in harm’s way, but showcased to the viewer the extent of the storm that they were facing. Because that’s our job, right?
Did the station, tower or equipment sustain any damage throughout this?
No. By Monday afternoon, some of our camera lenses were fogging up from being in the rain. We didn’t lose anything — knock on wood — except for connectivity to four out of 10 tower cams in our area, and that was really a Comcast issue, because the connectivity came to Comcast on that. But structurally, thank God, towers were good, trucks, vehicles, cameras, laptops, people, all that stuff, nothing.
And everything is pretty much still working?
I hesitate to say it out loud, but yes. Last year, the storm tracker needed some engine work afterward because some of the water was deeper than we thought when we were driving through it. So we learned from that, and we put an extra long snorkel on it.
But no power outages where you were? Did you have to go to generator at any time.
Yes, there were plenty of power outages. At some point on Saturday, we flipped the switch to generator power, and I think we came off it yesterday afternoon.
According to the FCC, Duval County [which includes Jacksonville] lost about 20% of its wireless towers. Did that affect your bonded cellular?
It did some, but it didn’t affect our on-air. With the LiveU, we remarkably didn’t have that. The ones we use are not all one carrier. They’re multiple carriers. So, if, for instance, an AT&T tower is affected, we still have cards in those multiple bonded units that are from Verizon. All our crews also had our own radio network that we use for communication and for IFB. And so we were self-reliant in that fashion also.
Was any of your staff personally affected by it? Did anybody lose their homes or anything?
We had a meteorologist whose roof blew off. So, she’s dealing with that right now. Cox Enterprises has a policy where they take care of people in generous fashion. So, she’s in good hands right now.
How many of these storm trackers do you have out on the street?
We have one fully outfitted with six cameras, a LiveU, K-band satellite, and all that kind of stuff in it. Then we’ve got two other vehicles that are kind of mini versions with two cameras.
Did microwave and satellite come into play in getting live shots?
Amazingly — and it really is amazing if you look back 10 years — most all our on-air stuff was through LiveU.
We also have a couple of apps that I’m not going to name for competitive reasons that we also use. With them, we can use our iPhones to broadcast in HD. It’s slightly less quality than the full LiveU, or an ENG shot, but in a pinch it’s something good versus nothing at all.
What about Facebook? I guess you were streaming your coverage as well as broadcasting it.
Yeah, we streamed everything. We saw that we had 50% of audience share during the Saturday-Sunday-Monday of the event. And so we did really well in that regard.
We brought in reinforcements that helped us both on-air and behind the scenes, and on our social digital coverage as well.
You know there’s going to be a certain amount of people that lose power in these things, and there only way to get the information is either by radio or by wireless device.
Everybody has a cell phone these day, And so we did really well with that. Hundreds of thousands of video views and live streams, and millions upon millions of page views and visits from people who are primarily watching the weather story — our story and our live stream.
So, to be clear, is all that digital traffic coming in mostly through Facebook or the website?
I’d say both. I don’t have the number of which was more.
What was your aerial strategy? What were you able to do in the air with drones and choppers?
We’re the first station in the market with an HD chopper, and we’ve had one for almost a year-and-a-half now. And we’ve got several drones. So, we made sure that we went to some of the landmarks and got some before pictures. The dunes all along Jacksonville beach’s, dunes were just redone. They spent, I want to say, almost $20 million dollars to redo the dunes.. By the way, they mostly held up.
But aerial-wise, the chopper didn’t go up until first light Tuesday and we flew almost all day. And so that was the chance we saw these aerials, and it was crazy.
We went on at 4 p.m., stayed on until 7, and we had the chopper up the entire time during those three hours, and during the news and during the cut-ins, and all that.
We flew it all over the place, so it wasn’t just one area. We cover a lot of counties. We were in St. John’s County, along the beach I just told you about, Vilano, because the tornado damage is quite expansive there.
What about drones? Do you have any?
We have several drones, and we put them up yesterday [Tueday].
What do you get from the drones that you don’t get from the choppers?
You can get closer. Drones are a pain because you have to deal with the government on where you can fly. There’s a lot of places around here you can’t fly, because you’ve got several military bases and things like that.
But the pictures, I believe, are slightly higher quality because you can actually get close to things, and hover, and examine them in such a unique way.
We flew one yesterday in San Marco. It was flooded. We flew it like five feet off the flood water, down a street with businesses all around it, and homes all around it. And you can’t get that with a chopper. The choppers are amazing. Don’t get me wrong. It’s also HD. But it’s 1,500 feet in the air, right? And it’s got a nice zoom lens on it. But you don’t get that eye-level perspective that you can get with a drone. And so the combination of them, I think, really is spectacular.