What I Learned In Joplin

I’m going to write this in a stream of consciousness, the same way I experienced Joplin.

It was my first time covering — more accurately, trying to cover — a disaster. The National desk knows I am a weather geek, so I came close to covering the tornadoes in North Carolina in April, and then the tornadoes in Alabama earlier this month. But the timing wasn’t right in either case.

This time, it was. I happened to be awake at 2 a.m. for a 6 a.m. ET flight to Chicago on Monday morning, just 12 hours after the tornado struck in Joplin. While in the air, I wondered if I should volunteer to go there. When I landed, I looked at the departure board and saw that a flight was leaving for Kansas City in 45 minutes. On a whim, I walk-ran to the gate and asked if I could buy a standby ticket. The agent said yes.

Two calls to New York later, I booked the 8 a.m. CT flight. I told the National desk that I’d be in Joplin at noon local time. I had no maps, no instructions, no boots. I had a notebook but no pen.

What I learned: always carry extra pens.

My cell phone was dying, but I reserved a car online before take-off. On the flight, I wrote a blog post about Oprah.

I was in the rental car at 9:45 and on the highway three minutes later. 176 miles to go, fueled by granola bars purchased at Whole Foods the day before. On the way, there was a conference call with the National desk. I was to travel to the ruined hospital and try to interview doctors, patients and other survivors. My worry, of course, was that the survivors would be far away from the hospital.

Monica Davey, a Times correspondent in Chicago, texted me the hospital address. My iPhone, now charging through my laptop, showed the way ahead. But as I approached Joplin, cell service began to degrade dramatically.

I’m aware that what I’m going to say next will probably sound petty, given the scope of the tragedy I was witnessing. But the lack of cell service was an all-consuming problem. Rescue workers and survivors struggled with it just as I did.

What I learned: It’s easy to scoff at the suggestion that satisfactory cell service is a matter of national security and necessity. But I won’t scoff anymore. If I were planning a newsroom’s response to emergencies, I would buy those backpacks that have six or eight wireless cards in them, all connected to different cell tower operators, thereby upping the chances of finding a signal at any given time.

This is my first time coming upon a natural disaster as a reporter. I suppose my instinct should be “first, do no harm.”

Entering Joplin, I drove along 32nd Street, the south side of the devastated neighborhood, getting my bearings, wondering if it was safe to drive over power lines, looking for a place to leave my car. I parked a block from the south side of the hospital and approached on foot, taking as many pictures as possible, knowing I’d need them later to remember what I was seeing.

I tried to talk to a couple of nurses. They said they were not allowed to.

I started trying to upload pictures to Instagram. It sometimes took what seemed like ten minutes of refreshing to upload just one picture.

A view of the north side of the hospital in Joplin. http://instagr.am/p/EoTHO/

What I learned: In areas with spotty service, Instagram and Twitter apps need to be able to auto-upload until the picture or tweets gets out. (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this.)

I walked to 26th Street, north of the hospital, where the satellite trucks had piled up, and found The Weather Channel crew that had arrived in Joplin just after the storm. After interviewing the crew, we watched the search of a flattened house. That’s when I was able to see the extent of the damage to the neighborhood for the first time.

I’m speechless.

Part of me thought, “This is a television story more than a print story.” It was an appeal to the heart more than the brain.

I started trying to tweet everything I saw — the search of the rubble pile, the sounds coming from the hospital, the dazed look on peoples’ faces.

Some of the texts didn’t send, but most did. Practically speaking, text messages were my only way to relay information. I tried to make phone calls to the desk in New York, but the calls always dropped within a minute. I tried to send e-mails, but they sat in my outbox.

Texting is just about my only way to transmit anything right now. Rain is picking up.

What I learned: it can be extraordinarily hard to file copy from a disaster site. It would be helpful, in cases like this, to have a reporter or editor in New York rewriting the reporters’ tweets and reworking them into the live news story.

Texting was how other reporters were communicating, too. This information came to me via text:

Update to my earlier tweets about the search & possible rescue: no sign of life, Wx Channel prod. tells me. Searchers have moved on. #joplin

Finally, I found someone with a connection to the hospital. A 22-year-old guy was searching for his father’s pick-up truck in the parking lot, and eventually found it in a grassy area nearby. His father had been at the hospital when the storm struck. As he fished his belongings out from the crushed truck, he promised to connect me by phone with his father later.

As the drizzle turned into a downpour, I jogged half a mile to my car. Now drenched, I put on a T-shirt and tried to drive to a place where I could find a steady wireless signal.

I wound up at a McDonald’s south of town, where the power was on and where the Wifi worked. There, I uploaded more photos, uploaded iPhone video to The Times’ FTP site via a cool new app I had happened to download the prior week, and typed up my notes from interviews. The anecdote about the 22-year-old made its way into the live news story on NYTimes.com.

I sent a few e-mails and made a few calls to The Times suggesting that my Twitter feed somehow be incorporated into the coverage. It was, after all, the place where my latest reporting was being posted. Late in the afternoon, The Times published a link directly to my Twitter feed on the home page.

Looking back, I think my best reporting was on Twitter. I have archived all of the tweets here.

Update: I’ve thought about this comment a little bit more. I believe it’s true that “my best reporting was on Twitter,” but only up until a certain point on Monday, probably around 11 p.m. local time. After that point, with a more stable Internet connection, I was able to file complete stories for NYTimes.com, not just chunks of copy.

People later told me that they thought I was processing what I was seeing in real-time on Twitter. I was.

There’s something so unnatural about a natural disaster like this. It’s as if the physical world has been flipped upside down and shaken.

I filed chunks of copy for the print editions, then drove back to the damage site in search of more survivors to interview. Instead, I stumbled upon a crew of college students who wanted to help dig people out. But there was no one to dig out. So instead, they helped dig out furniture from the home of Drew Johnson, one of their fraternity brothers.

What was saved from the grandmother’s house: an 80-year-old rocking chair. #joplin http://instagr.am/p/Eo82D/

I was surprised by how friendly and accessible the Johnson family was. I texted with Drew that night and the next day, and he even offered me a place to stay for the night, even though his home had been decimated.

I also surprised by how few journalists I saw in the streets in my 16 hours in Joplin. On day one, television journalists gravitated to the street north of the hospital, even though there were so many other streets that had sustained even greater damage.

Back at the McDonalds, which had become my bureau, I filed a bit more for the Web — mentioning that the town was now under a flash flood warning, for instance — then I spent some time at a MASH-like hospital tent across the street from the hospital. With the rain and the cold still adding insult to Joplin’s injury, volunteers were expecting an influx of rescue workers suffering from hypothermia. They were setting up the tent using supplies that were salvaged from the hospital.

Speaking of hypothermia, on Facebook, my mom had reminded me about my wet clothes.

Just realized my feet have been soaking wet for hours. Gonna change my socks now. Writing some overnight stories in #Joplin.

What I learned: jeans and a pull-over and work shoes are not sufficient at a disaster site. I have to buy new shoes.

I started wandering around the makeshift hospital. There was no P.R. person to ask for permission; there was just a Marine Corps vet who was called the boss by the other volunteers.

This trauma unit is being run by volunteers & Marine Corps vets who specialized in front-line medicine. #Joplin

For a few minutes I helped stock the shelves of the tent. The volunteers knew I was a journalist, but they were comfortable with me being around. I think it helped that I wasn’t carrying a notebook, I was only taking notes on my phone.

I found a new McDonald’s to file from, and the staff kindly let me stay and work after it closed at midnight.

Final edition of the A1 from #Joplin that I helped w/. Tornado “sucked the wind out of me,” hospital patient told me: http://nyti.ms/kBBTVk

A.G. Sulzberger, Monica Davey and the editors in New York had already done an amazing job stitching together the A1 story about the hospital. I wanted to contribute something for the home page overnight, so I filed a sidebar story about the Johnson family. It was posted right away.

Thinking ahead to the morning, and not wanting to go to sleep, I started to gather “string” (another term for a reporter’s notes) about the rescue efforts overnight. I drove the streets, looking for those efforts, but not finding any. Northeast of the hospital, I was stunned by how high the piles of debris were.

I thought I had seen the worst. I hadn’t. I think I have now. More later. #Joplin

It’s hard to photograph the wreckage in the dark. But I now know why onlookers compare these disasters to movies…

We’ve all seen a dozen disaster movies, and this looks like a dozen disaster movies rolled into one. #Joplin

I returned to the hospital tent for a while and met more volunteers. Then I returned to my car, where I could warm up and where those granola bars were still coming in handy. Thanks, you-know-who, for that Whole Foods trip on Sunday.

What I learned: the local radio stations are enormously helpful. They were my eyes and ears all day.

Listening to 97.9 FM in Joplin. Due to power fluctuations, hosts sometimes don’t know if they’re on the air.

A caller to the news radio station in #Joplin: “This is gonna sound strange, but I’m calling to try to find my ex-wife…

At around 2 a.m., the radio station made me aware of a first aid station at 20th and Main. On the way there, I was stopped by police at a checkpoint for the first and only time. He waved me through when I told him where I was going.

At the first aid station, volunteers were disappointed that there was no one to help. They waited in the dark, lit by candles and by generator-powered spotlights. There was a sense that more help was on the way.

Watching a long column of St. Louis urban search and rescue trucks roll down Main St. in #Joplin.

I wrote a story about the overnight preparations for search and rescue — and about how some people believed the mission was transitioning to search and recovery. Around 8 a.m., that story became the new lead story on NYTimes.com, replacing the story from the night before.

What I learned: it’s worth thinking ahead to what the Web site’s going to want and need a few hours from now.

I drove the 176 miles back to the Kansas City airport, arriving at dawn for a 7:50 a.m. flight back to Chicago. By 10 a.m. I would be standing in line at Harpo Studios for the last taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

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