Reporters and photojournalists share stories on Kentucky’s 60-mile path to tornado destruction – Poynter
Photojournalist Emily Evans comes from a family of first responders. As she climbed to the top of a hill in Dawson Springs, Ky., Shortly after a tornado swarm killed around 100 people in four states, the Louisville-based WDRB photojournalist leveled her tripod while ‘she watched the devastation surrounding her.
“I’ve learned from my family that when you’re overwhelmed you focus on one thing at a time, you break it down, you get the job done. But you have to have a lot of compassion, ”she said. “For those people we cover, it’s the worst day of their lives. They lost everything. These people are in mourning, and I still believe journalism is a public service. I saw an adult cry today as he walked me around what was left of his house. His Christmas decorations were still hung there.
For 35 years, WKRC reporter David Winter has covered countless tornadoes and wildfires. Yet he volunteered to drive hours from Cincinnati, Ohio to Dawson Springs to tell this tale of a grieving country town that is still in shock.
“I cried three times today,” Winter said. “I was talking with a 5 year old girl named Perlina. I have two children at home. She couldn’t find her two cats who got lost in the storm, then she found her dog. It was a relief after all that has been lost here. And yet, she worried about these little cats.
“I learned a long time ago that you can be overwhelmed by a disaster. Focus only on the little things. A child’s toy, a photograph, a sock, ”said Winter.
He pointed to a bicycle in a tree, then a refrigerator stuck in the branches of a maple tree next to it. When the story is so big, he said, you have to tell it through the little details of what people have lost.
CNN correspondent Boris Sanchez stood with the remains of the Graves County courthouse behind him in Mayfield, Ky. As a bulldozer moved debris in the background, a producer spoke to someone in New York City.
“After a dozen years of covering all kinds of catastrophes, you must have an understanding of death that allows you – and just for now – to put sentimentality aside so that you can focus on the facts,” told me. Sanchez said. “It takes a certain emotional distance even when you are telling people’s very personal stories. “
Sanchez said he had just returned from a walk in a church in Mayfield.
“The facade of the church was standing but everything behind the facade was gone,” he said. “This is an image that I will take with me from this place. “
Lauren Adams insisted on being here. She is a weekend presenter at Louisville-based WLKY, and her husband’s family are from Mayfield. She was a reporter in the nearby town of Paducah, Ky. For six years and knows the community so well that she knew the name of the county jailer’s dog.
“I’m still a breastfeeding mom, so I took my two kids. They stay with their families here while we do this, ”she said.
As we stood in front of the destroyed courthouse, she explained to me why she had come.
“Before I got here, I had a hungry stomach. It hurts so much to see a place I love in such pain. I tried to tell my family why we have to be here. Maybe the power of our words will inspire people to donate to help, maybe to go donate blood. Maybe that will just make people pay attention to weather warnings next time, ”she said. “My husband’s family was born here. We would be here if I didn’t do this job, but as a journalist maybe I can do some good. They are such good people. I want to do my best for them.
Stephen Goin works solo as a photojournalist and reporter for Fox News. He came from Cleveland, Ohio. As he interviewed a man who was about to burst into tears as he recalled how he grew up and stayed in Dawson Springs his entire life, two young women drove up.
“Do you want a McDonald’s cookie?” Whitney Shaw asked. She pushed a sandwich out of the car window.
“I think you need a hug,” she said. “I am a hug.”
Shaw got out of the car and did just that, explaining that she was supposed to graduate from Murray State University on Saturday, but the tornado called off the ceremony. So she was here doing what she was trained to do. Her degree is in social work.
“All I want to do is help people,” she said.
Goin captured it all.
“It was quite a long time,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” Goin replied, “It’s real. “
Working alone adds special stress to journalists covering the tragedy. “The only thing I keep in mind is telling the story well,” he said. “Focus on that. Do it right.
Miami-based Rogelio Mora-Tagle is used to covering hurricanes for Telemundo.
“I have to tell you this is my first tornado,” he said. “The danger of covering up these things is that you can lose your empathy. Your skin may become too thick and you cannot feel anything.
He spoke to me as we watched his constantly moving photojournalist partner capture the cleanup efforts around Mayfield Square.
“Sometimes I get emotional on the inside,” Mora-Tagle said. “I want to do these people a service so badly, and I see it as a service. I approach this job thinking, “What can I do? What can our viewers do for them? “
Television journalists who move from tragedy to trauma know two truths. The first two days after a storm, the locals welcome them. Government assistance and public contributions are directly proportional to the media coverage of the tragedy. But after the adrenaline wears off and the gruesome reality of the long road to reconstruction sets in, locals tire of the cameras and, as CNN correspondent Boris Sanchez said, “at one point given, we’ll be drawn to the next thing. “
But every reporter and photojournalist I spoke with along a 100 mile path of destruction on Sunday said he would fall asleep with a picture in mind.
A pink shirt stuck in a tree.
A kitten in search of food.
A woman ransacking her destroyed home for her disabled son’s medicine.
Every burning moment leaves a mark.
“I’m lucky my newsroom understood that mental health is important,” said Emily Evans, WDRB photojournalist. “We have gone through a difficult year, a few difficult years. This stuff may surprise you. I have noticed that after a long period of covering something like this, I find myself just overwhelmed by the slightest thing. This is when you know it’s time to pay attention to how you are feeling.
Still, reporters said they had to be there.
“I never understand why everyone doesn’t jump at the chance to cover things like this,” said David Winter of the WKRC. “I volunteered for this job because I still think it’s important. Maybe I can make millions of people care about this little town, and that is a public service and an absolute privilege.