Get ready and hunker down

Make sure the coffeepot is hooked to the generator, and other advice for covering Hurricane Matthew

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If your newspaper, information center or multimedia content operation is located on the eastern side of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina or North Carolina, then right now you should be figuring out what your staff knows about how to cover a hurricane.

Here are some suggestions based on my experiences with Gulf Coast storms. While I am thankful to say I did not have to deal firsthand with the horrors of Katrina in south Mississippi and New Orleans, the eye of Hurricane Ivan passed over my house in south Alabama while I stood in my yard counting shingles with a flashlight. I scoffed when told that Alabama's Mobile River was running through downtown Water Street during Hurricane Georges, only to march down that way and sheepishly call back to the newsroom for a photographer.

* Your staff is your priority.

This is a long haul for them, and they're trying to do their best work while worrying about their own families, homes and pets. Planning editors, publishers, plant managers and circulation managers, all of you are responsible for keeping everyone safe. Knowing where not to send reporters and photographers is as important as knowing where to send them. No one, ever, should feel that they were forced into going somewhere that they think is unsafe.

Don't burn them out too soon. If Hurricane Matthew endangers your community, your staff will be working long hours for days if not weeks to come. Don't throw everyone into all-out hurricane preparation coverage or they'll be exhausted by the time things get serious.

If you think your staff will be working all weekend, give them a day off now. Or set a schedule that has half your staff working Saturday and half working Sunday. Give them time to evacuate their families and protect their homes. You can't eliminate all the stress, but you can keep from making it worse.

* Start your version of the grocery store dash now.

Do you have enough batteries on hand for laptops, cameras, flashlights and radios? Do you have enough to last for several days? Is every cell phone and laptop charged and do you have enough chargers? Does every reporter, photographer and delivery person have a full tank of gas and cash on hand? Do you have enough gas or guaranteed access to gas to get delivery trucks out?

What about food and bottled water for staffers staying in the newsroom or going out of the road? MREs are not just for the military. Your vending machine operator will fill you up once, but don't expect any more service for a while. And everything else will be closed.

Do you have a safe place for your newsroom staff to park their cars? What if your parking lot floods, or the first floor of your building?

* Love your generators and your maintenance crew.

I'm not kidding about the newsroom coffeepot. The maintenance folks at the Press-Register in Mobile really did hook it into the generator on one memorable occasion.

If you are counting on your website or social media to get your news out, you had better have a redundant power plan. Also, station some of your web staff outside the hurricane danger zone so they can keep your digital operation up and running.

As for your presses, if they are in the danger zone, have a backup plan with at least one other newspaper so you can get something printed. Keep in mind that if you don't get a direct hit, you might be the one printing someone else's paper, or hosting their web staff, or posting for them.

* Cover the news, too.

Do you have a list of cell phone and email contacts for all law enforcement agencies, first responders, hospitals and utilities in your coverage areas? How fast can you get the governor or state EMA director on the phone? Have you already started a list of school closings, business closings, events cancelations?

Whatever you do, don't put your staff in one place. If that one place takes a direct hit or floods, you are all stranded. Staffers can work from home all over your city, county and adjacent counties. Those who aren't getting into the action early, such as your sports and editorial writers, can be called upon when your own first responders need to take a break.

Have a strike team, the people who cover breaking news best, set to move out when the worst of the weather is past. Again, don't station them all in one place. As best you can, make sure each of your people knows what to do and where to go, but don't let your perfect hurricane plan be the tail that wags the dog. Very little is going to go right in a Category 2, 3 or 4 storm. Be ready to toss the plan and improvise.

Flexibility also applies to deadlines. If you haven't already, start thinking about early deadlines, and recognize that while your website will be invaluable to those members of your audience who still have power, you may very well not be able to deliver your papers on time or at all.

Finally, if you can get there, drop some newspapers off for free at storm shelters. Folks in shelters will be terribly worried about their neighborhoods and desperate for any kind of news. They'll remember that you brought them newspapers when they most needed to know what was happening.

What additional tips can you share? Do you have more advice on going digital with no power? Send your suggestions to cindy@snpa.org.  We also want to hear how your community and your newspaper is doing throughout this stretch.  Your SNPA friends would appreciate any updates you can share with us.  We'll post them in a continuing column on www.snpa.org.

Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net. Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

disaster, hurricane

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