TV News On-The-Road – Covering Tsunami Wave Damage In Crescent City
Friday, March 11, 2011 — Normally on the work schedule I am a 9-6 guy. On this particular Friday I was slated as a 8-5 guy.
“All right,” I thought to myself. “If I’m scheduled to be on the clock an hour earlier than the rest of the crews that almost guarantees that I’m going to have a longer day than the rest of the crews as well.”
Little did I know how true that was going to turn out to be.
Overnight a devastating 9.1 earthquake had struck Japan. Everyone knows the tragedy now. Massive devastation. Unknown thousands missing and dead. And a nuclear reactor meltdown nightmare as a result.
As soon as I showed up for work I was told to load into a live truck to shoot a story on local Japanese-American reaction. I headed out with a reporter to a nearby Japanese grocery store talk to people there. At this point I still knew very little about what had happened in Japan except that it had been devastating.
Once we got to the store, inside on a wall was large screen TV showing our news with footage from Japan of massive tsunami waves poring over the landscape, lifting acres of cars into the water like tinker toys.
About that time I got a call from the station asking if I would be willing to travel up the coast and that I would not be back until the next day or so. Since I had left the station a tsunami wave that had traveled 5,000 miles across the North Pacific had slammed into the northern California coast and wreaked havoc to a harbor of fishing boats in Crescent City in Northern California.
I called and checked in with my wife Bonnie, then let the assignment desk know that I was ready and available to head up the coast. (As it turned out, while I was out of town she traded her car in for a minivan, so maybe I won’t be so quick to agree to long distance assignments in the future.)
Many folks think that the media crave covering disasters and tragedies. Speaking for myself, I hate when things like this happen to people. I’ve had my own accidents and unfortunate circumstances in life, as we all have, and am very sensitive to people’s losses in any situation. The only way to cover these types of things is to first be respectful and show professionalism, sincere compassion and sympathy.
Speaking from the professional side of being a journalist — when something big is happening in your coverage area you want to be there. It’s the same thing for a firefighter, he wants to be where the fire is. A police officer wants to be where the shooting is. A Marine you don’t want to be behind a desk but with a platoon where the action is. The Bottom Line: You want to be where it’s happening. You don’t want to be left out.
I had the good luck to be traveling with reporter David Bienick, who is always a strong, solid, focused journalist and also good company to travel with. It was going to be a great distance from the station so an additional unit, a satellite truck, was being sent up to Crescent City as well to be run by Tom O’Hair, a fellow photographer and satellite truck-trained engineer.
As news cameramen we have to be ready for anything. Photographers at local TV stations are assigned vehicles so in addition to all our technical gear we also keep them loaded with plenty of clothing for any of situation — snow, rain, high heat, covering fires, and a bag of extra socks, shirts, pants, hats, toothbrush, toothpaste, razor (for my shaven head), etc.
(NOTE: When being sent out of town, even if it’s just for a day, it is a good practice to hit an ATM. You never know. You could get someplace that has had a power outage and without electricity will only accept cash. I meant to do this before leaving Sacramento, but everything happened in such a rush to be just wanted to get on the road. By the time we got to Crescent city and I took out my wallet I only had a five and a couple of ones on me. Fortunately all the power was working and everybody was accepting credit and ATM cards.)
Crescent City, however, is not on the beaten path. We have to head up I-5 for a ways, then jag off on Highway 20 through the Pacific Coastal Range mountains to reach the coast, then wind up Highway 101, a 375 mile drive. The equivalent of driving from Sacramento to the outer edge of Los Angeles — a straightaway on I-5 that takes about six hours. This circuitous route through winding hill country was going to take us just over eight hours.
It was a long, long, long drive through the Pacific Coastal Range and up the coast. Glorious country, though. We even had the good fortune to see a bit of the giant redwoods as we passed the Avenue of the Giants. And how can a day be bad when you get paid to drive along the northern California coast with epic views overlooking the Pacific Ocean?
One big stumbling block in the journey was communication with the newsroom. Because of all the hilly terrain we were passing through, cell phone communication was spotty at best. No sooner would David be able to get a call through to the station to talk with someone about the plans for the newscast when he would lose the signal, and vice versa.
As we neared Crescent City, the police had established roadblocks and closed off Highway 101 in some locations to regular traffic for fear of additional tsunami waves that could wash up from the beaches, over the fields and overwhelm the highway. Tsunami waves are unlike others. Once they start meeting landfall they do not stop. They keep coming with all the mighty power of the ocean behind them and just pour over the low elevation landscape.
Being a news crew we’re lucky in that, most of the times, all we have to do is present our press credentials and the police wave us through, usually with the advisory, “Well, you know the drill. Just look out and be careful.”
After being waved through several police roadblocks, we finally arrived in the Crescent City Harbor at around 5:30, with just an hour of decent daylight left to shoot. Tom O’Hair and the satellite truck was about thirty minutes or so close behind us.
Damage in Crescent City was pretty much isolated to the harbor, a cul-de-sac on the coastline where once the tsunami waves arrived the boats that were moored there and lifted up in the waves and smashed against each other on the rocks that encircled the far side. All of the floating docks were ripped from their moorings. Surprisingly, most of the boats survived, but a good many others were crushed against the rocks and were little more than a bow sticking out of the water or the mast of a sunken boat rising up from between other boats.
Fisherman and local residents stood around the harbor, taking pictures with their phones and pocket cameras, amazed at what their harbor had been reduced to in just a matter of seconds. Most of these people had arrived to see the harbor for the first time just as we had, the police just having removed barriers.
People started coming up to me and telling me how they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. I had the microphone turned on and asked if I could talk to them on camera and they all said, “Yeah, sure.” It was really amazing from my standpoint. In larger, urban areas you never know quite how people are going to react when you show up with a camera and a microphone. But these people, who had just had, in many cases, their livelihood smashed to bits against rocks and was now resting under many feet of black water, were completely open and friendly. In fact, during the whole time we were covering the story in Crescent City not one person said that they did not want to be interviewed. People seemed eager to share what had happened to them. Perhaps it is because they live in a small community that doesn’t get a lot of attention. They wanted people to know what had happened to them. What this was going to mean to them. That they existed.
By now Tom had arrived with the “sat truck” (news biz short for for “satellite truck”). The six o’clock news was well underway. It was going to take Tom a little while to get the satellite dish raised and line up a signal. In the meantime the people that the story was about were all around us, just arriving as we had, and daylight was quickly slipping away.
While David was communicating with the station about what we could get on the air before the end of the newscast he asked me to do my thing and start gathering pictures and sound (a news term for interviews). I shouldered the camera and started to shoot what footage and interviews I could.
Tom had the satellite dish lined up and was transmitting by around 6:40. Finally, after leaving the station at 10 AM and being on the road for nearly 8 hours were able to do get something on the air. There was no time to cut together any of the footage that I’d been shooting so it was decided to just a “straight-live” shot where David would describe the scene, giving viewers a “tour” what the harbor looked like, while I moved around handheld for a minute and a half or two minutes.
For the rest of the evening it was a matter of shooting little bits, gathering interviews with residents, editing, and doing live shots for sister stations across the country. This was a national news event as this was the one place along the entire western coast of the U.S to experience damage. Nothing to compare with the destruction in Japan, but pretty extraordinary in that this was the aftereffect of waves that traveled over 5,000 miles across ocean.
On the drive up one of the few cell phone calls we had managed to receive was from our assignment desk letting us know that they were not able to find any motel rooms for us to stay overnight. Almost all of the hotels in Crescent City are situated around the harbor and coast area, which had been closed down and evacuated because of the tsunami. To our good luck, once the police removed the barriers to the harbor area around five o’clock, they also opened up the downtown area so businesses could reopen.
At the harbor we were in the parking lot overlooking smashed boats and docks. As the sunlight was slipping away Tom noticed that the lights a hotel across the street (Highway 101, which runs along the coast here and through the heart of Crescent City) had just come on. He pulled out his cell phone, called the front desk and booked us all some rooms — only 100 yards from where we were standing. Big relief. On the drive up I honestly anticipated we’d be camping out in the car overnight.
We did live shots at 10 and 11 o’clock for our station KCRA, as well as stations in San Francisco, Cleveland, and a few other cities. We finally wrapped just after midnight, then turned into our handy hotel across the street so that we could reconvene a few hours later at six o’clock to begin doing live shots for the KCRA 7 AM newscasts, as well as for some of the San Francisco stations.
The scene the morning-after was just as dramatic, although different now due to a pounding rainstorm that was rolling in from the Pacific, making everybody’s life more difficult. We shot fresh daytime footage and interviews with the fishermen about their boats and what they will be doing next, to put together updated stories for the evening news. We edited in the parking lot of a great little diner right next to the harbor after we’d had some breakfast, then packed up to start the long journey back home. I thought for sure that we were going to be up there for a couple days. As it turned out David had already scheduled to anchor the next day’s Sunday morning newscast, meaning that he would have to be back into the station at 4 AM in less than eighteen hours. (Less, actually, because Daylight Savings Time kicked in at midnight.) Lots of long hours for him, but it meant that we got to come home.
In the end my “early day” that started at 8 AM on Friday would not get me home again until nearly ten o’clock the next night — forty hours later.
So much for being the early guy.