Finding focus amid disaster

It’s the six-month anniversary of the devastating tornadoes that struck our state April 27, 2011. In recognition of this anniversary, I’m rerunning a blog here that I wrote for Baptist Communicators Association a couple of weeks after the tornadoes. …

By Jennifer Davis Rash
Executive Editor, The Alabama Baptist

Adrenaline combined with lots of prayer for stamina is the only explanation I have for The Alabama Baptist‘s production of three 20- to 24-page newspapers in two weeks time, the first one in less than three days.

When the April 27 tornadoes ripped through our state, three of the four editorial staff members were in or headed to Atlanta for the BCA workshop. Our editor was at home but we couldn’t communicate with him for hours because of widespread power outages.

However, before midnight we had a plan in place and coverage began early the next morning. I headed back to Birmingham, the staff writer already there headed to one of the disaster locations and the other staff members began working on coverage from Atlanta. The communications team from the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) volunteered immediately to help us with coverage, as did Baptist Press and the Florida Baptist Witness. We also pulled in several correspondents.

We gave each person a specific assignment to cover and complete before handing him or her another assignment. We also asked each one to provide photos and video clips if possible. It was truly a team effort and took everyone working hard and staying focused.

Before midnight on April 29, we had stories and photos from across the state. And on April 30, we put together an entire 20-page paper in about 10 hours.

I’m not sure I remember May 1 (we supposedly took that day off to rest), but the team was back to work early on May 2 and pulled off another complex set of stories for the next issue. The third issue has much less coverage but still kept us busy chasing more detailed information.

The coverage has been an honor to be a part of and help direct. It has meant several all-nighters at the office and little sleep the other nights. I’ve only seen my husband a few hours since the day before the storms hit. But it has been worth it.

We’ve been able to get the news out quickly not only in the print edition but with added multimedia presentations in our online edition and with breaking news stories on our website. We’ve also tried to keep Facebook and Twitter moving with updates. The electronic and social media coverage side of this only worked because we predetermined they would be a priority even though the print deadline was breathing down our throats.

The SBOM staff also has had unprecedented coverage during this disaster through its social media and website. The amount of information flowing, as well as the video coverage, about disaster relief efforts and needs has allowed us to partner together to thoroughly keep the story fresh and alive.

Some things that helped us move into crisis coverage mode quickly:

* Having experienced crisis coverage situations before.
* Having listened to and learned from others who have had to deal with crisis situations.
* Having experienced and dedicated reporters across the state on call for last-minute assignments.
* Having equipment needed readily accessible.
* Having a disaster relief badge because you have already been trained in disaster relief. Also having a working knowledge of disaster relief so you are not worrying the officials in the heat of the crisis with basic questions you should already be able to answer yourself.

Some things I learned that would have improved our efficiency:

* Keep all essential personnel’s contact information in your phone.
* Keep disaster relief-appropriate clothing and shoes in your vehicle.
* Keep your priorities in line.

I did well pushing away anything and everything that was not disaster relief related. I’m not even sure what all got ignored. I was definitely focused on the coverage.

Where I failed was acknowledging that the destruction in my hometown impacted me more than I realized. I should have made my way home to check on my family early in the process and worked my way back into coverage from there.

Instead I waited two days to go and only when I took over the coverage of that area of the state.

My family was safe, but the town was devastated. My home church was destroyed, and friends and neighbors lost their lives. It tore at my heart, but because I didn’t go there first, my focus was not as sharp as it could have been.

Still, we were all able to pull our own weight and produce immediate coverage detailing Baptists’ response to the third most destructive disaster on U.S. soil in modern times. It has truly been inspiring to experience the teamwork among Baptist communicators to share this tragic yet hopeful story.

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